Teaching is more than just a comedy routine

Some time ago, after giving a public lecture, one of those present asked me how many hours a week I taught. My reply was six hours a week. “Wow,” was his reply. “That sure leaves a lot of time for research,” he added. He was stunned when I replied, “On the contrary… it really doesn’t. My teaching load allows very little time for research.”

He pressed on, so I told him what teaching actually involves.

For my part, teaching involves tutorials, student consultations, supervision of theses, constant development and updating of teaching materials, processing student feedback, assessing essays and, though not as heavy as in the past, some administrative responsibilities in the department of psychology.

His question did, however, suggest to me that there may be little understanding about what teaching really entails. For many, teaching is defined in a very limited way as lecturing. Lecturing may mean delivering a stand-up performance in front of a large class of undergraduates.
The emphasis appears to be on “performance.” I remember giving a guest lecture in one of my greatly respected colleague’s class, after which she said, “My, that was quite a compelling performance.”

I smarted just a little. Was she suggesting that a teacher must first and foremost be a good actor, project his/her voice well, adorn themselves in trendy “threads”, develop a stage presence and have a deep reservoir of jokes to keep all entertained?

There are some significant differences between such characteristics and a teacher committed to the discipline, students and the two processes of teaching and learning. For me, the big difference is that, after the thunderous applause, the comic leaves the stage, whereas the teacher remains “in character” long after most students have left the lecture hall.

A teacher meets with students who found the lecture difficult, clarifying concepts students found confusing and carrying on the dialogue with other students who want to go over their recent exam.

In other words, much time is devoted to caring about, and caring for, one’s students.
For some of us, teaching is more frustrating. Students often complain that the university is an increasingly anonymous and impersonal place.

While I do admit that students bear some responsibility for “personalizing” their own education, that irresistible drive for university (corporate) efficiency – meaning larger classes and less contact time for individual students – is going to make the university a more monolithic and less friendly institution.

Perhaps the new emphasis on “research universities” increases the alienation students feel toward their university and their professors.

In the past, there was a continuing conversation, an active dialogue between students and teachers, and office doors were always open.

Today, there is little left of the robust and rich “corridor culture” and along the corridors most office doors are closed.

Some students in very large classes begin to feel that they are taking courses through “distance education.” They feel fewer and fewer vital connections to the lecturer and fewer connections to their own learning experiences.

When Confucius was asked by one of his disciples: “What word might sum up all that is good in any relationship?”

Confucius was reported to have said, “Reciprocity is the word that sums up the good in relationships; what you desire for yourself you must desire for others.”

In teaching, this is never truer: reciprocity, caring and trust must flow both ways if learning is to occur and feel personally relevant. And such reciprocity can be developed only when the authenticity the teacher develops can be felt in class as well as beyond the classroom.