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Diminishing returns and tripping balls
Revised teaching advice
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A few years ago, I put together some informal teaching advice for college and university profs teaching their first classes (though I hope it applies more generally.) I post it every once in a while on Twitter, and people find it useful, so here it is again.
1. Enthusiasm. When you’re in class, you should act like there’s no place in the world you’d rather be. Enthusiasm is infectious—it makes your audience perk up, enjoy the material more, like you more, and learn more.
2. Confidence. Act as if you know your shit. Act as if you’ve done this a hundred times before and it’s always gone smashingly. This will reassure the students that they’re in good hands and they’ll learn better.
3. Mix it up. Don’t just do the same thing over and over again, throw in some variety—movies, demos, etc. Variety is the cure for boredom.
(yes, I have been told that some of this is also sex advice.)
4. Bring in other people. Guest lectures, interviews, etc. Easy to do with Zoom.
5. Be modest in your goals for each class. The most common mistake of beginning teachers is cramming too much material in any single session. (Early in our careers, we teach as if our advisor was in the room, drumming his or her fingers impatiently).
6. Be yourself. Everyone has strength; teach in a way that aligns with what you’re good at. As an example, if you’re funny, engage the students with humor—if not, don’t bother. Serious and intense is also a fine way to run a class ... but so is cheerful and mellow. There are a lot of ways to do this right.
7. Teaching prep can leech away all your time; don’t let it. Say to yourself: Diminishing Returns. Then say: Opportunity Costs. Repeat as needed.
8. A well-timed “Great question. I don’t know — but I’ll find out for next class” is really charming and makes everyone feel good. This is so powerful that some profs are rumoured to do this even when they DO know.
9. Use specific students as examples in arbitrary ways. For example, in a Developmental Psychology course, you might say: “So, Stella? — let’s pretend you’re a 5-year-old. So imagine we asked you ...”. You don’t have to actually ask Stella anything, but once students become aware that you do this, they’ll pay more attention, wondering if next time it will be them.
10. When I was in the second grade, I asked a stupid question and the teacher, Mrs. Pound, made me feel like an idiot for doing so. It says something about how awful this feels that I still remember this experience so many years later! Don’t be like Mrs. Pound. Every question a student asks is, at minimum, “Interesting!”. If it’s total gibberish, go for something like: “Parts of your question might go a bit too far beyond our topic for today, but one of your points raises something really neat ...” and then talk about something else.
11. Use concrete examples whenever possible, often from your own life. They don’t necessarily have to be true. (There is no Mrs. Pound).
12. Many good teachers self-medicate before class, especially if they suffer from anxiety. This is fine, so long as you’re careful with dosage.
[Thanks to Chaz Firestone for comments on an earlier version of this)
Over the years, I’ve received objections, support, and new ideas over email and Twitter (soon, I’ll start calling it X, but not yet). Some of the feedback was good, some less so.
One person was offended by my silly sex joke and wanted me to remove it, but wouldn’t explain why, so no. Several others pointed out that some of the other points are also good sex advice. My friend Tamler Sommers voted for #4: “Bring in other people”.
A few people complained about #12, but I don’t see the problem. Of course, it’s irresponsible to teach when you’re drunk, baked, or tripping balls. But there is a Goldilocks level of anxiety, and many people benefit from taking something to calm them down. I know a famous professor who pops a lorazepam before she lectures and nobody gives her any grief and nobody should. I don’t think a gulp of vodka is any different (though, given that not everyone sees it my way, pop some mints too.)
As an extreme case, Scott Stossel, editor at The Atlantic (an excellent editor—he worked with me on a few articles) suffers from extreme anxiety. Here is how he deals with it.
Let’s say you’re sitting in an audience and I’m at the lectern. Here’s what I’ve likely done to prepare. Four hours or so ago, I took my first half milligram of Xanax. (I’ve learned that if I wait too long to take it, my fight-or-flight response kicks so far into overdrive that medication is not enough to yank it back.) Then, about an hour ago, I took my second half milligram of Xanax and perhaps 20 milligrams of Inderal. .. I likely washed those pills down with a shot of scotch or, more likely, vodka, the odor of which is less detectable on my breath. … I need the alcohol to slow things down and to subdue the residual physiological eruptions that the drugs are inadequate to contain. In fact, I probably drank my second shot—yes, even though I might be speaking to you at, say, 9 in the morning—between 15 and 30 minutes ago, assuming the pre-talk proceedings allowed me a moment to sneak away for a quaff.
Scott gives a great talk.
Others benefit from some sort of upper—like coffee—to bring them up. They’re not naturally hyped up enough; the double espresso puts some spring in their step. As with a lot of things, the motto here is: Know Thyself.
A few people objected to #1 and #2—they see something insincere about projecting enthusiasm and confidence when you may not really feel it. Now I should emphasize that I’m not suggesting dishonesty—in fact, as I said in #8, I think professors should be up-front when we don’t know something. But there are many ways that one can honestly present oneself—my advice is to choose a relatively confident and self-assured mode. Projecting the notion that things are going well can be a self-fulfilling prophecy.
I know some disagree. A little while ago, someone described on Twitter how they start a new class each semester. I lost the link, but it went like this:
I’m honest. I start by telling the students about my career and my own struggles with life. These are hard times, and we’re all doing the best we can, and so I try to make it clear that I know what they are going through. And humility is important. I’m not some sort of guru, some “sage on a stage”, and I don’t want to see me that way. They’ll learn from me, sure, but I’ll also learn from them, and we’ll make it through this class together, as a team.
I tried to be fair here, and not caricature this view. And maybe there is something to it, particularly for a small advanced seminar where there is no lecturing and the professor and the students are working together through some difficult and unfamiliar material.
But I don’t think it’s the right way to go for something that’s for a less advanced group of students. It’s self-indulgent; it centers the professor too much; it puts too much of the responsibility onto the students. It’s like a therapist saying: I know you’re here to talk about your problems but I’m a person too and I have my own problems, so let’s approach this as equals, and help each other. It might feel good to the therapist, but this just isn’t how successful therapy works.
Having said that, these things are on a continuum, and I’m mindful of the advice of #6—There are a lot of ways to do things right. But I do think my way is better.
Here are three things I think I got wrong.
First, regarding #4, people have pointed out that bringing in other people is risky, particularly for a lecture class. Most guest lecturers are awful (most lecturers are awful), and when the lecture goes poorly, the students blame the prof, as they should. (This has happened to me more than once.) Even when they’re good, the act of bringing someone else in can signal laziness on the part of the professor and can disrupt the flow of the class. So now I do it sparingly.
Second, I’ve been persuaded that the advice in #8 doesn’t work for everyone. Making a big deal of how you don’t know the answer to something has always worked well for me, but I am a (somewhat!) older white male professor and students have stereotypes that work to my advantage. They start off with the assumption that, in general, I do know my shit. If you are younger, or non-white, or non-male, you won’t have the same leg-up, and so confessions of this sort are riskier, and perhaps best avoided.
Third, I do think #11 is sensible—concrete examples from one’s own life are pedagogically useful. But I suggested that it’s ok to make them up, and lying is wrong, so I take that back. (You can, however, exaggerate for comic or dramatic effect. There are no good stories without exaggeration.)
Here are some further pieces of advice, most of them from Twitter.
At least for the first class, get there early, and make small talk with the students who are also there early. You also need plenty of time to check if the AV works.
Take notes after class about what worked and what didn’t. I sometimes give a lecture off of old notes or slides, and then get to a point where things go badly (an explanation doesn’t work, a joke falls flat, a graph is unreadable), and I think goddamn, this same thing happened last year when I gave this lecture! It wouldn’t have happened if last year I had taken notes after class. Take these notes immediately once the class is over; your memory and motivation will disappear the moment you walk out of the room.
You have a captive audience that relies on you for your grades. This is a position of power. Unlike more equal relationships, they can’t walk out or tell you that you’re being an ass. Don’t abuse this. Your lecture class on computational neuroscience or your seminar on the 19th-century British novel is not the time to tell your students your opinion of Elon Musk, Fox News, and the last season of Game of Thrones. Be a fucking professional.
That reminds me: If you can help it, don’t swear unnecessarily. It offends some students and the rest will think you’re trying too hard to please.
This is going to be the most controversial opinion of all, but I’m not a fan of having students give presentations in seminars. Most student presentations are awful (of course they are—it’s really hard to give a good presentation; as I said above, most professors give awful presentations) and while the students might get something out of preparing and presenting, it’s boring for everyone who has to listen.
But, I do like to make sure that every student talks in every meeting of a seminar. One way I do this is by beginning each class with some sort of statement or argument or study that’s relevant to the day’s topic, and then going around the room and having everyone give a short remark about it. For instance, in a moral psychology seminar that’s going to discuss the role of social pressure in how people act, I might begin by telling the story of the Ring of Gyges, which bestows the power of invisibility to anyone who wears it. In Plato’s Republic, Glaucon says that anyone who had this power would do whatever they pleased without concern for morality—”No man would keep his hands off what was not his own when he could safely take what he liked out of the market, or go into houses and lie with any one at his pleasure, or kill or release from prison whom he would, and in all respects be like a god among men.”
I then ask each student whether they agree with Glaucon. I might respond to what they say, and connect their answers to those of other students: Great answer, Moira, but why do you think you disagree so much with Eva about this? Eva—why are you so much more optimistic about human nature than Moira? And so everyone, even the shyest of students who will never talk otherwise, gets to say something to the class and help shape the discussion.
I’ll end by returning to the issue of centering yourself in the classroom. It’s an issue I struggle with. There are a lot of rewards to being a good teacher and one of them is getting a reputation as a good teacher. This can feel great.
There are worse goals that a person can have—among other things, students tend to learn better if they feel they’re in good hands. (see #1 and #2 above). But a focus on how students see you can distort your priorities. You can start to prepare your lectures to impress and entertain—as opposed to teach. (Sometimes these goals are in synch; but not always.) So, here’s the final bit of teaching advice:
19. Remember: It’s not about you
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