I am not a particularly neat person. I start my semester with a very clean desk, and then just let stuff accumulate. There are piles with HW assignments, scribbles that I made during office hours, random pages from drafts of manuscripts with marked-up edits on them, all interspersed with books that I pulled out to look something up and that are now stacked but misoriented, giving the entire structure a precarious look.  Near the end of a busy semester like this one, I have several piles on my giant ∏-shaped desk, and each is about a foot tall. After the semester ends, which to me equals having turned in my final grades, I go through a cleansing half-day ritual. I thoroughly tidy up my office, reshelve all my books, file all loose homework assignments and solution write-ups, and recycle uncollected student exams and various printouts.

During the semester, I will occasionally have a student during office hours who comments disparagingly on my clutter. The student who scolds me thrives on order. It’s always a he, and he is immaculately shaven and very neat. He has so far always either been an athlete or someone on a military scholarship. I bet my piles of paper are really jarring to someone who really needs control over the physical objects in his life. I had one student offer to clean the dry-erase-marker finger smudges on the wall near the white board in my office (I have many people in office hours and many peruse the board).

I don’t mind the clutter, it does not bother me when I work. The height of my piles measures the passage of time and my overall level of exhaustion. My office looks as disheveled as I feel. My desk is my own picture of Dorian Grey.

Yet, I am an anally retentive monster when it comes to my work and particularly to the neatness of my math. It drives me bananas when students (yes, those who comment on my piles are also guilty of this sin) forget to write the limits of definite integrals or what the integration variable is; when they lose minuses, twos, and π’s; when the expressions are written in these ugly, far-from-compact forms. As any of my grad students will also tell you, I am nitpicky about how our figures look, how our research papers are structured and written, and how group conference presentations flow. (As my publisher Melanie of Annorlunda Books can vouch, I am not at all laid back when it comes to choosing font combinations, either).

There’s physical clutter and there’s mental clutter. I guess people are better able to tolerate one or the other.


Which brings me to an interesting conversation that I had with one of my order-appreciating, hierarchically minded students.

There is some nonuniformity between different offerings of certain courses in the department, especially the low-level ones that a sizable roster of faculty teach. I don’t think this is anything unusual or specific to my department or school. The student was lamenting over it and basically said that he though we should all somehow be made to teach the course the exact same way by the higher-ups.

The thing is that faculty at most research institutions (and likely at other types of institutions, as well) would not take kindly to being micromanaged this way. In STEM fields, at least, all of us would earn much more in industry, and we are here because we want the freedom to be our own bosses, in control of our own research and teaching. There is no way some attempt to centrally micromanage teaching would fare well among my colleagues (and we have no resources to enforce anything anyway). If you want great teaching quality, uniformity, or whatever else, you need to have faculty buy in willingly; if you squeeze too much, the good people will simply go to other institutions.

I didn’t convey this to the student when we chatted, but perhaps I should have. Not everything can be fixed top-down. Some things get broken when you try.



  1. I’m sympathetic to a certain amount of standardization in the intro classes. You need to be able to count on students having already learned certain things if you’re going to teach the advanced classes. But everyone should have very wide flexibility in the advanced classes.

    Funny enough, I’m on the university-wide curriculum committee. (It wasn’t my idea; weird things happened and I’m stuck there.) The people on the committee seem to believe that the official course outlines matter. I keep trying to point out to them that people on the ground do all sorts of things. But everyone else is a good bureaucrat and chooses to believe that the minutiae of these documents are accurate reflections of what goes on in a class.

  2. Do the students get any information about the differing content of the intro classes that are supposedly teaching the same information? If not, then that seems really unfair to the students.

    Faculty independence is a good thing, but not when there is a large class with multiple sections. Either the classes need to be labeled differently (Physics IA from a X perspective, taught by professor Y, Physics IA from a B perspective, taught by professor C, etc) or there needs to be one over-arching class administrator (Professor W) who, whether W teaches all sections or not, ensures that the class is uniform across sections. Otherwise, a student signing up for a class doesn’t know what xe is getting into. That would never be tolerated at any of the universities that I have known.

  3. I’ll be starting to teach next semester (and it is a course for sophomores) and the uniformity question is one I’m quite nervous about! There is one other asst. prof teaching the course, and I have her syllabus, and we’ve agreed to use the same book (I don’t know what book is better anyway!). But, I’m not sure how much leeway there is in terms of what gets taught and in what order. Like I think my subfield is very important (I mean, obviously!!) but it’s not (specifically) on her syllabus at all, whereas I would probably spend 2 days instead of 2 weeks talking about her subfield. Is that amount of variance OK??

    I talked to my dad (who is a college prof) about it and basically he said there has to be some agreement about what students are supposed to know (or at least, been taught…) by the time they pass the course. He then told some horror stories about particular cases e.g. where a prof spent the equivalent of 3/4 of a rabbit survey course teaching only about bunny hopping. And then the students demonstrably did not know the material they needed about rabbit physiology, diet, evolution etc. I guess my plan as it is will be to get syllabi from several other folks who have taught the course and see how much variation there is. Then, talk to the chair and my co-teacher if I still am not sure.

    Every time you write a post about your organization / temperament I feel like I’m staring at myself in the mirror. 🙂

  4. I don’t think this nonuniformity between different offerings is anything unusual (we have very few multisection classes; those usually have a coordinator). A given class has a set syllabus and textbook, but professors differ in how much homework they assign, how much weight it carries in the final grade, how much of the homework is from the textbook versus elsewhere, whether the professor gives shorter quizzes or longer midterm exams, and, in recent years, whether it’s traditional lecture or flipped/other type of active learning classroom, stuff like that. Mostly it’s “My friend got an A with Prof X, I got a B with Prof Y. That’s so unfair!”

  5. Our approaches to our offices sounds very similar. I also have the cleaning ritual (though sometimes I’ll confess I put it off to the beginning of the new semester, depending on how long things drag on). It’s a mad house right now.

  6. I agree that a certain level of faculty independence is essential to getting the faculty enthusiastic enough about teaching to do a good job. Some standardization of lower level courses is also essential, particularly for ABET-accredited engineering programs. Achieving the right balance is tricky.

    One approach that can work is a bottom-up coordination of courses between faculty: meetings at which faculty who teach upper-division courses say what they expect students to have gotten out of lower courses, and faculty in those courses pointing out that they cover that in great detail, but students do cram-and-forget learning so don’t retain it even on the third time they’re supposed to have gotten it. Although these discussions rarely result in major changes to teaching, they often result in minor realignments that make student progress smoother.

  7. I don’t like intellectual or physical clutter, although I still accommodate periods of disorganization that I associate with some stages of creative ferment. But when I really need to think, there’s something about a clean desk that helps me focus on a problem exclusively. It’s almost an illusion that there’s nothing else to worry about. It’s funny how this works–I have a colleague who cannot handle cluttered white boards and always offers to erase mine, whereas I enjoy seeing the layers of discussions on interlacing topics.

    What I cannot tolerate in any form is dirtiness. This is straining my feelings for my lab. We have a conference room with a kitchenette. Some of my students leave a trail of dirty dishes on their desks, the conference table, etc…. a nice public record of their snack history. Others put their dishes away but seem unable to remember to wipe the conference table after they eat, so there’s hot sauce and cooking oil and crumbs when we sit down for a meeting. I’ve tried different forms of delegation and rotating responsibilities, but the norms always seems to break down. What I find weird is that these people appear to feel no embarrassment whatsoever. When I offer coffee and tea to visiting guests and can find five dirty mugs and no clean ones, and there are coffee grinds all over the counter and dried food stuck to the cupboard, I cringe.

    There are a million worse problems, but this one gets under my skin. I’m embarrassed it makes me lose a fair amount of respect for my trainees, and I hate having to nag.

  8. I’m teaching the off-semester version of a major survey course. Many of my students have commented that I have a different style in how I lecture, assess them, and in the depth of knowledge required of them that the usual instructors. Most of these comments have been positive (even though I apparently assign way more work and make them know things at a much deeper level), some have been negative (generally respectfully so). No one seems to think it is unfair.

    I always liked having instructor variability as a student. I had a couple college profs whose style really resonated with me, such that I basically took anything they offered to teach. Other friends liked other profs’ styles. It would be such a shame to lose that.

  9. I teach in a very different field (writing), with colleagues who have fewer obvious, lucrative alternatives to teaching (although all of us are no doubt employable as technical/grant writers of some wort), but I think my program would lose a significant proportion of the experienced faculty if there was a push toward less autonomy/greater standardization of sections of our multi-section course. We have course goals, and a suggested course outline, as well as guidelines on things like minimum number of pages written, feedback, opportunities for revisions, and the like, but we also have considerable freedom within those parameters, and that freedom is basically all that’s keeping a number of us sane as we teach the same course, 4 sections each semester and 2 in the summer, year in and year out. We also tend to have good ideas and pass them on to each other (and try out what seem like good ideas and report back that they didn’t work so well). In many ways, it’s a massive only slightly organized but remarkably effective ongoing pedagogical experiment, and the way to improve it would not be greater standardization, but more opportunities for participating faculty to talk to each other, present and publish about our experiences, etc., etc.

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