Thinking Context: Professors and Teachers
Professor and teacher are not interchangeable words. Our students are unlikely to realize this.
In my experience, our students see us as “teachers.”
Please know that I have great respect for teachers, particularly at the secondary school level. I’ve long known that I don’t have the stuff, the spirit, the grit to do what they do. To ask college students to see their professors as something different from teachers is not to imply that professor is better, just that they are not the same, and students benefit from knowing this.
Their working definition for a “teacher” is quite possibly something like, “Person whose existence on the planet is to teach me stuff and help me pass my classes.”
I do not know many professors that see their role this way.
Barring previous exposure to academics, the vast majority of our students will not know what a professor does or how professors function inside a university. (They also won’t really understand the full scope of a university.) It is most likely that they will see you through a similar lens as their high school teachers, the only difference being that you’ve jumped through a couple of extra hoops to earn a PhD.
They simply do not understand the context surrounding the person at the front of the room.
In service of proving a fuller context, one of the things I do the first day of class (and in my course policies) is introduce myself. In the policies it looks like this:
My name is John Warner, and I am a native of Northbrook, IL, a northern suburb of Chicago, that is forever immortalized in the great John Hughes movies of the 1980’s (Sixteen Candles, Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, etc…). I graduated from the University of Illinois in 1992 with a degree in Rhetoric, which is really just a fancy name for “writing.” After a couple of years of work in Chicago, I returned to graduate school at McNeese St. University (go Cowboys) in Lake Charles, LA, where I graduated in 1997 with two degrees, an M.F.A. in Creative Writing and an M.A. in English Literature. For four years after graduate school I held a “real world” job as a marketing research consultant, where my background in creative writing proved very helpful. I returned to teaching in 2001 and since that time have worked at the University of Illinois, Virginia Tech, and for six years previous to coming to College of Charleston, Clemson University. This is my second year at College of Charleston. Last year I was known as “adjunct faculty.” This year my title is Visiting Instructor.
In addition to teaching, I am a writer and have published several books and frequently publish my stories, essays and humor on the web and in print. My most recent book is a novel called The Funny Man. I also work as an editor of a daily humor-oriented website called McSweeney’s Internet Tendency (www.mcsweeneys.net) and as a columnist writing about teaching and writing for Inside Higher Ed (insidehighered.com). I also write a weekly column for the Chicago Tribune book supplement, Printers Row. All of these responsibilities keep me very busy, but I teach because, believe it or not, it allows me to get up in the morning and look forward to the work I have to do.
I am an Aries.
One of the things I want my students to know is that in addition to my classroom duties, I concurrently maintain a professional life as a writer and editor. I want them to know that I do these things because I enjoy them, but also out of a certain amount of economic necessity. Doing these things I enjoy requires a certain amount of hustle.
I also want them to see that my route to the classroom standing in front of them has been a journey with a couple of twists and turns, that I am, indeed, human and that my purpose in the world extends beyond being their “teacher.”
I believe this context is important for my students, particularly my freshman students, because rather than seeing me as their academic Sherpa who is paid to haul them to the summit, even if I have to drag them there, I want to be their guide or coach. I want them to recognize that they have most of the agency when it comes to their success (or not) in my course.
I want them to know that they are the engine, not the freight.
I’m not and have never been a professor, but I think it’s important for professors to do something similar. I believe professors should share something about their research – what they do and why - as well as the university service duties they’re responsible for. Students should know, for example, if you’re on curriculum or hiring committees, and the responsibilities you must meet as part of that service.
They should know if you’re tenured. They should know what tenure actually means and why you do (or don't) think it's important.
For those off the tenure track like me, I think context is just as vital. If you are a “freeway flier” forced by circumstance to juggle multiple sections at multiple institutions, students should know that – not as a bid for sympathy, but for their own understanding of what’s happening in that classroom.
My students are often surprised that teaching is only one of my two full-time jobs. Sometimes maybe they’re impressed, but I also occasionally sense some pity. I am quite obviously neither rich nor famous.
Impressed, pitying, either is okay with me, as long as they know who I am, and more importantly who I am to them.
I can be anyone you want on Twitter.
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