I’ve never thought teaching was easy. It has too many moving parts: me, the students, the content, current events, the schedule. The schedule can be crucial. It’s one thing to teach a seventy-five minute class twice a week to undergraduates, another to teach a three-hour night class to graduate students. The pacing is entirely different. A three-hour class is exhausting, and I have learned that in the chess match of life I am a knight, making short, leaping moves rather than a rook or bishop sweeping across the chessboard. That’s just the way it is and I accept it.
This week I read student evaluations from three of my courses from last semester. Evaluations are supposed to be of the course, not the professor, but they end up being popularity contests, as you might imagine. Over the years, I have gotten good at reading the comments with a critical eye and a grain of salt, trying not to rub the salt in my eye. I give more weight to those comments that come across as fair, good-willed, and serious, which are things I try to be in the classroom.
Sometimes, though, they can get personal, and when they do they are almost always negative. It happened this time as one student called me “horrible” and “unprofessional.” Now, unprofessional I can live with, because the student was referring to a scheduling change I made that was unavoidable and perfectly permissible. But the horrible comment got to me. This, even after having read other comments calling me “the best teacher” at the university and my course as “thoroughly eye opening.” It doesn’t matter, though. One rotten tomato can spoil the vine.
Students either love me or hate me. I like to think most fall into the former category, and they probably do, judging from what I hear and the friendships that have developed over the years. Still, I wonder what produces such outrage. I believe it is more than unmet expectations, which is something you’d read in a customer review on Amazon. No, this involves a sense of injustice, as if a moral line were crossed.
What moral line could that be? I can think of only one: grades. Students are very sensitive to grades and the criteria professors use to determine them. A slight discrepancy or fluctuation can cause anxiety. That anxiety is heightened when they encounter someone like me who not only grades “harshly” but who thinks out loud in the classroom and tries to get students to join him in his musings and analysis.
I know. The fault lay not in the stars but in me. Some students, even in university, need structure, so I lay the course out for them like the script of a play or the libretto of an opera. But eventually I want them to act off script, improvise, blend words and music in different ways, experiment with tonalities. All of that requires imagination.
How important is imagination in my business ethics classes? It couldn’t be more so. You might say that acting ethically requires more imagination than most things in life, especially when you consider that imagining something new (e.g., changed behavior) demands courage and initiative to make it a reality. That’s a dance many adults are not capable of, which is a major reason for the increase in scandals and cases of corruption in recent years.
Thankfully, there is an insight to be gained from being the “best teacher” and a “horrible” one at the same time. It is that teaching has its own ethic, which involves approaching it with humility and a sense of the transcendent. If I have not always done that, at least I can find comfort in the words of historian and teacher Henry Adams (1838-1918), who wrote that the “secret” of education is that it hides “behind ignorance, and one fumbles over it as feebly as ever.”
So, count me among the fumblers, which is another way of saying that they love me and love me not.
Haven’t had enough? Go to Robert Brancatelli. Photo of knights by Syed Hasan Mehdi from Pexels. Note to self: in the next business email, see how many times you can use the word “landscape.” Happy third birthday to Ryder Robert Brancatelli. The Brancatelli Blog is a member of The Free Media Alliance.