Just do it?

Back in the day, guys used to work. Nowadays, guys got feelings. — An old hand’s lament.

Yesterday I locked myself out of my office. It was a carpool day and I forgot to grab my keys.

When I got to school it was time for my first section of freshman introductory World History. So I went right to class and got them settled and oriented toward the day’s task, which was peer-review of thesis paragraphs for their papers on agency. (In this section most of the papers will be on the decision to drop the atomic bomb.) Then I told them what was up with my keys, they laughed at me, and I left the classroom to go get my door open.

When I got back after about 15 minutes (took a pitstop while I was at it) they were reading and commenting on their second or third paragraphs each. I let them finish a couple more swaps, then had a group discussion about what patterns they saw in the paragraphs they had read. This yielded some nice insights about constructing a point in relation to evidence and the concept of agency in relation to structure. Then I opened a parenthesis about their teaching/learning journals for the class, and asked them a process question. Colleagues regularly remark on how my students don’t seem to require a lot of supervision, I informed them. Why do students just work in some classes but play limpy or make an obstructive fuss in others?

The discussion was interesting and seemed self-reflectively valuable, so I asked the other two sections the same thing. Then, with a meeting coming up to select the campus professor of the year, I used my seminar today as a focus group to brainstorm qualities that make a good teacher. Across the four groups the students’ perspectives lined up strikingly consistently. A common wisdom among some teachers is that students want to be spoon-fed, so their opinion of ‘good’ teaching is really just easy grades. I didn’t find this to be the case at all. Given bad alternatives students prefer an easy teacher to an arbitrarily or inaccessibly hard one. But they don’t respect or appreciate easy teaching.

My students all enjoy most the classes in which they learn the most. Across the board they report learning the most from professors who treat them with respect, show them the value of the work they’re doing, and include them in a shared process of teaching and learning. They appreciate when their teachers care about them and make an effort to shorten social distance rather than pontificating from on high. They love when professors know their stuff, and hate having their noses rubbed in the Herr Professor Doktor’s great expertise. They like to be challenged, not demeaned. In today’s group, where students brought up favorite professors by name, these factors were notably effective regardless of gender, race and ethnicity.

Incidentally, not a single student mentioned instructional technology as a dimension of good teaching and learning.

Previous posts on various aspects of this are behind the links.


  1. My daughter, a junior in high school, is currently sitting on the other side of the room undergoing enraged meltdown at math and especially at her math teacher, whom she’s planning to stab in his one good eye. She wants to know why this guy is bent on making her hate math, whereas in prior years she rather liked the subject. Today was the first day back from spring break, and apparently as soon as class began this teacher began raving at the students: it’s spring, you’re going to want to coast until the end of the year, but THERE’S A LOT OF WORK LEFT TO DO, PEOPLE! So she’s been flailing away at math problems for 3 or 4 hours today, and she’s only about halfway through with the assignment. She says that she’d rather run a mile than do this crap, which is a pretty drastic claim for her. Don’t stress too much about it, says the teacher when assigning the problem set, but you students just aren’t putting enough effort into your homework this semester, so I’ll be collecting your work from now until the end of the year. But don’t stress about it. Now she says she’d rather let a tarantula walk across her face than continue doing this homework.

    So now I’m going to create a little questionnaire based on your post, Carl, and see how this teacher stacks up on your indicators of teaching excellence. Scale 1 (totally disagree) to 5 (totally agree)

    The teacher is too easy. [1]
    The teacher is arbitrarily and inaccessibly hard. [2]
    I learn a lot in this class. [4]
    The teacher treats students with respect. [3]
    The teacher shows students the value of the work they’re doing. [3]
    The teacher includes students in a shared process of teaching and learning. [3]
    The teacher cares about the students. [4]
    The teacher minimizes the social distance between himself and the students. [4]
    The teacher pontificates from on high. [2 — “you can’t pontificate when you’re Alaskan”]
    The teacher challenges the students. [5]
    The teacher demeans the students. [3]
    The teacher makes good use of instructional technology. [1]
    This is a good teacher. [2 — “5 if you’re a math nerd”]

    She gives the guy gets surprisingly good marks given that she’s so pissed at him. She thinks that the main distinguishing point between equally hard teachers in history and English, whom she likes a lot and thinks are great teachers, and this math teacher, is that she likes those other subjects more than math. Here’s her insight about hard teachers: if when the work gets hard you don’t want to quit, then it means that you like that subject, and you’ll probably like the teacher who pushes you to that realization.

  2. It is interesting that the two neutral scores [=3] both related to treatment of students. One says that the teacher treats students with respect, the other that the teacher demeans students. Do we have a way to distinguish between 3= I don’t know [maybe because I don’t have clearly established criteria here] and 3= Not horrible but not great either [the teacher falls in the middle of a scale]?

  3. It’s hard to say, John, though if I asked more detailed questions I could find out more. I was more or less just turning Carl’s phrases into questionnaire items. I’d expect those two items to be tapping into the same dimension or factor or axis, with “demeaning” at one extreme and “respect” on the other. Teachers scoring high on the first item would probably be low on the second and vice versa. If the items don’t clump in this way, then we’d presume that they are poorly worded or that the dimension is incoherent to respondents.

    Having heard about this particular math teacher before, I’d say that the demeaning/respecting axis has subcomponents which aren’t being tapped. So this guy’s rant at the beginning of class about avoiding spring-itis and his piling-on of homework on the first day probably are demeaning, whereas his expectation that the students would learn more if they devoted more attention to their homework is probably respectful. Some low, some high, overall average.

    What’s most concerning about the questionnaire’s validity is that the teacher gets generally positive marks for individual items, but a low mark for overall goodness as a teacher. My daughter contends that he’s very good for students who are really into his subject, but bad for those who aren’t. How does a teacher call forth the best work of students who are really into it without demoralizing those who are only moderately interested? That seems like the issue here.

  4. JD, your last question points at the fact that this is actually a hideously complicated multi-variable problem, perhaps not productively subject to assessment quantification beyond a certain point. As I’ve remarked before, even the most bumbling klutzes and horrifying tyrants will have students for whom they’ve made all the difference.

    The thing about good students like your daughter is that they have the habitus of formal education, that complex set of habits and dispositions that make them seek out learning no matter what and immunize them to almost any bad teaching. Keys to this are trust that the process is of some intrinsic value, even if a particular instance of it is suboptimal and/or extrinsic value is not immediately evident, and confidence that one’s effort will be adequate to the task and be rewarded in the end. So for much of what I’ve described above as the qualities of good teachers, good students supply their own, and perhaps even project elements of their own habitus onto teachers.

  5. “this is actually a hideously complicated multi-variable problem”

    Are you kidding? Hideous complexity is my questionnaire-writing specialty! If it was complex hideosity I’d have to refer you to McCreery’s systems theory shop.

    “even the most bumbling klutzes and horrifying tyrants will have students for whom they’ve made all the difference.”

    You mean difference in a good way I presume.

    Evaluation tools aside, do you think that teachers can learn the qualities of teaching excellence that you’ve described? In what sort of context would the learning take place?

  6. I still remember as one of the most formative moments in my education going to see Joe Lehner, who was teaching the honors calculus class I took my first semester at Michigan State.

    I said, “Dr. Lehner, I don’t understand this problem.”
    He said, “Which problem?”
    I said, “This one, number 14.”
    He said, loudly and angrily, “Get your lazy ass out of my office until you can tell me what the problem is.”

    I have never forgotten his advice, and it has served me well.

  7. Sounds like a dickhead to me. I avoided the professors at MSU whenever possible, which meant that I rarely attended classes. Still, I’ll be cheering for the basketball team tomorrow.

  8. Perhaps a dickhead. But he taught me something important, an important step in learning to think for myself instead of waiting for a teacher to tell me what to do.

    I also recall with great fondness Jack Roberts, whom I’d gotten to know at the Summer Seminar in Quantitative Anthropology that he ran the summer before I started graduate school at Cornell. When I went to see him in the fall and asked what I should take my first semester, he replied, “John, you have to realize, the whole point of being a graduate student is to stop being a student.” Again, the essential lesson, to stop depending on others to tell me what to do and figure it out for myself instead.

  9. There’s something ironic about staying in school for several more years in order to learn how to stop being a student. Maybe grad students are slow learners. One could imagine a different way of phrasing the lesson: “the whole point of being a grad student is to never stop being a student.” That’s your essential lesson, isn’t it, that there’s no end to figuring things out?

  10. I’m fascinated by the differing implicit definitions of ‘student’ you seem to be using. For JM a student is someone who receives knowledge from a teacher. For JD a student is someone who learns. I find this same conceptual dispersion all around me at my university and in life. But whatever we call it, I agree with you both that an aspect of good teaching past a certain point is pushing the baby birds out of the nest so they can go find their own worms.

    What I called above a ‘good’ student is one who does this, and my conversations with my own students recently seem to indicate that they are on board with the project, at least in principle. Yesterday I was chatting with a few students from one of my World sections about their experience at our school and they voiced the standard complaint that it’s too much like high school, not really an advanced learning environment. I pointed out to them that they contributed to this by acting like high school students and playing limpy when teachers ask more of them. They admitted it – they test their teachers to see how little they can get away with. But they don’t really want to win that struggle, just as I’m not sure all teachers really want to do the work it takes to keep standards high. It’s an odd little dance.

  11. Btw one of Rachel’s ongoing art interests is the ways we create situations in which other people will need us.

    The teacher/student relationship is obviously fertile ground for this diversion. It goes on and on – if you follow academic bloggery long enough you’ll get deafened by the plaintive mewlings of new faculty suddenly detached from the grad program’s teat. As the bitterness of abandonment festers they either withdraw into grumpy rejectionism or turn around and overparent the next generation. Some fall to the ground and are eaten by possums.

  12. I’m fascinated by the differing implicit definitions of ’student’ you seem to be using. For JM a student is someone who receives knowledge from a teacher. For JD a student is someone who learns.

    Nicely observed. But I think we can go a bit further. When John D. suggests that Jack Roberts could have said, ““the whole point of being a grad student is to never stop being a student,” he is substituting a cliché, which would not have been at all memorable, for what was, in fact, a powerful learning experience. The issue Jack and I were discussing wasn’t whether I would go on studying; I wouldn’t have applied to graduate school or been sitting in his office if I weren’t. It was, instead, how to conduct myself in that context, like a kid who needed to be told what to do or a colleague (albeit a junior one), whose goal was to have something interesting to say that my other colleagues would find interesting, to become a contributor to the production of knowledge, not just a consumer of knowledge. He was pointing me to the fact that to become a colleague, I would, in Biblical terms, have to “put away childish things,” especially the bad habits we pick up in school, where we learn that the path to success is to do what we are expected to do as well as we can.

    The arc of my education that began with Joe Lehner and continued with Jack Roberts eventually led me to Kazuhiko Kimoto, the Japanese Senior Creative Director who hired me and was my first boss at Japan’s second largest advertising agency.

    In one conversation we were talking about responsibility. I think I had said something about wanting more responsibility instead of just being the foreign copywriter, a goose producing occasional golden eggs to order. Kimoto-san said, “Look around you. This is a big company. There’s a lot more responsibility needed here than there are people willing to take it. Be careful, though. Don’t try to do what someone else is already doing. That’s theirs. Look for something that needs doing that nobody else is doing and just go ahead and it. Within three months, you will find that you are in charge of it.”

    In another conversation we were discussing rules. The company had just gone through one of its periodic fits of trying to enforce company rules — work rules, dress codes, that sort of thing. Kimoto-san said, “In our business, there is only one rule. If the agency gets business because you are here, you can ignore the other rules.” He didn’t mean that you could be a totally ruthless asshole, lack tact, or be impolite. In a service business, people like that don’t win much new business.

    What I took away from these conversations was a valuable lesson that reinforced what Joe Lehner and Jack Roberts tried to teach me — if all I wanted to do was a job, what someone else told me to do, I’d have to follow the rules. I would be a schoolboy all my life. If, on the other hand, I wanted to do something more interesting, maybe even more meaningful, I’d have to start thinking beyond the rules, maybe even rewriting a few.

  13. Anyhow, my daughter says that she prefers not to think about whether her teachers are bad until after the school year is over. She says she does better if she thinks the difficulty in learning the material is her own lack, which she can do something about. If she thinks it’s the teacher’s fault then she has a tendency to regard the situation as futile and to bail.

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