Teaching and Other Terrifying Things

Like any profession, teaching at the college level often looks different on the outside. Before I taught I had no idea what instructors had to deal with or why they dished out seemingly pointless assignments that didn’t connect in any meaningful way with my life or interests (more on that in a moment). Now I’ve got just about five years’ teaching experience under my belt, and have a much better understanding of the disconnection between what undergraduates imagine college is for, and how educators view the same situation.

As an undergraduate, I was alright. I wasn’t a star student, by any stretch–I had (or so I thought) more important things to worry about at that time in my life. I viewed college, as probably a lot of students do, as sort of a necessary evil. Class was an obstacle to get through between social events, and assignments were largely meaningless fluff that instructors gave more for their own benefit than for their students’. I don’t think I consciously held these ideas, but my attitude during those years reflects this general (lack of) understanding of what academia was about.

Academia’s the key here, actually. The idea of scholarship as a profession, as, like, your whole thing–what professors do–was so alien that it didn’t even enter my mind. Schoolwork was almost punitive; a degree was proof that you’d suffered through it. Consequently I half-assed the majority of my work. Undoubtedly there are many college students whose attitude is different from the way mine was in those angsty late teen/early-twenties years, but my experience as a teacher suggests that, while attitudes differ, real knowledge of what goes on on the instructor’s end is generally lacking. Teachers are teachers, and their role is to stand at the front of the room and talk, and grade assignments, and maybe be a pain in the ass depending on the personalities involved and the way the semester goes.

I don’t blame undergrads for having such a limited understanding of what instructors really do–how would they ever find out, if no one bothers to tell them? But a professor isn’t a teacher in the way a secondary or primary teacher is. I can’t speak for everyone in higher ed, but I’m doubtful that most people get higher degrees specifically because they want to teach. In my case, and like most instructors, teaching is a requirement of working in my discipline of interest. To publish, you have to get funding to do research, which usually means you have to be connected to a university–which means you have to teach. In a nutshell, you don’t get to do what you want–your own research–unless you do what your school wants. Teaching is simply something you have to do, and you do your best to take your own knowledge and specialization into the classroom, where it’s not always as relevant as we’d hope (particularly in required survey courses). Those seemingly meaningless assignments that instructors give out may, in the worst cases, be equally meaningless to the instructors themselves, but more often they’re simply based in the discipline in which the instructors have been trained, which has its own expectations and assumptions and can seem pretty opaque to newcomers to the field.

This is actually stunningly accurate (which is, of course, the point–and I hope you’ll take it in good humor, as it’s intended):

Grad students usually do a stint (or several) as a teacher before getting their PhDs. In many cases grad students are dropped into the classroom with hardly any training as teachers. I was required to take a one-semester teaching course, but it had to be taken the same term I started teaching, rather than before. So that first semester I basically had no idea what I was doing.

You learn as you go, of course (and fortunately I’ve had some great role models). But it’s an ongoing process. This past semester was a tough one for me, and there were things that I’d like to have done differently; but to further illustrate the gap between instructors’ perceptions and those of students, take a look at these actual comments from my latest batch of student evaluations:

-Overall a good class, but too much work for a 101 class, in my opinion. The instructor made most topics very interesting but I’ll never be sold that tweed jackets are even remotely cool.

-not enough Slenderman! I’ve got a fever, and the only prescription is more Slenderman.

-Grumpy Cat will never die!

-I love folklore.


(I choose to interpret the mushroom as a positive evaluation, obviously.)

While this group had a few negative comments too (the usual “too much work”/”too much reading” kinda stuff), overall it was one of my best sets of evaluations.


The point of all this is, I understand that it’s difficult to be a student. It’s also difficult to be a teacher. If there were some way of bringing the expectations of both sides a little closer together, it would be easier for everybody. The current model of liberal arts education doesn’t allow for that so much, but at least we can talk about it.


6 thoughts on “Teaching and Other Terrifying Things

  1. Fascinating! As a middle school teacher with two degrees, who has been through every teaching hoop, it blows my mind how the college teacher training and prep goes. No teaching classes at all?? Woooooow!

    • Thanks, Patrick. Yeah, it’s a strange situation. Like I said, I did have that one class, but the timing made it less than helpful. It may be different at different universities. All I know for certain is that teaching was simply something I was expected to do as part of my entry into the discipline.

  2. Very interesting article. I have to admit that during my degree I developed the skill of speed note taking – I was able to take down virtually verbatim what the lecturer said whilst simultaneously nodding and looking thoughtful at appropriate moments – little did anyone suspect that I was actually fast asleep. Oddly enough, I think some of the lecturers were effectively doing the same thing but verbally…..Hmmm.

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