There was an interesting piece in Sunday's Los Angeles Times: Student, you're lazy! Professor, you're a zero! A professor and a student, both from Elon University in North Carolina, share a rather spirited e-mail exchange on the subject of students rating professors (a phenomenon that has exploded on-line) and, now professors rating students.
Though I've known for a while about Ratemyprofessors.com, this was the first I'd heard of the Rate Your Students blog. RYS is a forum for frustrated college profs to vent (anonymously) about the lazy, the uninterested, the unprepared, the rude, the dim, and the grade-grubbing. It's an entertaining site, with some excellent suggestions to go along with the griping. One professor writes:
Sure, I have students who drive me mad, and their general poverty of talent for "being students" is frustrating. That's their education. I tell them about this. They perk up. I was not always a perfect doll as an undergrad myself -- and now, I'm on the other side of the desk. Asked about me at 18, most of my profs would likely have just crossed their fingers, rolled their eyes, or held silent. I was not a treat. I earned the grade. But I was not a treat...
Bitch, moan, vent, shake fist at heavens. Please do. Because teaching is a human interaction and it affects us just like any other human interaction. But then get on with it, stay open to them. We're the experienced adults in this context. We've been on both sides of the desk. We were not all perfect at being students when we were young. But, we caught the bug, fell in love with learning, and here we are. The ones with talent, and dedication, and drive, they need and want our guidance, advice ,and tutelage. Ratemyprofessors.com is proof of that. It's also proof that some people are vindictive and vengeful and spoiled. What, really, is new? Vent away.
I'll be the first to admit I vent about the lazy and the unprepared and the impolite. Like professors everywhere, my colleagues and I swap war stories. We sometimes play the game of "worst student ever", and trade hilarious (and often, sad or scary) anecdotes from our classes. That's necessary and normal behavior; we who teach are human beings, after all, and as liable as other folks to get exasperated at work. Few among us have vast reservoirs of patience, and even those of us who do are unlikely to squander our reserves on the unimaginative and the dishonest!
Unlike most folks, I never had any illusions about college professors. I grew up with a father who was a philosophy prof at the University of California, and a mother who taught philosophy and humanities full-time at a community college. The adults whom I saw regularly were my parents' colleagues. Teaching at a college or a university was what virtually every grown-up I knew as a child did, and so I never had the profession on much of a pedestal.
But despite this familiarity with those who teach, in my own college experience, I found myself idolizing a number of professors. Now, twenty years on, I remember that the profs who captivated me the most were not the easiest or the funniest, but the ones who were most passionate and most certain. I liked best the professors who brought their personalities and idiosyncrasies into the classroom, even when those idiosyncrasies included odd biases and beliefs. I especially admired the professors with whom I intensely disagreed, because so often, they forced me to do more work to try and prove them wrong. And, like many students, I responded best to those who could craft their delivery well -- even if the content of what they were delivering was facile or redundant. Students, of every generation, like a show!
My own teaching style comes from many different sources. I grew up hearing both my parents give lectures, and so part of my delivery is patterned upon theirs. As a child, I took drama classes from age seven until I graduated from high school, and so my ability to lecture without ever using notes (after the first time I teach a class) came from the years of being trained to memorize. And along my way through Berkeley and UCLA, I picked up little habits and tricks from a dozen different professors. Even now, while lecturing, I'll think to myself "Hugo, you sound just like professor X", or "You're trying too hard to imitate old professor Y". I've been full-time for a dozen years, tenured since 1998, and I still am aware of how much of my lecture style is derived from those in whose classes I was an engaged student. If there is anything unique about my teaching, it is only the manner in which I have blended the various styles of the many men and women (starting with my parents) who taught me.
I have "good" classes (talkative, filled with energy) and "bad" classes. (I wrote about this in December '04.) I of course prefer the good classes, and I love the students who want to come and talk to me about ideas and how they intersect with their own lives. But I don't expect most of my students to be active and engaged. I remember how self-absorbed and distracted I was as an undergraduate -- and I went to school full-time without having a job or dependents. Most of my students work, many have children or spouses or other demands that occupy them. I don't grade them any easier because of their burdens, of course -- that would be patronizing. But I don't expect them all to be fascinated by me and my material, either.
I pray for my students quite often. Sometimes, these prayers are prayers of frustration: "Oh Lord, why must they lie so often?" "Father, please help them to remember that a sentence has a subject, an object, and a verb!" Other times, my prayers are for their inspiration. For those who seem lifeless or lost, I often pray "Lord, grant them inspiration. Grant them passion for something beyond the immediately pleasurable. And if it be your will, Father, help me to be a catalyst in their lives." And still other times, my prayers are very simple indeed: "Lord, grant me the strength to refrain from strangling Johnny in the back row, who persists in believing that I can't see him text-messaging his friends while I'm lecturing."
But in the end, to be very honest, my self-esteem as a teacher doesn't hinge on the individual performance of my students. I'm not important enough in the lives of most to play a truly memorable role. I'm delighted when I do form a connection with a particular student, and I'm moved and gratified when they tell me that I've had a positive impact upon them. But though my students are important to me, I don't just teach to them. When I lecture, pacing around the classroom, I'm conscious of another audience -- an internalized "cloud of witnesses", made up of all of those who have passed on to me the craft of teaching and the love of history. How I measure up to their collective standard is of greater concern to me than the successes or failures of any one student sitting before me.
This doesn't mean I don't care about "my kids" -- I do, very much. I just don't tie my sense of competence and professionalism to their individual performance, or their judgments about me. If you visit the RMP site, you'll notice that I've been rated more often than any other professor at Pasadena City College. I'm by no means the highest rated, mind you -- nor the lowest. I do read the comments from time to time (and am convinced that some of my friends, enemies, and blog readers are rating me as well as my students). But while some of the praise is pleasant to read, and some of the criticism is hurtful (and the comments about my clothing bizarre), I've learned not to attach too much importance to what is said there -- or in the more closely monitored in-class evaluations.
Though I won't lie and say it isn't nice to be liked, the real group I'm trying to please isn't made up merely of those who listen to me lecture and whose papers I grade. Somewhere, deep inside of me, is an omnipresent awareness that I'm serving something bigger. That something is partly the institution of the college; partly Clio, the muse of history; partly all of those who worked so hard to teach me; and, ultimately, God himself. It's difficult for me to be more precise than that. All I know is that I'm almost always aware that my teaching is a form of service, and not merely to my students themselves.