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Saturday, October 22, 2005

On Being a Memorable Teacher (via Tomorrow's Professor)

I just got back from the Financial Management Association annual meeting (in Chicago this year - one of my favorite cites to visit). I try to make it to the FMA every year whether I have a paper on the program or not, because it's the best opportunity I have to catch up with most of my academic friends.

One of the conversations I seemed to have again and again this year was how teaching should be fun. A sub-conversation was that if you make time in the classroom high-energy and fun, you can push your students a lot harder and they'll put up with it. They might not like it all the time, but they'll buy into the program. And they'll remember you long after you and they have moved on.

When I got back from Chicago, I received this email from Tomorrow's Professor. For those of you who aren't aware of it, TM is a listserve that sends out emails twice a week on issues of interest to academics. It's a great resource for academics. Click on the link to subscribe (if you don't want the emails, they get posted on the main website with a two week lag). This latest one is titled "#674 IN THE CLASSROOM, EASY DOESN'T DO IT". It's a piece from the University of Richmond's Alumni magazine about Joe Ben Hoyle, accounting professor at the University of Richmond. He's a five-time winner of the University's Distinguished Educator Award, and was recently voted "Most Feared Professor" by the senior class. Here are a few choice parts:

Faculty members have a responsibility to the world to coax the very best from their students because they will certainly become the next generation of leaders. Where they go from here, what they accomplish, how they impact the world, depends in large part on how much we are able to push and nurture their development. I want every student to leave my class at the end of the semester saying, "“I didn'’t know that I could work so hard, and I didn'’t realize that I could learn so much."” Anything less is unacceptable.

...If a teacher challenges students to think and do their best, word gets around campus quickly, but having a tough reputation is both good and bad. When students walk into my class on the first day, they tend to be very quiet and pay attention right away. On the other hand, I am always so disappointed when a student says to me "“I hear you are a good teacher, but I didn'’t take your class because I know you are very demanding."” Isn't that just incredibly sad? I think Richmond will be a better school when students sign up only for classes where teachers push them each day to do their best.

...I use the Socratic method. I call on every student every day in class. I don't ask them to regurgitate material; I ask them questions that I believe will cause them to think and reason —on the spot. That is what adult life is like, especially in the business world. I then follow my initial question with others based on their answers. If I don'’t get good replies from a student, I don'’t just nod and smile; I demand better of them. A student once compared my class to a contact sport. Richmond students should be ready, willing and able to discuss and debate issues. This is college, not high school.

...I want a reasonable effort from my students because students get back based on what they put in. I expect them to study four to six hours each week outside of class so they'll be ready to participate in class discussions. I use carrots and sticks. I say, "“Good job!"” when a student gives me a thoughtful, well-conceived answer, and I say, "“Listen, you can do better than that!"” when a student gives me a bad answer. I don'’t view that as being disagreeable, although I do realize that it injects a bit of tension into the class. But this is not Sesame Street; a bad answer is a bad answer. There is only one primary goal in my class: to improve each student'’s ability to think, reason and understand. Our students realize how capable they are, but human nature loves to take the easy path.

...Our students can do amazing things, but if we don'’t challenge them fully, they will never realize what marvelous talents they truly possess. Signing up for demanding classes might hurt a student'’s GPA, but which is more important: developing a good mind or a good GPA?

Good words - click here for the whole thing. The UR alumni magazine has a great piece on "Tough love Professors. There are some escellent stories there, and worth reading.

I like reading things like these, because they challenge me to push my students harder. I've heard a lot of good reasons why we shouldn't push that hard - the students will complain more, they'll nail me on evaluations, or they'll avoid my class and end up in my colleagues classes, which will make their lives harder. But still, there are compelling reasons to demand a LOT more from our students.

Someone asked me when I got into academia what my goals were. There were the usual ones - publish in top journals, end up at a top school, and so on. But then I realized that these were my professors' goals. It's not that there's anything wrong with them (and yes, I do want to publish in good journals and teach at a good school). However, there were only a few professors I remembered from my undergrad days. Some (in fact most) of them weren't finance professors, or even in the business school. But the memorable ones almost all shared a few characteristics:
  1. They pushed their students far harder than they expected to be pushed. In fact, most were "unreasonable" in their demands.
  2. They got in their students' faces - questioned them directly so they couldn't hide in the back of the class. In fact, most used some variant of the Socratic Method.
  3. They actually knew their students' names (How disgusting! They actually took the time to get to know us!)
  4. They had a great command of their topics
  5. They were high-energy and kept the class on the edge of their seats
  6. They tended to "tease" their students in a good natured way
  7. They had a sense of humor - about their topic, their students, and themselves.
  8. Finally, you got the impression that there was no place they'd rather be at that moment in time than there in that classroom, teaching that particular topic to those particular students.
Every conference, I try to talk to one of my friends in particular. He's been an academic for years (and a very successful one at that) - he's got an endowed chair at a tier-1 research school, and has published in a lot of the top journals. And yet, after 20+ years teaching, he still loves being in the classroom. He said, "Unknown Professor, you move up in this field on the strength of your research (the number and quality of your publications). But you make the biggest impact in other people's lives by what you do in the classroom. I look at teaching like a performance, and I want each class to be a memorable one. And it's the most fun I have all week."

So, I guess I have to add a new goal - to be a MEMORABLE teacher (and to have more fun in the classroom). One of my former students called my teaching style, "High-energy, humorous, user-friendly S.O.B."

I like the sound of that.

And if you're an academic, sign up for Tomorrow's Professor.

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