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When anthropologist Lauren Herckis tried to figure out why new teaching strategies developed at Carnegie Mellon were not being widely adopted, she found that one of the reasons instructors were hesitant was because their “No. 1 challenge was to make sure that they were not an embarrassment to [themselves] in front of students.” 

For some, I can imagine that this manifests as a fear at looking stupid. In others, it may be a desire to appear smart.

I sure do remember walking into a classroom consumed with the fear of looking stupid.

It’s happened both as a student and an instructor. As a student, it was part and parcel of the writing workshops of both college and graduate school where my work was going to be the sole focus of everyone’s attention for an hour. What if my submission was terrible, just shamefully bad? My hands would tremble beneath the seminar table, waiting for the first verdicts to come in.

As a TA in grad school, I was terrified my students would out me as a fraud. For that reason, early on I stuck to the script of the textbook, sometimes spending entire periods just reading it out loud to them, occasionally adding emphasis to particular sentences where it seemed appropriate.[1]

In the beginning, having no other model to work from I put myself (as professor) at the center of the classroom experience. What I remember about this is the pressure. First it was the pressure of maintaining a façade of confidence and authority when I feared I had none. Later, as I became more experienced and confident, the pendulum swung the other way, as my approach became increasingly prescriptive, declaring a path to enlightenment for students to follow. If they just did what I told them to do, surely their writing would improve.

If they worked hard, played their cards right, they could become…me, or at least something like me.

Fairly quickly that too felt like a lie, a confidence game of a slightly different type, but a bluff nonetheless. The longer I taught, the more I wrote, I began to see what I thought I knew about writing as teaching as inevitably provisional, subject to revision and correction in any moment. Why should they want to become me when they could just be themselves?

By looking stupid (not on purpose) a couple of times and living to tell the tale, I began to see the benefits of admitting to stupidity up front and encouraging students to feel free to do the same.

Or maybe not stupidity exactly, but at least frailty. I started to put struggle and doubt closer to the center of my teaching and frequently shared my own difficulties writing, not merely from the past – as though they’re something we grow out of – but from the present as well.

I learned that if I was open with students I could take (calculated) risks in my pedagogy, like eliminating the attendance requirement and later, moving towards a grading contract.

I believe this helped to offload some of the responsibility for the ultimate fate of my “innovations” onto the students. The policy or approach is mine, but they are allowed to move freely within those policies and even challenge the policy (as happened with the grading contract) when they believe I am not being true to my own intentions.

To me, the most distressing part of Prof. Herckis’ findings at Carnegie Mellon is the suggestion of an adversarial nature between teachers and students. As with most of what ails higher education, I think these are a consequence of systems that contain perverse incentives and serve to alienate us from each other, rather than bring us together. I am sympathetic to those in these situations. Early in my career, I was fortunate to be in a program that believed in teaching innovation. Later, as contingent faculty, I had freedom of the just-another-word-for-nothing-left-to-lose” variety where I worked safely under the radar.

In my experience, students are comfortable with the professor on a pedestal, but I’m not convinced they find it preferable. I say this having tried both approaches. As long as students don’t feel they are being experimented upon, but are instead co-investigators, I have experienced a lot of leeway to try something that may not work.

One of the most common complaints one hears about current students is their lack of resilience, which is why I think it’s extra important for instructors to model resilience within their courses by including some risk of failure in their own work. I’m not suggesting a sudden upending of every previous teaching method or approach. There’s no greater recipe for chaos than unmooring oneself entirely from what one has known previously.

But some change that forces a reconsideration of what’s been done before strikes me as healthy for all involved.

My pedagogy is radically different from ten or twelve years ago, but those “radical” changes happened incrementally, one semester at a time. I learned that students will trust me if I say something like, “I want to try something. I’m not sure how it will turn out, but here’s why I think it’s worth the risk.”

Let the point of the exercise be the attempt rather than the outcome. Once you’ve made the attempt, leave some space for students to comment on how they experienced what you’ve done together. Many of my attempts have failed.[2] Even the successes have not always been total.

And when I say, “not always,” I actually mean “never.”

I’ve found students to be very insightful when it comes to understanding and assessing their own learning and very forgiving of my “mistakes.” Just about 100% of what I now do in the classroom has been “authorized” by student feedback, not given through end-of-semester evaluations, but collaborative discussion.

Ask students if something worked, and they will tell you.

The best part of moving the professorial pedestal out of the room is that all of us get to be a little less fearful, and little more brave.

In the end, though, these are not burdens that should be foisted on individual instructors. I’ve lost track of the number of unsupported mandates that seem to trickle down to faculty and in turn to students that seem to mostly create the inhospitable atmosphere that makes meaningful change more difficult, rather than less.

If institutions want instructors to investigate new approaches to teaching it must be supported and incentivized (or at least not deincentivized).

It’s easier to be brave when you know someone has your back.






[1] I recognize my delivery in President Trump when he delivers a speech from a prepared text.

[2] Four and a half years ago I wrote here about trying to incorporate Tumblr into a creative writing class. It went so poorly that by mutual agreement with the students, we cancelled all Tumblr-ing assignments before the semester even ended.

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