Monday, January 21, 2013

am I the only one?

English: The first lecture in Experimental Phi...
English: The first lecture in Experimental Philosophy, which took place in London in 1748. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I sometimes wonder, when I read the posts here, if I'm the only one on this blog who feels incompetent at this job.  Not just when I've got a new preparation and it's a constant scramble to come up with a lecture that sounds halfway competent with material I barely know (or don't know at all, to be honest).  Even with a course I've taught before, I constantly feel as if there is so much that I don't know, that I haven't read, that I should have read and digested and thought about before I pretended to know anywhere near enough to teach the class.  And then there's the constant panic, before a class, as I try to pull together a lecture without enough time to do it;  no matter how much time I left for myself to prepare there's always the frantic last-minute dash...

I thought, when I first started teaching, that this would wear off eventually. It doesn't.  It hasn't.  It's been many years now.  I always feel this way.  I'm really kinda tired of it.  Is this just me?
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25 comments:

  1. I find it takes me 5-8 hours of preparation for every hour of class time for any class I haven't taught before. After this, it takes me 2-3 times to run the class before it goes smoothly, and 1-2 hours of preparation per hour of class time to keep the class current.

    Beyond this, you may be describing "Imposter's Syndrome," which is very common in academics, even (and particularly) the most successful ones. I believe that most of them get it, and this goes a long way to explaining why they act the way they do.

    I am in the minority who don't get it. This is partly because I wanted to be an astronomer since I was five years old. My girlfriend, who is a singer, also doesn't get it, partly because she wanted to be a singer since she was three. Another reason I don't get it is because I'm an astronomer first and an academic second; my girlfriend isn't an academic at all. Another reason I don't get it is that I was always the smartest kid in my classes, until I got to college, but I got over it because the students who were smarter than me at that point wanted to be theoretical physicists, something I regard as a fine thing to do when I get too old to be a real-life Indiana Jones.

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  2. On the other hand, you may just be a perfectionist. I deal with that just by having a sense of being good
    -enough-. But then, if I had smarter or less apathetic students, they might be able to call me on where I deemed something good enough. That, of course, is the essence of science: I often worry that the next generation will be destroyed by the engines we have unleashed, because they simply cannot understand them. Or maybe they'll muddle along, like in "Idiocracy." Just great.

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  3. I do get impostor syndrome of a sort. And I get it worse in the lab than in the classroom. In the classroom, every now and then a bright student will stump me with a question about the details (something the rest of the class doesn't worry about if they just want to know what they have to know). As long as I make sure to go through my class notes well enough before lecture, I usually don't screw up anything central, and the bright students are usually happy to let me look up the more detailed answers and get back to them.

    But in the lab - the research side of my life as a proffie - "The Fear" has been a common companion. It's usually a fear of not 'making the cut' at the next stage (gettign hired, getting tenure, getting promoted). As I've gotten older (and thankfully made the cut for tenure) Impostor syndrome has changed somewhat for me. I've developed enough confidence to know what I know and what I don't, so I'm less worried that I'm not as 'smart' as I ought to be. Now I mostly just worry about the next new 'benchmark' or 'metric' the adminflakes bring down the pipe. These are always worrying, but they are less threatening to my sense of myself as a scientist. I feel less like an impostor, and more like I'm surrounded by unrealistic expectations.

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    1. Classroom demos and labs are indeed prime opportunities to look like a fool in front of your students, when they don't work. To avoid this, keep it simple, practice them beforehand, and say, "Fuck it!" snappily when they really don't work: the students eat it up.

      I too lived with "the Fear" for 14 years, from my last year of grad school through the postdoc years to being an Accursed Visiting Assistant Professpr to finally getting tenure. I suffered for my art, and now it's my students' turn. One thing that helped a lot was knowing that if I couldn't be a professional astronomer, I could always still be an amateur astronomer. As Galileo noted when the Inquisition was giving him a hard time, "For I have loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night."

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  4. Here's your answer: Don't care more about their education than they do.

    By the way, what was your question again?

    Just kidding. I hope these ideas help.

    You mention that you prepare lectures on topics that you know nothing about. When I've tried to include topics from other subjects that relate tangentially to the lecture topic, I also get nervous. That's good. It's an expression of humility.

    I work with people who are I would swear know much more chemistry than I do. Yet, when I look at my department's performance in teaching quality and research, I'm not near the bottom. Although academics value knowledge above all else, there are other characteristics that make an academic successful (though there are lots of routes to success).

    My third thought about this issue is that I'm comfortable acknowledging that I don't know everything. Maybe that diminishes my drive to learn more but it keeps my from feeling mentally inadequate.

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  5. Well, yeah, I know all this very well. And one thing that has proved consistently true is that I have been reading longer than my students, even the grads, and so I turn out to know more after all. I occasionally get an evaluation praising my "encyclopedic" knowledge of this or that, and crack up, because in my head is a list of books I have not read, concepts I'm not sure I fully understand, words I'm not sure how to pronounce, and so on.

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  6. Very interesting question. For me there's a huge difference between undergraduate and graduate teaching (math).

    For undergraduates, until quite recently I used to think courses from first principles--content and presentation--and base the course on handouts, since basically all textbooks I know that can be used in the USA (written since the 1970s) are crap. But students hate that, and the dept doesn't support it (U. of Bumfuck State). So I'm back to just doing the trivial things found in standard textbooks, and that I can do off the top of my head, on autopilot (except for having to check which stupid approach/notation the text uses.)

    At the graduate level, it's a different story altogether; especially if it's a topics course, since I'm usually doing it to learn the details of the stuff myself. There I do have to work things out by myself, since the most recent material (meaning 10 years old) is often not available in clear or complete form. That's fun to do, but takes a lot of time (and is not really research). Sometimes I run out of time and have to talk about something before I completely understand it. Then I have to do what I know, and leave out some details "to be explained later". Or I thought I understood something, but then realize mid-lecture that a detail is missing, and have to work it out on the spot if I can. I don't worry about it too much, though. There's some value in showing graduate students that math is not neat and polished when it's being understood.

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    1. Some research in Math Education seems to show that problem solving by experts is 'messy' - paths taken and abandoned, mistakes made, found, and corrected - and that neither textbook authors nor the expert problem solvers seem willing to admit it, preferring to pretend that good problems solvers see a clean clear path from beginning to end and follow it unerringly.

      An anecdote: a (math) colleague asked another math colleague to talk-aloud-solve a somewhat complicated math problem 'cold' in front of his math education class, to show the math ed students the complex set of speculations and decisions an expert problem solver makes while solving. The other math prof declined because he KNEW that his problem solving was 'messy' and was ashamed of the messiness, even though the research is showing that 'messy' is how ALL the experts do it.

      I would rather show a class 'real' problem solving than prepared examples, in order that they see and have confidence that the 'messy' process is normal.

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  7. Many competent, well-prepared, caring, dedicated, and diligent faculty suffering from “imposter syndrome” teaching mostly and increasingly incompetent students suffering from the Dunning-Kruger effect (that is, overemphasizing positive traits and under emphasizing and at times even denying weaknesses) sums up where I teach nowadays.

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  8. The short answer is No, you're not the only one.

    I have spent the past 3 weeks rejiggering a course I haven't taught in 4 years. The stuff is coming back to me, but slowly.

    You do know more than they do, so just keep swimming.

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  10. In my experience, the most talented among my colleagues are plagued with self-doubt, while the mediocre ones positively radiate self-assurance.

    If you're an honest, thoughtful teacher...hell, if you're just paying attention, you probably spend a significant amount of time worried about what you're doing. I worry that I'm asking to little of my students in some areas, that I'm asking too much in others, that my methods of assessment fuck with their intellectual habits. And that's just skimming the surface of my anxiety.

    The interesting thing about being in academics is that I am very confident about the scathing contempt I have for the incompetence of most of my school's administration. I'm confident that I'm better at my job than they are at theirs.

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    1. See, and I have at least one spelling error in my post above. That's good for about thirty minutes of crushing self-doubt about teaching others.

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    2. I'm curious about the reference to your students' intellectual habits. What is this that you speak of?

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  11. When confronted with new material - which happens to me a lot (at my old job, I taught well outside of my field in terms of geography and chronology, and in my new job, I'm in an interdisciplinary department where I teach material that's not even really in my discipline of study) - I just remind myself that my PhD was as much about process and figuring out how to learn and present new ideas as it was about any particular idea or set of facts. At the end of the day, I can teach the material because I'm better (at least the vast majority of the time) than my students at reading, at understanding an argument, at using evidence. If I approach the material from the position of an outsider, then I may be better able to help them understand it as well. I often find that teaching and lecturing in my specific field of study is much more difficult now because I have a tendency to get bogged down in the details that make my work really interesting to me, but which are lost on the vast majority of my students. It doesn't make the knot in my stomach go away, but re-framing the problem has helped me with dealing with imposter syndrome.

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  13. Wow... there are a lot of mathematics people around... I'm just going to sit over in my corner with my imposter syndrome.

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  14. Great question, MA. I'll add my name to the list of those above who say "me too." I hope you find some solace in realizing you are not alone. I've been heartened by everyone's responses above, and I'm so glad you posted this. Thank you.

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  15. I teach history at a second- or third-tier (depending on who you ask) state university.

    I'm not really prone to "imposter syndrome," but if I were, I think that the best cure for it would be stepping into a classroom. Nothing reinforces my confidence in my own knowledge and understanding more than interaction with my students, because they know so little, and in many cases are so uninterested in learning, that I seem like a veritable colossus of erudition by comparison.

    I get complaints on my student evaluations about how I require too much reading, and how my classes are "too hard for a 100-level course." And students make such comments even when I use a fairly straightforward and easy-to-read textbook, and when the ideas and concepts that I expect them to know are basic and fundamental to an understanding of the time and place we are studying.

    For me, the most frustrating thing about classroom teaching is not that I don't know enough, but that so much of what I know, especially in terms of complex ideas and historical connections, has to remain stuck in my head and not raised in class, because so many of the students have trouble simply understanding the textbook and grasping the most basic concepts.

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    1. I think "Colossus of Erudition" should be your new screen name.

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  16. Teaching is all an illusion. If you don't believe in your ability to cast that illusion, the teaching will wobble. It's not about the content but about the way you express it. Don't worry about being slightly wrong. Rely on student-generated knowledge. And pretend it's a big show with $100 tickets.

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