On Classroom Teaching

I don’t think I have always thought this, but I suppose I do now: you can in fact be a good researcher and be an atrocious teacher. And I don’t mean being bad because you don’t prepare or otherwise blow off your duties. You can put in the work, you can care, and you can still suck.

I have a colleague who is brilliant, but he has a breathtaking inability to put himself in other people’s shoes. I have known him for years, so I have learned how to talk with him and get the info I want, but it’s quite amazing how little he grasps where his company is coming from, what they know or care to hear about. I think he has no idea how he comes across or that what he is saying is making little impact. My colleague is a representative of a small but memorable group I have had a chance to meet;  like his brethren, he talks to everyone as if they are in his head, privy to every detail of the thought process. This is an affliction that many a graduate student presenter suffers from, but it’s usually temporary and curable. Alas, for some, it’s congenital and the prognosis is grim.

The colleague cares about the students  in his classes and about his teaching, and he gets frustrated, year after year, when he finds yet again in evaluations that students really dislike him. I don’t know what to tell him — he’s senior to me, and he’s a good person and good researcher, but I can totally tell why they are not clicking. Half the time I can barely follow his train of thought. I wonder if anyone ever told him point blank what the issue is.

I had another colleagues who was similar — he was terrible at telling jokes, because he’d start from the middle or assume the audience knew something that they didn’t; with his comedic attempts he would have himself cracking up, but everyone else would be left cold or confused. One particular joke came to mind, which turns out would only be funny if one knew some very particular fact about the NHL; why on earth he would ever think I was the right audience for said joke is beyond me.

Most of us at universities don’t get any formal training in teaching, we just work at it, pick up tricks along the way, and hopefully improve with practice. But I guess an ingredient that is necessary is some level of empathy; maybe that’s not the right word, maybe it’s emotional intelligence or something  similar. Being aware of the audience, of where they are, why they are there, and then the ability to meet them where they are. Can this skill be taught? Probably. But it’s probably also true that some people do it naturally and others don’t. And I suppose there are some who are naturally just very, very bad at gauging where other people are, so without training they go on sucking (and suffering) in the classroom.

Anyway, I felt for my colleague today. He’s a good person and very good colleague. Just remarkably ineffective as an oral communicator.


  1. How is his written communication? Could it be that his emotional intelligence kicks in only while writing and disappears the moment he opens his mouth?

  2. I know a Nobel prize winner like this. Cares deeply, but over-explains the easy stuff and doesn’t realize the hard stuff isn’t trivial to everyone else like it is to him. He just doesn’t get what is easy and what is hard because it is all easy to him.

  3. Guys like your colleague are the only reason why teaching workshops and whatnot shouldn’t be entirely abandoned. Sadly, people who know how to explain shit and care about teaching are the ones most likely to go to those workshops even though they don’t need any of that bullshit, while people who don’t know how to teach are the least likely to go.

  4. It’s tough to watch. Luckily, at least in my Department is the exception rather than the rule but you brought one colleague vividly to mind.

    I do think good mentoring in teaching early on can be a big help–we’re doing more of that here and I see an impact.

  5. good mentoring in teaching early on can be a big help

    I definitely agree. This particular colleague worked in industry for two decades before coming to academia. He was never at the assistant professor level, where people would perhaps be more willing to offer advice and coaching to a young person just starting out.

    I am on the university committee that is *the* tenure hurdle to pass; we sometimes discuss cases for the appointment with tenure of senior folks with little teaching experience. Many turn out to be great teachers, but there are enough who don’t that I am always wary about bringing in with tenure someone who’d cut their teeth in a job that entailed no formal teaching.

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