Fake It Till You Make It, Then Fake It Some More

I hope my previous column didn’t give the impression that this blog would be full of life-changing professional pro tips. I have, at best, two or three of those, and I already used the really good one.

We’re starting our fourth week here at Hood, and the roller coaster of the beginning of the semester is starting to level off a bit. But every new semester brings a new set of challenges, and that goes double at a new school. While things are going ok, I still don’t quite feel like I’ve got my feet under me yet. And that sense of destabilization feels utterly un-professorial.

Stack of Papers

“Stack of Papers” by Jenni C on Flickr, reminiscent of my grading pile, is licensed under CC BY 2.0

It took until my second semester of college before I got an inkling that professors might be actual people. My physics professor at UW-Madison, the impossibly kind Don Cox, started his first lecture by admitting that he always gets a little nervous before the first day of a new course. A well-established full professor still got jittery before teaching an intro physics class he’d taught a thousand times to a lecture hall half-full of 18-year-olds? It was like seeing your kindergarten teacher in the grocery store and realizing she was a person with a life who didn’t just sleep in the pile of nap mats in your classroom.

Glimpses of human frailty like that were few and far between though. Overheard discussions about professors’ problems with classes usually focused on the limitations of the students, which were no fault of the instructor. So when I started teaching in graduate school and got nervous, or made one of hundreds of little mistakes, I didn’t feel like an academic. I felt like a dingbat.

That’s why I’m so thankful to every single person who ever confessed a mishap in the classroom to me over the years. From fellow graduate students facepalming over a massive mistake in lecture to senior faculty admitting to forgetting a proof in the middle of class, your cringiest moments are a great comfort. This is also why I love the mathematical twitter community. Something about that medium seems to encourage every Great and Powerful Oz to permit a glimpse at the man behind the curtain.

All of those voices were a big help last week when I felt like a class wasn’t going as well as I’d hoped. This insecurity about my class was compounded by my choice of teaching method. When you’re lecturing, you can at least pretend like the class is completely under your control, spellbound by your elegant transmission of the truth and beauty of the mathematical content. If you’re lucky, they’ll even laugh at your jokes and increasingly dated (excuse me, vintage) pop culture references.

If you’re like me, that lasts until exam time, when you wonder what the hell these students were doing when you thought they were listening to your beautiful, beautiful words.

In this semester’s linear algebra class, I planned to assign a giant mish-mash of reading guides, in-class activities, MATLAB labs, presentations, and homework assignments, with a few mini-lectures that are as discussion-heavy as I can make them. Once I realized just how much grading and prep this maelstrom of assignments required, I started getting anxious. Then an assignment fell flat. Some mild tech issues followed. My reach had clearly exceeded my grasp, and what’s worse, I knew my students were feeling a bit at-sea too. While some amount of that is unavoidable (and, in my opinion, desirable) in a math class, things were getting unwieldy. I was in dingbat country.

So I reset a little. I turned my several-page-long reading guides – each one graded before each class so I knew what they were having trouble with – into short Blackboard assignments. I’m not getting the same depth of feedback from the students, but I can see at a glance what didn’t make sense from the reading, and they still have an essay question to explain what they want to spend time on in class. I’ve given myself a breather on grading a couple of assignments by making them in-class. If I can see if that they’re participating and doing the assignment, and their discussion tells me they got the point, they get the grade. I decided to spend an extra half a class on some material they’re struggling with, and they seem more comfortable now. I don’t know where I’ll steal that half a class from later, but we’ll burn that bridge when we get to it.

Once I catch up on this last stack of grading, I’ll call myself stabilized. And then I’ll pat myself on the back and maybe check twitter before the next mishap starts. To quote @AcademicsSay, “I’m not procrastinating. I’m actively engaging in the disruption of traditional academic narratives via social media.” And I think that’s only half a joke.

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