Have you ever wondered what it’s like lecturing to a room full of bright, often sleepy and sometimes skeptical students? I know professors seem omniscient, confident and in control. Well, don’t believe it. We know how smart Georgetown students are. We live in dread of a cheeky Hoya asking that one question for which we aren’t prepared.
Confidence is a challenge. Standing up in front of a crowd of smart young people and speaking coherently is difficult in any circumstance. Two or three students in the back of the room passing notes or whispering and laughing when you know you haven’t said anything remotely funny can be quite disconcerting. What are they laughing about? Did I just say something stupid? Worse, did I spill lunch on my shirt? Do I have a button missing or a zipper not doing its job? How do I check?
Occasionally, my classroom resembles a quiet nursery of dozing students who were up all night “studying ” — or, heaven forbid, my lecture itself is sleep-producing. This is when I try to tell a funny story. We know the material can be boring — yes, even we can be boring — so it’s worth sprinkling a lecture with laughs if it means the audience will be attentive during the important parts of the lecture.
Another reassuring experience on the other side of the podium is a classroom full of students with computers. No faces; just Dells and Macs and click, click, click. It’s creepy lecturing to a bunch of inscrutable machines — sort of like talking into a TV camera in an empty room. Is anyone listening? Are they playing games? Text messaging? (About the lunch I spilled on my shirt??)
Teaching a seminar is a lot more fun for professors, but it, too, presents challenges. It’s difficult to manage a conversation when one student is obsessed with a topic only tangentially related to the course, or when two students just want to harangue one another. I try to get the shy students to talk, keep the noisy ones in the box and still keep everyone from hating me at the end of the class for controlling the conversation too much, or not enough. (Students once criticized me for both in their evaluations.)
The worst seminar I ever taught was at 8:15 in the morning. I love early mornings. How great it is to be up and learning at first light?! My students, on the other hand, were morose and became more hostile as the semester wore on. I finally figured out that I had to get coffee into them as soon as possible after 8:15, but by the time I realized it, the semester was almost over. They resented their experience and carped a lot about the course in their evaluations.
I’ll wager that students don’t realize how seriously most of us profs take those student evaluations.
Administrators surely do, and they weigh them in decisions regarding salaries and promotions. Second to grading papers, these can be the least pleasant experience in teaching. We all want excellent evaluations because we want to think we are good at what we do — and we want students to like us.
In my experience, however, there is usually at least one student in each course who hates the class or its instructor. I still remember a student several years ago who strongly objected to a comment I put on one of his papers: “This paper is both original and brilliant; unfortunately, the brilliant parts were not original, and the original parts were not brilliant.” He didn’t appreciate frank criticism. (To be fair, maybe I don’t either.)
Still, thoughtful critiques from students can really be quite useful for professors, even if they chip away at our self-esteem. (Don’t be concerned; we recover quickly.)
If teaching is this tough, then why do we do it? In part, we like the joy of being around bright, energetic young people who are excited about their lives and the world around them and who often want to make the world a better place. In part it is the pleasure of engaging with students on ideas and that occasional wonderful moment when you can see a student’s face light up with sudden understanding. It is the fun of watching eager freshmen become mature graduates, having learned a great deal from our classes.
Or have they? There is certainly a lot of learning going on at Georgetown. But I have a sneaking suspicion that most of the papers get written the night before the assignment is due. Students often haven’t done the reading before class, and they are often tired or sick during midterms and finals from too many all-nighters. I wonder when and how they learn and if I, as a professor, bear some of the responsibility for the hardships they face.
Carol Lancaster is an associate professor of politics and the director of the Mortara Center for International Studies. Behind The Podium runs every other Tuesday.