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  • Prose and Purpose

    After 25 years on the job, a former provost examines the world on campus and in higher ed.

January 30, 2011 - 7:21pm

I was fortunate enough to get an opportunity to teach after just one year of graduate school. At that time, I was appointed as an adjunct to teach a basic macroeconomics course at the same institution that I had just graduated from a year earlier. My name appeared in the course schedule but thanks to the efforts of a friend of mine, no one knew that I was teaching this course. All my friend did was start a rumor that the Berliner who was teaching the economics course, was a “famous economist” by the name of Berliner who had taught at Leipzig before the war. I was, of course, unaware of this but noticed when I came into class the first day, that there was a great deal of conversation taking place between the students as soon as I moved to the front of the room. I could clearly hear one student near the front saying to another with almost a sense of disappointment “it’s only Herman.” What a way to start your teaching career.

I was especially fortunate that at the time that I started teaching, there was a program being run where a small number of new instructors were invited to a seminar on teaching and were even paid to attend the seminar. I was selected and was pleased to have the opportunity. The seminar consisted of weekly meetings and also consisted of the person teaching the seminar (a senior History faculty member) coming to your class to observe your teaching. The new faculty in the seminar were recent PhDs and graduate students, who were also teaching while completing their education. The conversations were great and allowed us to work through the issues that inevitably arise during the first semesters that a person is teaching. I was somewhat nervous when it was my turn to be observed; the lesson went well, however, and I felt very positive when I entered the meeting with the seminar teacher.

At the start of the meeting, I was told that I did an excellent job explaining economic concepts, getting the class to participate, and integrating current economic events into the discussion. I was next asked a question that I wouldn’t be asked today — how old was I? I didn’t have any sense as to why I was being asked an age question but it wasn’t a secret and I quickly answered 22. I was next asked what I thought the age range was of the students in my class. And though I didn’t understand the basis for this question either, I once again answered very quickly — somewhere between 18 and 24 years old. What was going on and how did this relate to an observation of my teaching?

The mystery was solved in the next minute. The seminar teacher summarized his observation by saying that he thought I did a terrific job and that the students were interested and involved in the class. He next said, and I have held onto this advice for decades, “please remember that as your teaching career continues and you get older, you will need to change how you relate and how you communicate with students.” What works when a 22 year old is talking with 20 year olds doesn’t work when a 40 or 50 or 60 year old is talking with and helping to educate 20 years olds. We continuously get older, and clearly our “traditional” students don’t. We also need to be cognizant of the fact that student demographics also change as we age.

It isn’t enough for us as educators to just remain current in our subject matter. We need to continuously reflect on how we are communicating and relating to our students. And we need to recognize that it becomes harder as the age gap widens and as there are various shifts in the age of the students we are teaching. However, without the communication working well, being an up-to-date subject matter specialist is not enough.


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