Thoughts from the Ivory Tower

Strange things happening at my work and an experience in the classroom that I had today have me thinking about an article I read in my first semester of business school entitled On the folly of rewarding A, while hoping for B.

Universities are in the business of teaching. The University that acquired the research institute where my laboratory is based is tremendously focused on their Undergraduate teaching efforts, at least in the life sciences. Why then is a scientist’s value to a University based on the scientist’s ability to conduct cutting edge research, win grant funding and publish in high quality journals and not on his or her skill in the classroom? I’m predominantly a research scientist so for the most part this unusual reward system benefits me but it really doesn’t make sense.

I had a bad experience with a student in a class I am teaching today. The second exam is this coming Monday; therefore, the student wanted some extra help. After we reviewed the material that the student was having difficulty with, the student made a comment that of course the problem is my inability to teach well. Ouch. I know I am not the greatest but I do work hard at it and in the case of this particular student, I’m not sure the fault lies with me. This student misses more than 50% of the classes because the student chooses to be on a ski team that is not associated with the University. Ideally, the student downloads the lectures from the Internet and works through them independently. Of course the fact that this student has not cracked the textbook or looked at missed lectures is not the cause of the lack of understanding on the student’s part….it is my lack of skills as a teacher. Alas. Not having had Teaching 101 (is there such a thing?), I really had no clue how to handle this situation. Since this student’s comments on my failings were delivered as the student exited the room I did not really have an opportunity to do anything positive about this but if the student had not exited I do wonder what a good way to respond would have been that didn’t start with name calling. If this student does not understand the material why are questions not raised during the lectures? I stop frequently to ask whether the material is clear before moving on. If no one tells me there is a problem how could I know this?

Until last year when I taught for the first time, I really had no appreciation for how much preparation and effort went into the process. I have so much gratitude for my overworked business school professors (and teachers past that I largely took for granted). Average business school classes have 45 to 50 night school students who work full time & who often need to make special arrangements for exams and assignments  due to work travel. The professors have been amazingly accommodating of our schedules & somehow manage to keep track of all of us. Compared to them, I have it amazingly easy with my class of 26 honor’s undergraduates, at least in theory. I think that like the students I’m counting the days that are left….4 more weeks until I can be just a researcher & evening student again. I think we will all be happy when that day comes.