Friday, July 22, 2011

"Oh! What do you teach?": Yet Another Thirsty

We've had possession of our new house for a few days now and I've been diligently working to clean and paint it. All the new appliances are in and I'm waiting on the flooring. This heat wave has been hitting hard and the grass is on the verge of death. So I went out yesterday evening to hand water (I'm hoping a new irrigation system comes when my dad visits).

While I was watering I met one of my new neighbors, Anne. She's a nice retired lady who lives next door. Of course, one of the first things that anyone asks is, "What do you do?" The question was asked and I gave my usual nondescript answer, "I'm a professor at [very well respected university in town]." I don't like being more specific than that since it seems to make people a little uncomfortable. I get lots of "I was really good at Algebra/Physics in high school" or "My son/daughter was really good at Algebra/Physics in high school" or worse yet "I hate math/science. I always liked art/reading/PE". (I'm not trying to insult the humanities proffies here. I'm just stating an observation I've made over the years).

Anne was absolutely delighted that I (a woman!) was a college professor and she was even more delighted when she found out I was in the natural sciences. It was a very unusual reaction I must admit. But perhaps she had some socially unfulfillable dreams in her life that are realized in today's society. After she returned to the air conditioning I thought about what a nice exchange it actually was. I couldn't put my finger on the reason. But then it hit me. She didn't ask, "What do you teach?" after she found out I was a mathy type.

My experience has been as follows:
Joe Schmoe: What do you do?
Me: I'm a professor at [very well respected university in town.]
Joe: What is your field?
Me: Math.
Joe: Oh! What do you teach?

That last question always throws me. I'm not sure what is meant by it. On the one hand it could be that since I'm a youthful woman that I must not teach "real" math since I wouldn't be qualified. On the other hand it could be that people think that we only ever teach one or two courses in our lives or that there are only one or two math courses beyond high school math. Either way I'm not sure how to answer. I don't want to be a prick and say I'm qualified to teach it all but I also don't want to imply that I only every teach 12th grade/freshmen courses.

The fact is that university teaching these days is getting more and more remedial. Easily 50-66% of our courses are Calculus or below (this is probably mostly because math is service department). I'll pretty much always have to teach a business calc or math for math haters course but I usually get spoon full of sugar to help the medicine go down. So my answer to Joe's last question varies from term to term.

Q: Do you get that last question, too? Or is it just a question young looking, 115 lb, blond women get? Or is it just a math thing? How do you answer it without sounding like a prick or remediation specialist?


  1. I guarantee it has nothing to do with your gender, as I am male and get the question as well. I have no idea if it is a math thing.

    From what I can tell, they think that, like some (many?) high school teachers, that each prof teaches a specific course (or two), and then they teach that same course every year.

    In any case, I've come to answer it with "different things each semester" or "whatever needs to be taught." It seems that this basic fact about our jobs is completely unknown to the general public.

    I must admit that the question never fails to confuse me for a split second, as I am of course thinking "I just said 'math.' Weren't you listening?"

  2. I'm neither in math nor science, and I get the sane questions, as well. I doubt the average person is really asking about level of courses but rather--as mathesian suggested--don't understand how much variability there is in what college professors teach, nor how much depth and breadth there can be in our areas of teaching expertise. So when you say "math," they probably are wondering if that means you teach geometry or algebra, like their hs teachers did--never imagining you could be teaching both and more.

  3. I get asked that as well. My answer depends upon whether I got up on the ornery side of the bed, in which case I'll start rattling off the nine courses I teach each year.

    But for the most part, I view that question as more of an acknowledgment that my subject area Involves a broad range of possibilities.

  4. I get asked this about English, which I think is also as self-explanatory as Math (in terms of answering what we teach, but by no means as self-explanatory as having to actually understand it!), and since I am female teaching a subject that is expected of my gender, I think they're just curious when they ask what I teach.

    I usually get: "Oh, I hated that!" when I tell people what I teach. But I actually prefer being asked what I teach rather than people assuming that if I teach English, it must mean I teach Grammar or Shakespeare (not that there's anything wrong with that, but it's what people often seem to assume English entails, and that's not what I teach).

    I always answer by specifying in terms they would understand (I assume) by stating that I teach a variety of writing courses and a few literature courses. If they are really curious, they press further. If not, that answer seem to suffice.

  5. I always say I teach "writing." I get asked what kind sometimes and I say, "All kinds."

  6. I get the same question and I hate it. I don't want to break it to them that there is no way they will find my subject matter interesting, even though it's pretty central to my field. So I try to break it to them in laymen's terms, and sometimes they are interested, but not for the reason my research is important.

    My partner laughs at me for trying to make it sexy. I always use the same line while he sniggers behind his hand. I think it's a town v gown thing more than a math or gender thing -- although I sympathize with you for having the sexism detector on high alert. It's pretty awful out there.

  7. Boy, this is an easily-offended group of people.

    I get the same question; I simply tell them the names of the courses I'm teaching or about to teach. They are welcome to find it interesting, or not.

    But it never occurred to me that their intent would be to demean or offend.

  8. Yeah, I'm with DrDoctorDr. I'm an English proffie, so "what do you teach" leads to me describing my field and subfield. Then inquirers usually ask what books. I think they are mostly wanting to bond with me about authors or books. But because my field is before Contemporary Lit, they often said "I read that in high school and hated it." I get to say it's different at the college level. Then we move on.

  9. I respond straightforwardly, and then usually get the (perfectly reasonable) question, "Really? How'd you get interested in THAT?" I still haven't come up with a satisfactory response ("I don't know" is the most honest one, I suppose).

  10. I third DrDoctorDr's comment. If I respond with the name of my department (such as "math" or "Biology" or "English"), it seems perfectly reasonable for anyone who went to college themselves to be aware that there are different courses and sub-specialties within each department, and that not every prof teaches every course.

    I take it as a sign of interest that they are curious about my subfield. I find the challenge is trying to guess how specific to get. If I just say "basketweaving" will that sound like I'm implying they wouldn't understand the details? Or if I say, "Pine needle harvesting practices of Tarahumara basket weavers during the Little Ice Age" will they think I'm talking over their heads and putting on airs?

  11. And a fourth on D3's comment. I'd even add that there are equivalents to the "oh I hated math" answer for other disciplines. I've noticed, for example, that when Mrs Archie tells a civilian that she is an English professor, at least 66% of the time that person responds "oh, please don't correct my grammar." It is never funny, but they apparently never get tired of saying it either.

    As for the problem of "what do you teach?" it can also break in very funny ways. I have made the occasional talking head appearance on the History Channel, PBS, and the like. So after seeing me on the tube, my barber, a nice Iranian man, sat me down in the chair, said "hey you the history guy" and proceeded to spend the next thirty minutes grilling me about the Sassanids and asking me why nobody cares about them anymore. To say that I know fuck all about the Sassanids would probably be a kindness to me, but I was "the history guy" and my barber was unwilling to accept that I didn't know everything there was to know about them.

    The lesson: civilians have little or no idea what the fuck it is we do, and hilarity is always going to ensue as a result. You've got to take it in stride.

  12. I'm an English professor who pretty closely resembles at least some people's idea of an English professor (or perhaps some sort of K-12 teacher, or a clergywoman from a fairly liberal denomination, or a stay-at-home mom with some sort of mostly-online side business): middle-aged, conventionally feminine, but not much concerned with appearing "professional" (never mind that most of the other English professors I know, female or male, are considerably less frumpy). I get the "what do you teach?" (or the somewhat more sophisticated "what's your field?") question pretty often, and, in each case, I answer "I'm a specialist in [insert quite region/period/genre/theme specific field of literature here], but I mostly teach composition." I occasionally get the "please don't correct my grammar" reaction Archie mentions, or some version of "I was awful at English," but usually the conversation continues with them saying something about how important good writing skills are, and either asking me if students are getting worse, or declaring that they're having more and more trouble finding new hires with good writing skills. In response, I share my impressions, and/or ask them questions designed to find out exactly what it is that they wish their employees could do better (proofread, of course, but it's usually more substantive than that), and we go from there. I actually find such conversations quite useful (but I'd probably be more watchful if I were in a gender-atypical field).

  13. Yeah, I agree with D3 and the rest. She's demonstrating that she understands that there's more than one flavor of math. That's a good thing.

    If I were Darla, I'd say, "I teach students to write with their feet. That's how Shakespeare did it, after all." but that's just my style.

  14. I recently graduated in Soc. from a SLAC in Eastern Canada. Most of the Profs there teach specific subjects within their faculty. One Professor only taught Theory, Media and a few other particular courses. Another only taught a course in aging and research/methodology. So if they told me they were Professors of Sociology and I asked them "what did they teach" it is a given that they could teach everything within the discipline, but they focus their teaching on their areas of interest or research or expertise. I would not mean the question to insinuate anything other than taking an interest on what those particular areas were of interest to THEM.

  15. On a related note, when someone responds to my declaration that I have devoted my career to mathematics with "I hate math," I tell them that I hate whatever they do too. That shit is rude.

    When someone says they are not good at math, I tell them that most people aren't, at least based on the number of people who tell me so. (I wonder if they realize that I'm making a silly joke rather than being arrogant?)

  16. I'm in the humanities and I get these questions too. Be happy you don't get two even worse options: the bland, bored stare or the, "So what grade do you teach?" I get both of these with great frequency. I gather there are many who don't know what the word "college" means.

    I'm always amazed when people proudly announce that they failed my subject in high school. It's bad enough if they tell me they hate it, which is indeed very rude, but to brag about having failed it is not exactly a good way to keep a convivial conversation rolling.

  17. Heh, I'm probably someone who would ask a question like that. Usually, it's just to make conversation, and what I think people would mean when they ask a question like that, is whether you teach algebra or calculus or whatnot.

  18. Yes, English people get these questions all the time too. I never take offense because I know the public's perception of us, at least based on what I've read in the press lately, is that we are all teaching 1-2 courses a year in some arcane subspecialty (maybe Plays Shakespeare Wrote while Weaving Baskets Underwater) and then spending the rest of our time writing stupid articles for dusty journals that only eggheads read.

    I always tell them that as a community college professor, I teach up to six courses a term that could be anything from developmental English to freshman comp to just about any kind of literature they can think of. That usually leads to "But what's your specialty?" I then tell them what my degrees are in and which courses I prefer to teach, which satisfies most people.

  19. When I tell them I teach English, I often get the response of, "Whoa! I need to watch what I say around you, right?"

    I always answer, "Yes, you do. I'm taking notes, compiling a file, and notifying the authorities."

    If they laugh, I know I've met people whose brains are warped like mine. If not, I smile and say, "Just kidding."

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  21. When asked what I teach, I give them a specific list of the courses I teach. Hey, they did ask. This includes the big introductory astronomy class for non-majors every semester, as well as intermediate courses for engineers, and specialized upper-level courses in astronomy for science majors. They usually eat it up.

    When asked what I do, I tell them I'm a professor of astronomy (at my locally well-known university). They say, "Cool!"

    More often than I'd like, they then ask me for a horoscope. Invariably, they want it for free.

    I never tell them I teach physics. People will literally get up and run away if I do that. If they give me, "I hated physics," I give them,


    If for any reason I don't want to talk to them (like for example, they've just asked me for a horoscope), I tell them, "nuclear astrophysics." It works great.

  22. Like Mathesian hinted, they equate us with k-12 teachers and have no idea that we do anything else. I think we've commented on that myth before.

    I've given up reporting my discipline because everyone thinks it's equivalent to psychotherapy.

    My stock answer? "Apparently nothing."

  23. Try NOT having a teaching gig.

    "I work in Student Services at the College."
    "Oh. What do you teach?"

    My usual answer: "I don't teach a subject. I'm in Student Services."
    What I want to answer: "Well, I TRY to teach critical thinking, listening skills, and self-sufficiency but that usually doesn't work out."

  24. I love you, Froderick.

    When they ask what I do, I say I'm an anthropologist. Then they often reply one of two ways:

    "Oh, I always wanted to be an anthropologist!"
    "So did I!"
    "So why did you become an anthropologist?"


    "So what do you teach?"
    "Mostly human evolution."
    "So you haven't accepted Jesus Christ as your personal savior?"

  25. @mathesian - seriously, that shit IS rude. next time, try kicking them in the nuts instead.


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