Saturday, October 12, 2013

TMI from Professors

This article, which has been making the facebook rounds among some of my colleagues, strikes me as a useful companion piece to the tale of Ice Cream Man below, and to Monkey's description of some SLAC's expectations for proffie-student socializing (with follow-up by Cal).  There are a number of limitations to/potential problems with the study (many of them apparently acknowledged by the authors), but I'd love to see more research in this vein, preferably focused on the connection between professorial credibility (i.e. allowing/encouraging professors to act like adults whose interests, experiences, and behavior are clearly distinct from those of their students) and student learning.  At the very least, this seems like a research trend that might be useful corrective to the current emphasis on personal connections as the key to student engagement. 

The flava:
Professors who want to establish classroom connections with their students receive lots of advice. And some experts have over the years advised the use of "self-disclosure," telling students stories about themselves, using self-deprecating humor as a way to make students feel comfortable and to view the instructor as an ally.
Ignore that advice. . . .
 Based on the surveys, the paper argues that students are least likely to engage in uncivil behavior when they view the instructor as having high levels of "credibility," meaning that through actions and nonverbal cues, the instructor conveys command of the material and the class, a sense of knowing what should be going on in class, and so forth. When students have that confidence level, they are more likely to pay attention.


  1. It seems to me that this need not be an either/or situation. I think that there are ways to both demonstrate a command of the materials and the class, and to also humanize yourself in a way that students can relate to.

    I tend to err on the side of the former, and I like to present myself not only as an authority on the material itself, but also as someone who is committed to being professional, and who expects professional behavior from the students. Still, once I sense that they take me seriously, and that I've established a certain formal distance, there are times where I'm happy to drop in some self-deprecating humor, or tell a personal story that relates to some aspect of what we're doing in class.

    As a man, and one with above-average physical stature and a loud and commanding voice, I think I have something of an advantage from the start. I benefit from the fact that men tend to be accorded more respect and authority in our society than women, and also from the fact that perception of mastery can be as important as actual mastery in eliciting students' deference.

    I have never had any serious behavioral problems in my classes, beyond the little annoying things like students texting, but I've heard some troubling stories from colleagues whose classes contain essentially the same mix of students as my classes. More often than not, these colleagues are women.

    Some of my female colleagues are very good at establishing their authority in their classes, but it seems to me that, when the professor is a man, deference on the part of students seems to be more a default position, whereas women need to take active steps to head off rudeness and promote engagement. Talking to my female friends in academia, I also get the sense that the gender issue is even more pronounced if the woman in question is (or appears) relatively young. Many of the women I know dress in suits or jackets, and some have explicitly told me that they do this to reinforce their distance and authority in the classroom.

    1. You've nailed the main problem I've always had: being a young-ish female (even though I've been teaching for 15 years, I don't appear much older than my students sometimes). I'm small in stature, small in voice, and come from a country where women do not hold equal rights to men and are expected to serve them. This means that during Week One of the quarter, I have to go out of my way to put the fear of the professor into them. It's not hard to do if one simply walks in and acts like she owns the room (which I do), but it took me a few years to cultivate that persona.

      That doesn't mean I'm not personable and don't share silly things I do with the class. I am personable and self disclose about my personal life. But I also know my shit and let them know that I know my shit on no uncertain terms. So I agree that it doesn't have to be an either-or proposition.

    2. I'm with you, CC, though thankfully from a culture where women are supposedly equal. When I started teaching, I looked young enough that the parking cops hassled me about using the faculty lot. These days my grey hair dispels that notion (the rest of me being, of course, jailbait), but now I guess I look motherly to the little brxxx dears. My Week One costume features tall boots with loud heels and a suit jacket, and I assign homework about following directions that is late (i.e., not accepted) 1 minute after class starts the second day. Those who choose to remain in the class start seeing the personable, occasionally even wacky me around Week Three, but if they start speculating or arguing over the facts, I philosophize rings around them until they have no answer.

      I feel vindicated by the OP's linked article. Unlike most of my departmental colleagues, I introduce myself as Professor Galore and shut down attempts to call me by my first name. One formerly close friend (recently called "jackass" and "loser" in CM comments) has told me that I'm intimidating and drive students away from our discipline, whereas he wants to be "inviting" and "nonjudgmental" so he gives equal weight to all contributions in a discussion. Funny how that "inviting" business works: I've had at least 6 offspring of colleagues and deans enroll (and do well) in my classes, while JL hasn't had any.

    3. PG: the profflakes use any excuse to find an explanation for their own incompetence. We have our own VERY personable colleague who does no work. And the students mock this person openly by sharing details about this profflake's life. He has become a meme on our internal webs. One recent posting had a pic of him with the caption: "I don't teach you anything relevant unless it refers to my own life." So while the sharing of personal info makes one less intimidating, it doesn't always work well if that's ALL people are doing. I think sometimes academics suffer from not knowing how to be social in a normal way. I know I do. :)

  2. The advice "connect to the students on a human level" (by disclosing personal tidbits, etc.) is usually given in the context of improving student evaluations. Establishing credibility (per the quote) is supposed to lead to improved attention in class, hence learning. These are disjoint goals, in many cases conflicting ones.

    I have no problem with "credibility", I don't have to do anything special. The question "confidence in instructor's knowledge" on eval forms always gets me my highest marks. Even on the LosersRatetheirProfs site, scathing comments about me are peppered with "he is clearly a genius" (WTF? How would they know?) Does that make them work harder? Maybe those who would do the work regardless. For the others, it's a turnoff. Whatever it is I'm "projecting", if anything I need to tone it down a bit. That's hard. (What do I do? Not show them the short, clever solution, and stick to the plodding one?)

    I've tried the "sharing personal tidbits" thing, with small classes of majors. I think it backfired (in terms of evals), do you know why? Because every personal detail beings home how different my background is from theirs; they can't have any idea of what I was doing when I was their age, and even my son (who is their age) has a completely different educational situation. Where I am (almost entirely in-state student body, Deep South), this "being different" is not viewed positively by many students, and I'm convinced there's a fraction who thinks there's something very wrong with someone so "not like themselves" making their lives miserable.

    Recently I had to skip a couple of lectures (a colleague covered for me) due to a family health emergency, and I decided to let the class know, without any details. Later it was pointed out to me that this was a "humanizing" thing. A student even asked about it when I returned. I don't like it, this kind of "personal sharing" shouldn't be an expected part of the interaction at all. I like the distance, and I think they like it, too.

    1. I've seen some of my colleagues attempt to "share personal tidbits" that don't work BECAUSE of precisely what you've said here: that the students are so far removed from the prof's reality that the prof has used an example that widens that gap. This is often also followed or preceded by a condescending "When I was your age..."

  3. Aristotle's physics may have been terrible, but I think his advice on moderation in all things was spot-on. Ever since I was an undergraduate, I've regarded "connecting to the students on a human level" to be something like a rich dessert: a little of it can be delightful, but more than a little of it can be sickening. To unmix the metaphor: don't drabble on about your personal life, or you'll come off as a doddering old coot, because quite possibly you'll be one.

    1. I had a professor in college who taught not a whiff of history, but whose personal life I could tell you all about to this day. I'm still angry about that.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.