13 Comments on

I finally snapped yesterday, and laid the smack down on a professor. In front of the entire class. Here’s the story, with too much background.

Over the last several classes, the professor has been getting increasingly cranky over the lack of classroom participation. Usually he’ll leave a question hanging in the air, and either I’ll answer it or there will be an awkward silence for several seconds before someone kinda sorta mumbles something from the back of the room. Increasingly, I’ve been trying to shut up in the hopes that it will prompt more people to speak up. Mostly, that hasn’t helped. And so, the prof is getting worked up about that.

Add to that, the guy just isn’t a very good teacher. He knows the material backwards and forwards, but he doesn’t have a grasp of how to present the material to someone who might be seeing it for the very first time. If I hadn’t seen this all in high school, I can only imagine how lost and confused I would be. For instance, the prof seems to think it’s useful to back up a new rule or concept by actually performing the proof for it in front of the entire class. Despite the fact that the proofs can be pretty gnarly, well above the head of 2/3rds of the class, and it’s not the sort of things he would hold us responsible for in homework or on a test. It’s kind of like trying to teach someone how to drive by showing them how the carburetor is assembled.

So Friday, he’s at the whiteboard in the middle of one of these proofs. It’s filled the entire whiteboard, half the class is glazed over, and he’s still going at it, working on this series of one limit plus another limit plus a third limit. On one of the limits he factors something out of it and asks over his shoulder, “And when we pull that out of the limit, what are we left with?” From across the room, a tentative voice says, “Umm, it’s undefined?”

He spins on his heel and with a raised voice says, “What?! No! What’s left is the definition of a derivative! C’mon!”

And I snapped.

Right there, in front of the class, I cut him off with a sharp tone.
“Look. Just stop it. That’s unnecessary. Take a deep breath.”

“Yes, I understand the thing you’re pointing at is the definition of a derivative. But her answer wasn’t crazy. Yeah, if you just looked at that limit, it looks like it would be undefined. That’s a reasonable guess at the answer.
If you want people to participate in this classroom, shouting at them for a wrong answer is a really bad strategy.”

“So back off, calm down, and try again.”

For a couple of tense seconds, the only sound was the muted traffic outside.

He stammered out an awkward apology, and repeated it at the end of class. I think he knew he had been busted big time. I only hope he thinks about how he got in that state, and how to avoid it in the future.

13 thoughts on “

    1. browse Post author

      I confess to having been a little nervous how you, as a prof, would feel about this post. I’m glad to see you thought I handled it okay. Thanks. 🙂

      1. thunderslug

        A lot of pofs get a huge ego, and silence means ‘disrespect’ rather than the converse (I teach a loyt of Indian and Chinese students)…plus, they overstuff their lectures…my last two had a little slack, so I got to have my ‘deflagration vs. detonation’ and BLRVE asides.

        They forget teaching is *fun*, as you know from tutoring. There’s nothing like the lightbulb moment to make your day.

          1. lonnerz

            So I am the sort that takes forever to respond to things now, bad of me. I was going to say that’s insane that you got that sort of critique, you are definitely not that sort.

  1. lonnerz

    Wow, intense. I would have had a hard time not speaking up either. It’s something that often I see from those in the (enter age card in 3..2..1..) older generation. i.e. above the age of 25.

    Anyway, I’m all applauds and back pats on this one.

  2. nosty

    Many universities have these brilliant professors who have published all sorts of works and bring in lots of dollars. Only about half of them seem like they want to teach. Good for you for saying something. How is he supposed to improve if nobody points out his mistakes?

  3. curiousangel

    I once went off on a geography professor at the University of Memphis who was coming out with things that JUST WEREN’T TRUE — the class was discussing South America, and Argnetina in particular, and the Falklands War came up. When he got to the part of his oration where he started blaming the British for using battleships to bombard Buenos Aires, I just snapped. I don’t remember a hell of a lot of what I said after “I appreciate you telling us how the Falklands War turned out on YOUR planet, but let me give you a quick rundown about how it happened here on Earth…”, but I was off to the races.

    I got the same “deathly quiet” thing for a little while, and then he just moved on. After class, he came up to me and said something about how it was evident that I cared about the history of the region, and maybe I’d like to talk with some groups on campus that focused on South America. I allowed as how I didn’t really have time or energy to take on additional activities, and that was that.

    I did get an A in the class, though.

    1. browse Post author

      Y’know, I’m capable of being more calm and rational about factual errors. Especially in math and the sciences, it’s usually possible to ask innocent little Socratic questions to lead someone to enlightenment. I have a CS instructor at present who needs this by the bucket-load.

      But instructors who are gonna use the power dynamic of the classroom to run rough-shod over a group of intimidated students? That one really pushes my buttons.

      Said more gracefully, I guess I can tolerate ineptitude with more aplomb than I can tolerate injustice.


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