Advice

Resisting the Urge to Profess

Carrying on at length, about anything, is an occupational hazard in academe

Kevin Van Aelst for The Chronicle

October 23, 2016

Some of my former-students-turned-academics like to explain things to me. Whether we’re talking about the dangers of political apathy or the health benefits of exercise, I am treated to mini-lectures that provide me with background information, context, and a broad overview that can take upwards of 30 minutes.

Some of these explainers have had a few years of college-level teaching as TAs while others have managed to snag their first jobs as lecturers and adjuncts. They have developed habits of mind that run toward educating. I’m sure they do a good job for their students and I try not to mind when they practice on me, even when they forget that I’ve been around a few blocks myself. In the right mood, I can even find the behavior endearing.

What worries me is how this tendency can become a tic for some academics — and an annoying one at that.

Perhaps there’s an inevitability at work here. Lawyers learn to argue any side of an issue in lawyer-like ways. Doctors are taught to come up with a list of differential diagnoses and then land on the one they can’t rule out. Engineers want to fix stuff, not talk about it. It’s natural that when we go through professional training we become acculturated to our disciplines in ways that spill into our personal lives.

For professors, that means we tend to profess.

Being a good teacher requires an ability to explain things well and patiently, often starting from first principles. We become accustomed to showing our intellectual work, either on the board or by making clear each argumentative step. That is essential when communicating with those who know less than we do about a topic.

In addition, early-career professors who worry about their authority may feel the need to prove that they deserve to be at the head of the class. They may suffer from impostor syndrome, having just learned the stuff they’re teaching. Eager to cover any inadequacies or incomplete knowledge, they trot out what they do know. They may be uncomfortable with silence and rush to fill it.

Or it’s possible that, like me, they just get so excited about the material that they can’t refrain from pointing out every single thing they think is cool. I’ve learned that it’s often a bad idea to teach a book I adore because if my students don’t love it as much as I do, first my feelings get hurt and then I rush in to show them what they’re missing. In class I’ll talk too much instead of waiting for them to say all the things they would have said if I’d only given them a chance. I try to be aware of that; sometimes I succeed.

So I understand the tendency to lecture. Plus, we all know that the best way to make sure we understand something is to hear ourselves teach it.

While that can be fine in the classroom (sometimes), to my horror, I find myself treating email pals to lengthy disquisitions on the proper placement of periods and commas relative to quotation marks. In nice restaurants I’ve been known to point out unsanctioned capitalizations and French accent marks teeter-tottering the wrong way. When men I date confess to not having heard of a book that I think is required reading for being a human, I’ll place a copy in their hands and then tell them what they should look for. The smart-alecks laugh and ask if there will be a quiz (those are usually the ones I end up liking).

While I’m eager to be called out on my bad habits, I often find myself wishing my professorial friends would recognize their own inclination to profess.

Having spent the past decade as a faculty member, and a previous career in editorial board meetings with academics, you would think I would be accustomed to hearing people hold forth on pet topics that have little bearing on the business at hand and that tend to make meetings last three times longer than necessary. And yet, in department gatherings or campus governance meetings, I am still shocked by how obtuse some academics can be when it comes to the effects of their professing. How do they manage to miss the way the temperature in the room cools when they filibuster? Do they not see how people shut down? How suddenly everyone’s cuticles need picking or there’s a rush to use the bathroom?

None of us ever truly has a captive audience. We have to earn the attention and trust of our listeners and readers.

Teaching can provide great opportunities for researchers to practice presenting their ideas and organizational skills, and to work on making their style accessible, clear, and yes, even occasionally entertaining. It can also lead to a deadening habit of believing that because you have something you want to say it will be interesting and useful to others.

Too often, as I sit in faculty senate meetings or at college retreats, I start to think about the audience. Shouldn’t we talk to our colleagues in a different register from how we address our students? Do we lose a facility for meaningful conversation when we are puffed up with arcane knowledge? Is our content ever more important than the listeners’ (or the readers’) engagement?

And can someone please tell me why — in a room of 30 people — it’s always the same four or five who do nearly all of the talking? Is it arrogance, ignorance, or narcissism that keeps them from shutting up long enough to hear the opinion of others? I wonder: Is this how they run their classroom?

I learned early on that if you allow a few students to dominate discussions, the rest will resent them, and blame the instructor. Once, years ago, I taught a composition course to 12 first-year students. Two young men did 90 percent of the talking. One day I told the class we were going to do an experiment in silenced voices and asked those students who thought they talked a lot to volunteer not to speak for that one day. The first to raise her hand was a smart girl who hadn’t actually spoken all that much in class. The two charming but overly loquacious chatterboxes had to be convinced that they were yappers. (One of them had attended Phillips Exeter Academy where he’d been indoctrinated to yap.)

We had an amazing class that day. Students who had rarely spoken all semester turned out to have a lot to say. It was painful for the big talkers to keep mum, but they did, and they learned an important lesson — to listen and to respect their more reticent classmates. Since then, at the start of every course, I ask each student to wait until three others have had a chance speak before they pipe up again. That can allow time and space for those who need a few extra moments to have their say. I try to follow the same rule myself in meetings.

It’s hard to lead a good discussion, especially when you’re passionate about the topic. Many of us are fortunate to have jobs where we get to talk about things we love and find fascinating, and we want our students to share our enthusiasm. But that can translate into a tendency toward lectures that lose more listeners than they excite.

Most faculty members, at least those of us who teach seminars, would most likely agree that it’s important to allow students to voice their ideas and opinions, and we develop strategies to get them each to contribute to discussions. (I’m always eager to hear the tricks others use in order to accomplish this.)

Why, then, when we are with our peers, do so many of us forget everything we know about the shape of good conversations and turn into windy monopolizing monologists?

I’d like to think it’s possible for us to pull back on the professing, to believe that we can be pedagogically sophisticated without becoming pedants.

Rachel Toor is a professor of creative writing at Eastern Washington University’s writing program in Spokane. Her website is http://www.racheltoor.com.