“Teaching” at the university, or: I am neither a, nor your, private teacher

“They don’t let us beat students anymore, but my fantasy life is my own business.”
Professor Ralph Noble, professor of psychology

I once had an interesting conversation with a student. She had written an essay that showed an incredible sense of entitlement. It also contained a lot of veiled and direct insults against me and my co-lecturer. However, it also lead to one of the most enlightening moment I had — so far — giving courses at a university.

When my co-lecturer and I ordered her in to talk about her essay, she said something like “we were paid to teach her” and “we had little else to do”.

While there are jobs at the university that are solely there for teaching, we were both employed by a research institute. Teaching was “just” one (of many) qualifications for (possible) tenure. Our employer allowed us to do the teaching during our working hours, but we did not get any extra money. It was a good deal for the university, they got that course ‘for free’. However, like many other people at the university who do research, we were not solely there “to teach her“, nor did we have “little else to do”.

Tenure requires a solid publication record, and in this sense, teaching is a liability. You could say that:

Every minute invested in teaching,
is a minute lost for research.

Combine this with “publish or perish” and you know where the priorities (should) lie.

When we heard that this student thought we were like school teachers — only there to teach her — we both listed a few of the things we had done that week. Sufficient to say, it put matters in perspective. Students might think they have it hard with “all the learning”, but this is nothing compared to a PhD student or Post-Doc striving for tenure.

But while it left this student with a … conceptual change, it also got me thinking. This student probably was the rule, not the exception. If students think that PhDs and Post-Docs are just like school teachers, then that’s a very consequential misconception. It comes with false expectations and a sense of entitlement that impedes learning.

So, in my next course, I aimed for a conceptual change. Among others, I presented the following slides in the first session — using a commonly available meme on the Internet about teachers that went up in flames:

Yup, here the effect actually makes sense.

It followed by a short overview of my actual job, my situation as a young researcher in Academia, the “publish or perish” situation, and what relevance teaching has for Academia and my superior. It also included the information that we were not trained to teach … also something worth knowing.

It resulted in the best course I have ever given.

I don’t know whether it was a fluke or whether the message actually changed something, because it was also the last course I have given so far. Not that I don’t like teaching, I love it, but in my current situation, I cannot teach with good conscience. But that’s a topic for another posting.

Anyway, I strongly recommend telling students about the realities of teaching at the university. Even if you are paid (solely or mostly) for teaching, you can point out a few crucial issues. For example, visualizing the students to lecturer ratio and the time you get paid for teaching. Showing how much time remains per student — once you subtract the time needed for preparing the content and the slides, and the time spend in class. That number of minutes per student would probably be enlightening as well. It might help students to see why answering questions that should be clear to anyone reading the syllabus is such a waste of time. Or that the time invested in their teaching is an investment and an offer. It depends on the student to use that offer, and use it well. It would stress that while it is always good to correct mistakes or make suggestions, they should not waste a lecturer’s time.

For example, when they write eMails, they should be short and to the point. Simple but not too simple. If it’s too long they might get it back with a “tl;dr“. And given that you will have students who do not listen, you will have to do it a couple of times. In the long run, they will learn a value life lesson: Not to squander the time of other people.

And most of all, students should keep in mind that many lecturers are a researcher first, and a teacher second. These lecturers did not get any training in pedagogy or didactics, at least in Germany it is not required for university teaching. Well, actually, as a psychologist I know a thing or two about learning, and I did take a lot of teaching courses — voluntarily. But it’s the exception, not the rule.

You can’t fault students at the university for thinking it’s just like school. You might not see it, but from their point of view it’s just too similar. So give them a little insight, a little transparency. Tell them what you actually do, and that you consider teaching as an investment. And that you expect them not to squander it.

While this might impede your “authority” and requires a good working relationship with the students, it also might be one of the most important lessons you give.

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