Tough Teaching

It’s that time of year again. I gave my last lecture this week before final exams and graduation. One class applauded and many in my other class came up afterward to shake my hand. I am telling you this, because this was the semester I walked out of both classes after reading students the riot act for not preparing, doing the assigned reading, or engaging in class discussions (see Hissy Fit 101). So, to get their respect all you have to do is threaten them. Who knew?

There’s been talk among educators lately about gaps in students’ backgrounds to explain why some prepare for class and others do not. The talk typically involves differences in income, resources, intellectual capital, social mobility, ethnicity, etc. I still don’t know what an educator is, and I am not convinced by their theories that would have me do cartwheels to get students’ attention. Having said that, I can remember Dr. Evan Snyder wearing a red bow tie and riding a unicycle atop a lab table in physics class at Ursinus College. But he did that as a reward for our work at the end of the semester.

There is one thing that distinguishes students from one another and determines success or failure in college, as it does in life: motivation.

There is no denying that some people are motivated from birth, or, at least, with a disposition toward being active and engaged. Others have to develop the trait as a virtue. In either case, it must be practiced so that balance is achieved. Too much motivation produces a zealot, too little a spectator. Or worse, a consumer.

I have watched students arrive late to class, pass in front of me, and plop down at their desks without laptop, notebook, or pen. Who does that other than someone who has paid their entrance fee and expects to be served? I owe them nothing more than I owe the person preceding me into a building who doesn’t have the courtesy to hold the door open. Other students can become obsessive. One sent me an email at midnight because of anxiety over an essay.

I should qualify my remarks by stating that I do not provide study guides, outlines, or extensive notes. But I don’t see that as my job; it’s the students’. If it were up to me, I would abolish syllabi and course evaluations. I post lecture notes and presentations on the course management system along with numerous resources and links for students to use in their research. But these are all acts of leading the horse to water. I can’t make the horse drink, and, more often than not, it doesn’t.

So, my last lecture was about drinking the water, which requires bending down and sticking your face into a cold stream. But that’s learning. It can be uncomfortable and messy. In fact, it ought to be uncomfortable and messy. Students should come to class not with Michael Kors accessories but Everlast boxing gloves and smelling salts, not iPads but padding.

As I wrote to one class: “…the potential to do something and actually doing it are not the same thing. You must work hard, make mistakes, fall, and get up again. That is the learning cycle. But to do that you have to stay engaged. Learning is not a half-hearted endeavor. And believe me when I tell you that you will be up against some very tough competition after graduation. It can be a tough, cynical world.” They should learn this before they get to me.

Teach your children well, people.

“Teach Your Children,” Graham Nash (Atlantic Records, 1970). Performed by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young.

Haven’t had enough? Go to Robert Brancatelli. Image Jacobus le Palmer (Jacob the Palmer; James the Palmer; Jacques le Palmer) William of Nottingham (MS Laud Misc. 165 fol. 211.) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.


  1. I had three professors pull that “come to Jesus” card at the University of Texas in the 1990s. It never gets old! They each had their unique twist on the theme.. The American History professor, modern philosophy prof, and doctor in organic chemistry. As the American history prof told us how much we sucked for being slackers unlike our “greatest generation” grandparents, he also included his account of his interview with HS Truman for emphasis and added a rant on how immoral and unfaithful John Kennedy was. The modern philosophy prof who taught us Hume, Kant, Descartes, Leibniz, and Spinoza kept it empirically simple and just chucked a piece of chalk at the wall x 2. The Chemistry doc was also a baker ..

  2. Ok. Yes. This is my entertainment tonight, so what! Just saying. Love that song. C, S, N, and Y!
    Lyrics + guitars = poignant. Bravo, genius selection. I laughed I cried, I felt understood.
    I was all, like, “Whoa,” and stuff.
    Cheers, mate.

  3. I like the, “Can confirm, recovering Brancatelli student.” funny.

    But I have no idea what, “The man has no F#@k$ to give students. 😀” means..

    It sounds good though.

  4. Can confirm, recovering Brancatelli student.

    The man has no F#@k$ to give students. 😀

    On Sun, May 7, 2017 at 7:00 AM, The Brancatelli Blog wrote:

    > Robert Brancatelli posted: “It’s that time of year again. I gave my last > lecture this week before final exams and graduation. One class applauded > and many in my other class came up afterward to shake my hand. I am telling > you this, because this was the semester I walked out of both ” >

  5. Robert, we have commiserated together on this. Well said.

    FYI, I had to resubscribe to your blog, was all of f a sudden not getting them regularly. It appears you have revamped things a bit, and I do like the clean look. Vic

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