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Stop Thinking You're the Smartest Person in the Room
January 19, 2011 - 8:30pm

From the archives - this post was originally published at on 3.01.2010.

I’m in the unenviable position of preparing my dossier for “third year review”–that time where I get to tell my colleagues what I’ve managed to accomplish in the hectic time of early tenure track, to show that I can “produce” while also teaching, creating new programs, traveling, engaging in “service” for the university, holding it together enough to have intelligent conversations…

Part of the process entails compiling my teaching evaluations. Our university has recently switched to on-line teaching evaluations, and we’re still working out the bugs. Once we would hand out bubble sheets to the entire class (usually on a day when we could be reasonably assured everyone would be there), carefully explain to them that their input is important, and that the bubbles on the right are higher than the left, and then solemnly leave the room to allow them to ponder their experience in the course. Now we remind them in class that they should remember to go on-line to fill in the survey, they get multiple emails to do so, and then…they don’t do it. The return rates are abysmal. Those of us coming up for tenure review, in effect, have relatively incomplete teaching evaluations to work with.

But despite this, we can’t ignore that there are students who do fill in the surveys. Some of them are just plain helpful, offering thoughtful insights into their experience, suggesting changes while also appreciating that perhaps there was a method to my madness (pop quizzes are fun!). Others, well, use the experience to rail against the professor. They can’t seem to tell the difference between an official university evaluation and the free-wheeling atmosphere of, where ad hominem attacks are the norm. In the anonymous world of the internet, it doesn’t seem to register that the object of their attacks and of their disdain may be forced not only to read these remarks, but to share them with others (or perhaps it does, which seems to indicate an even deeper level of cruelty). It would be like grading a student poorly while also getting to make publicly available comments like “Jeff was an ‘average’ student, but what I really despised was his haircut and the way he pronounced the word ‘Westphalia.’”

After all these years of teaching, of working with students who believe that the university is a service provider and that they are the center of the universe, you’d think I’d be used to the little fits of piqué that students display in their evaluations. But I’m an academic–I’m sensitive. I stopped wearing an outfit I had specially tailored in Thailand (as a treat to myself) because one student said that I looked like Peter Pan. I tried to temper my comments in class when I was told (anonymously) that my humor was too biting, or that I could come off as a bit too direct (putting it nicely).

But reviewing my past evaluations recently, I came across this gem: “Stop thinking you’re the smartest person in the room.”

At first this made me laugh. I mean, it’s my class, I designed it, it’s often based on my research. These students are mainly first year students. I have a PhD, so one would assume that I have reasonably more knowledge than anyone else in the room–indeed, that I am now (officially, as of this year!) old enough to have parented one or two of these students would at least give me points in the wisdom and experience categories. Granted, there are usually 250 students in this class, so statistically it may be possible that I’m not the smartest person in the room. I’ll just go on the assumption that I outrank in terms of age and number of degrees.

What was this student trying to communicate?

The more I’ve thought about it, I think it has everything to do with the upcoming generation’s approach to knowledge and access to it. Yes, it is the consumer attitude as well, but that’s not everything. Plenty of kids approach education as a “pay for service” situation, but they are also willing to keep their end of the bargain and respect the professors for the services they render. Rather, if we consider the main source of access to the world around them–the internet–we see the effects of this “democratizing” force in education. An 18 or 19-year-old student in university today has spent his or her entire intellectual life immersed in the internet, where the creation of knowledge is dislocated, collaborative and non-hierarchical. No one person can have claim to “knowledge” in this atmosphere, or at least knowledge that is definitive.

I get this; as a feminist scholar, I’ve spent my career trying to undermine the canons of my field (you know, the old dead white guys) who created acceptable “knowledge.” I appreciate the act of empowerment that is saying “no, I don’t think you’re right.” I wish I had felt that empowered at 18, rather than spending years trying to find my own voice and say “no.” But at the same time, the rejection of any kind of authority in the classroom forecloses the possibility of moving out of parochial viewpoints, of accepting that you couldn’t possibly know what the whole world looks like, of experiencing that exhilarating moment of extreme discomfort and yet excitement of shifting world-views. And if you can’t learn the formula of “no I don’t think you’re right and here’s the reason why I think so….” well, you’re not getting very far.

But once again, I want to be a conduit to critical thinking, not an obstacle of authority. Maybe it’s not them, after all; maybe it is me. Maybe I’m really not the smartest person in the classroom, and it’s my job to make them tell me why.

Denise Horn

(This post was included in Hacking the Academy, a project at the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University)


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