Last week I wrote about an experience with a bad teacher, but I wasn’t ruminating on that just to complain. Moments like that make me reflect on my own teaching, and my own teaching makes me examine other people’s teaching more carefully than I did before.
Part of the problem of that particular professor was probably that he hadn’t been able to experiment on undergraduates while working on his PhD in library science. In other graduate programs, the graduate students gain teaching experience by making the freshmen suffer, or at least that’s how it was at UIUC. It pains me to think what the students had to put up with during my first year teaching. I was shy and quiet, and supposedly when I did speak I spoke too quickly and paced too much (at least according to my evaluations). Though I never got the abysmal evaluations some of my peers did (the best one I heard about: “This is the worst TA I’ve ever had, and he needs to wash his hair!”), they were mediocre at best that first year. The students were somewhat forgiving because they didn’t know any better. However, had those first students been 30 years old with several years of teaching experience, they would have known how pathetic I was.
Bad experiences in the audience have affected my library instruction as well, which is probably where many of us give most of our public performances. When I was boring the students that first year, there was always one day of the semester where I knew they would be even more bored–the library instruction day. We teachers were all supposed to set up an appointment with the library, and we’d spend a class period with a library graduate assistant teaching the students about the catalog and maybe a database. It’s hard to remember what was happening in the early 90s. Perhaps we got a demo of Infotrac or something. What I do remember is this library GA lecturing us for close to an hour on the catalog in a complete monotone while we just sat and stared. The only good points were that I didn’t have to teach that day and that the lights were turned off, thus making it easier to sleep. After two semesters of complaints about how boring and useless these sessions were (and they all seemed to be by the same person), I stopped taking the students and started doing the introductions myself. We were both learning to teach, and were using those poor freshmen as our guinea pigs.
Sometimes we complain that professors don’t want to let us into the classrooms to provide library instruction, but how much of that reluctance is based on bad experiences just like the one I had? We want to give the students help, but is our library instruction uniformly good? When I started teaching research sessions as a librarian, I always had in mind that poor GA from years past and how mind-numbing those sessions had been. The real benefit of those awful sessions was that I always knew at least some things to avoid.
Over the years I’ve had some great professors, and have often modeled parts of my teaching persona directly on them. As a teacher, I’ve benefited from bad teachers as well. I know not to hand out grades willy-nilly without being able to justify them, but I also learned to be honest with students when I don’t know something and not try to bluff my way out of a bad situation. Part of my anger with the bad professor was that he was trying to bluff me. He didn’t know what he was talking about, but seemed to treat me as some lesser being who could be lied to with no consequences. With him I think it was the product of nervousness and not arrogance, but still I didn’t like it. He was anxious and trying to hide his embarrassment instead of just being honest.
Other teachers do this in the classroom. I’ve seen a couple of different teachers go out of their way to mask their ignorance. (Though my favorite story was second hand, about an English professor in a seminar who spent fifteen minutes of discussion time avoiding admitting he knew nothing about Condorcet, as if this is some sort of crime.) Librarians probably do this in instruction sessions as well, but I haven’t seen as many of those. Yet I’ve never had a student who seemed to respect me less if I answered a direct question with, “I don’t know, but I’ll get back to you with an answer.”
This post isn’t so much about cataloging lessons learned from bad experiences as a student or audience member, but more about how I’ve tried to learn from other people’s mistakes and avoid them myself. My teaching might not be great, but I know at least some things to avoid so that it doesn’t become execrable, and for that I have even the execrable teachers in my past to thank. Thank you, execrable teachers from my past.