Good Teacher/Bad Teacher?

One of my professors has been driving me batty. There are several reasons for this. Partially, it’s just a difference of theoretical constructs. His focus is very much the “grand narrative*” style of scholarship. His explanations tend to be theological bordering on the Biblical. I wouldn’t necessarily agree with this if it was the only problem, but I could put it aside. I find enough enough of a challenge in pulling interesting material out of a strange theory that it would be more entertaining than annoying. (And it would be great Twitter fodder.)

Unfortunately, this isn’t his only problem.

He has a complete and utter disregard for facts if they get in the way of his pet theory. Or the story he’s telling. Or his punchline.

In the beginning of the class I was willing to give him the absent-minded professor pass and assume that since the topic he was discussing (Origins of Agriculture) was outside of his realm, he might just not have a clear picture. In our class introductions I had mentioned that I had coursework specifically dealing with Origins of Agriculture, so when he asked what we thought of the subject, I gave him a concise (3-4 sentences each) summary of each the main theories. Nothing controversial. Just a basic overview.

That wasn’t what he wanted at all. In fact, he took my answer and ridiculed me for being both wrong and pedantic. Now I will fully admit to generally being pedantic, in this particular case I wasn’t wrong. I hadn’t even given an opinion on the theories. So I responded with citations, as I would in any other class I’m in, humanities or sciences. Most profs, even if they don’t agree with you, will at least listen to figure out where you’re coming from if you have a half-decent argument. (And if you don’t, then that’s great fodder for their own Tweets.)

Instead of listening to me, he cut me off, made an offhanded remark about that just not being true and moved on to another topic.

I was furious, but I wasn’t sure why. I spent my next class trying to figure out what I was so mad about. I wasn’t embarrassed. Aside from me, the rest of the class consists of Classics grad students, who I will never see again. I wasn’t even particularly perturbed that he didn’t agree with me. So why was I so mad?

After my classes were over for the day, I dropped in to the office of one of my favorite profs. We’ll call him D. I started the conversation with “So, how much trouble will I get in if I smack a professor?” His response was “It depends how much they deserved it.” I explained the situation to him, and as we wound our way through a discussion of the theory behind Classics and various similar topics, I started to realize what I was actually angry about.

It wasn’t that he had embarrassed me, it was that he had dismissed the information that I was providing on some authoritarian grounds, without considering it either way. I wasn’t angry at this man as a student. I was angry at him as an educator. I was angry at him for not taking a moment to either expand on his position in a way that I (and presumably the rest of the class) would understand, or alternately, to give a good reason why I was wrong.

He completely missed a moment where he could have emphasized critical thinking. He missed a chance to actually engage with the material in a way that would have been helpful to his students, who are presumably all being taught how to actually research in Classics. I wasn’t bringing up obscure sources. While they fall more on the anthropology side than the classics side, they are sources that are quoted repeatedly, even in the texts we’re using in the class.

What does this have to do with the seemingly irrelevant story of my conversation with D? Everything. In our conversation, D (as he always does) started at the beginning and tried to tease out the strands of my annoyance. He may not have any background in the subject we were talking about, but by making me express my thoughts in a careful and step-by-step way, he made me understand the weaknesses and strengths of my argument. I may not have learned anything factually new in this discussion, but that wasn’t the point. Without me being aware of it, he took me through my pattern of thinking and even made me aware of something I need to work on in my arguments.

And in doing this, he also highlighted what the other professor was *not* doing. The other professor was teaching facts by rote in a class that should have been about thinking independently and understanding the material, problems and all. Even worse, he was teaching like this to a group of students who are uniquely qualified to think about. The Classics department at my Uni is a pretty competitive program and I’ve always been impressed by the level of the students. This man, by not teaching in a way that took advantage of their abilities, was doing them a disservice, and possibly turning them off an interesting area of study. D, by taking five minutes and talking through the subject with me, managed to teach me more than the random facts and concepts tossed off by the other professor all quarter.

*I’m sure there’s a formal phrase for this, but I’ve mentally called this style of explanation ‘grand narratives’ ever since I was taken to task by a historian because, in his words, “Geologic time is just too big for a grand narrative, so I can’t accept it.” (I’m sure you can tell this is not meant to be a positive term in my literary toolkit.)