Professors who aspire to be teachers

Like nursing, teaching implies selfless maternalism. We imagine the underpaid young elementary school teacher, spending her weekends and salary to buy construction paper and flash cards, compelled, like a mother, from sheer devotion to her young charges. “Professor,” by contrast, is a decidedly manly word, and connotes, not service, but authority and expertise. Young people flock to sit at his feet, even if he is quirky and distant, because they admire him and are drawn to his genius. Is it any wonder that many professors balk at being referred to as mere “teachers”?

In a society that has long feminized, denigrated and devalued the teacher and that is now energetically denigrating and devaluing the professor, we have an ever more complicated relationship to these labels. Here on the Virtual Pedagogue, I regularly slip between “teacher,” “instructor,” and “professor,” not from sloppiness (usually), but because I resist solidifying my own self understanding into any one of these labels. I aim to use these terms intentionally, both to call attention to the similarities and differences among all of us who do this sort of work, and to subtly challenge stereotypes that surround them.

“Instructor” is perhaps the most generic and seems to apply to anyone habitually engaged in showing another how to do something, be it to fly a plane or solve quadratic equations. It’s a sterile word, without the ethical import of the other two, but can be useful when emphasizing functional commonalities, say, among teaching assistants, tenured professors, and high school coaches. Despite the trend of diminishing respect for higher ed, “professor” is a status word, weighed down by advanced degrees, heady scholarship, and a workload that may actually include no instruction whatsoever. Though “teacher” is, perhaps, the most common word, I also find it to be the most nuanced, rich and attractive.

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When I refer to those who’ve helped me change my life — for example, the passionate, brilliant women with whom I studied yoga in Minnesota — I call them my teachers. It’s one way I (lovingly) highlight that I didn’t primarily learn facts or strategies from them, but, rather, was supported in developing my whole self. So, when at some jagged point in my own pedagogical career I felt called to work more holistically with my students, I experienced a dramatic shift of consciousness and my labor became both more humble and momentous. It was, I determined, my serious and joyful responsibility to support students on their human journey while disguised as a feminist philosophy professor discussing Kant.

I am, then, both despite and partly because of its feminized humility, quite taken with the term “teacher,” though I appreciate the other ones too. When I get my hair cut at a new salon, I answer the “what do you do?” question with “professor.” I am happy to help dispel stereotypes about women’s work by claiming the full measure of my teetering professional status. But in the realest beating heart of my life, I am happiest and proudest being a teacher, sitting alongside my students, trying to find even one small way that our time together might make us all more inquisitive, daring, and demanding of ourselves and one another.

The undefended professor: the power and limits of vulnerability

The recent revival of the “me too” campaign, in which zillions of women came out as survivors of sexual harassment or assault, was a reminder of the power of vulnerability. The cumulative force of victims breaking silence promised to transform vulnerability and shame, at least for a moment, into collective power and pride. Vulnerability as a pedagogical tool, though less dramatic, also has great potential power, though I remind myself to be scrupulously attentive to my motives and expectations while practicing it.

Maturing into my profession has brought me more confidence and a greater sense of belonging. As a young professor, and a white woman in a white man’s field, I was often insecure, and sometimes suffered from imposter syndrome. Perhaps inevitably, my shaky sea legs sometimes led me to be a bit rigid in the classroom and in my scholarly conclusions. To be sure, my insecurity was justified. Like many young women professors, I was often judged both by students and coworkers more harshly than my male colleagues were. Vulnerability, then, comes at a higher price for some of us than for others.


As a mature professor, I more naturally experience myself as working with my students on the same plane, framing us all as “class colleagues.” I can explicitly enact strategies of vulnerability, though not with perfect success. For example, on occasions when I’ve given a grade that could be a point or two higher, I’ve humbly agreed to change it at a student’s reasoned request. Sometimes this has produced a deeper connection, as (I imagine) the student comes to better appreciate our shared humanity and my intellectual flexibility. Other times, though, the student has decided I am gravely fallible, and embarked on a semester-long campaign to nickel and dime me for more points. Even very small displays of vulnerability, then, may open the door to opportunistic encroachments.

Of course, students are not really better off on this score. For example, while some underprepared students try to bluster and bullshit their way through discussions and exams, others openly acknowledge their shortcomings and knowledge gaps. Professors and students may appreciate and respect such displays of vulnerability, of course, but they may also see them as confirming stereotypes of incompetence, especially if the student is from an underrepresented group. We may, in the abstract, wish for a world in which students and professors could more courageously and maturely embody vulnerability, but in the real world — based so often on competition, judgment, and systematic hierarchy — the rewards and risks are mixed.


We all know how it goes. We decide to open ourselves, unprotected and undefensive, to a friend or relative, bravely acknowledging a misstep, hoping they will accept the invitation and become similarly vulnerable with us. Instead, they seize upon whatever mistake we have acknowledged and leverage it as further justification for their own righteously held grievances against us. A display of vulnerability, however sincerely offered, may well be used against us by self-protective others. If I rely on vulnerability instrumentally, then, as a mere tool to get others to treat me more fairly and humanely, I may well find myself dangling from a cross. I’ll probably end up even angrier at them and also feeling like a sap.

I’m not, of course, arguing against our being vulnerable in ways that feel right to us, just reminding myself not to do so hoping to achieve some particular outcome. If we bare our naked breasts to the world, we may well be rewarded with authentic connection and newfound respect. But we may also be run through with angry spears. And this is, perhaps, the true power of vulnerability, not that we can reliably use it to get others to behave better or like us more — they may or may not — but as an ethical expression of our own deeply felt connection to other fragile creatures, beings who may never be willing to embrace their own fallibility and imperfections. Happily, few of the spears are real, and so most of the wounds we suffer are merely to our preciously guarded pride.

Self-reflection, self-deception, and the allure of the enlightened self

If there were one quality I could better cultivate in myself and encourage in others, it would be an enriched capacity for self-reflection. Nearly every rash, petty, or otherwise unskillful thing I’ve done, and watched others do, seems to be rooted, at least partly, in poor self-awareness. Given the raging popularity of all things navel gazingly mindful, I am in good company in believing in the life changing power of this kind of attention.

Still, it can be hard to pin down precisely what self-reflection means, partly because of how diluted and trendy the notion has become. As with our ability to drive a car — pretty much all of us think we’re “above average” drivers — we overestimate our skill and commitment to self-reflection. Discussions about greater self-understanding, then, can easily become focused on what other people need to do and not on one’s own deficits. And, paradoxically, it is this relentless blaming of others that most dramatically reveals one’s own blunted capacity for self-reflection.

As I understand it, self-reflectiveness is an aspect of mindfulness that has us gently, intentionally, and repeatedly turning our gaze inward to non-judgmentally acknowledge and explore our motives, assumptions, and expectations. It’s a practice that has us take some responsibility, not just for our internal feelings and beliefs, but also for aspects of the objective world that we shape and distort through the subjective lenses we bring to it. The unreflective person, then, is a consummate victim of circumstances, always blaming others and the world for wherever she finds herself.


And, of course, self-reflection demands not just an inward turn, but scrupulous honesty about what is found there. So, for example, several years after a series of catastrophic personal losses — including the death of my mother — I was able to notice and take responsibility for my own developing romance with suffering. What I saw wasn’t a healthy, cleansing grief, but an incipient attachment to a “poor me” (and “why me?”) identity that gradually threatened to become my way of being in the world. When I look inward, I do not always like what I see, and it takes courage I don’t always have to tell the truth about that. It takes even greater courage to, as one of my teachers urges, “tell the truth about whether or not you are telling the truth.”

Human beings lie all the time, of course. We lie to save money, to feel important and to spare peoples’ feelings. But self-deception is not as well explored. A woman lies because she did not take the time, or perhaps even know how, to locate and inspect her feelings. A man fails to promote social justice because he cannot (and will not) acknowledge the actual power and freedom he could bring to bear. The truly perverse part may well be that we also conspire with others to overlook one another’s self-deceptions. We agree, in the language of one of my teachers, “to support one another’s stories” as a condition of friendship. So, for example, we nod in sympathy at the spendthrift friend who complains constantly about lacking money, and also when an astonishingly rude acquaintance complains about other peoples’ manners. Friendly “politeness” turns out to be an agreement to support the self-deceptions most of us rely on to maintain our fragilely constructed selves.

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We professors complain a lot about students lacking the basic wherewithal to critically reflect on ideas, texts, and their own assumptions. For liberal arts teachers, this failure to recognize one’s own limited positionality, and to take responsibility for the assumptions through which one frames the world, is a tendency in students that we love to hate. We cringe as students storm like bulls through the subtle, humbling philosophical invitations our courses present, choosing trite, automatic reactions rather than authentic response.

But surely it isn’t only, or even primarily, students who skim along the surface this way, half asleep and unable to see the boards that fill their own eyes. Practiced and polished professors can, perhaps, more skillfully enact and maintain a persona of mindful self-reflection, a habit of seeing ourselves as more self reflective than we actually are. It’s a persona that is so seductive and satisfying we may never feel compelled to peek behind it. In the meantime we can join the party, regaling one another with stories about those unenlightened others, including our poor benighted students.

“But it’s too hard!”: the challenge of lazy student readers in an age of distraction

In one my favorite young adult books, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, the main character, Francie, a girl growing up in an Irish tenement in New York City, cuts her reading teeth on Shakespeare. I was forced to read Hamlet in the eight grade and have always been struck by that image of a little girl being first read to from Shakespeare, and then reading and loving it herself. This past year, I’ve often struggled to muster enough attention to read potboilers, let alone Macbeth. And I continue to watch with curiosity and concern as my students struggle, both with reading challenging material, and with the notion of intellectual struggle as such.

Last week, for example, several students reported flat out that a podcast I’d assigned — in which two graduate students discuss the myth of historical progress — had left them utterly at sea. “Too hard,” one stated. Another said, “I have no idea what they’re talking about it. I hope other students have more luck with this than I did.” All who shared thoughts like this presented them matter-of-factly, as though providing a brief product review. Instead of hearing their remarks as mere complaining and being irritated by it, I’m making an effort to look closer.

First, there’s the students’ self-assigned authority with respect to identifying what does and does not count as appropriately difficult material for a class of this level. Second, there’s the lack of any hint of self-reflection suggesting that the quality of their own efforts might be playing a role. Such blithe student confidence is surely not all bad. I recall being knocked into a tailspin of self-criticism when, as an undergraduate, I was required to read a notoriously cryptic work by Wittgenstein. I don’t want my students to be driven to tears of failure, but I also can’t deny that I was pushed to work harder despite the fact that I wanted to stomp on this little treatise for having insulted my intelligence.


It’s certainly not that I was smarter or of deeper character than today’s college students — I am sure of this — but, rather, that I had a different relationship to texts than is common today. This shift impacts what we can now expect from student readers and, almost certainly, from one another as well. I notice, for example, that when I need information or insight, whether it’s about communitarianism or cast iron skillets, I search and skim online, not until I find the best source, but until I find one that is good enough, and that also requires little time or effort from me. Exertions of reading and comprehension that used to feel simply normal now feel unreasonable. Like my students, I tend to blame, not myself, for a failure of attention, but the writers of the material.

These challenges of reading in an age of ubiquitous distraction upend our most fundamental notions of reasonable intellectual effort and accountability. Little Francie Nolan read Shakespeare not because she was smarter or more curious than I was, but, in part, because she had few other options. The result was that she developed a particular relationship to these rich texts, and, more importantly, a relationship to the notion of intellectual difficulty itself. How, I wonder, can we work with our students, not just to force feed them complicated texts, but to appreciate this as an opportunity to connect to their own wherewithal? I address the issue with them head on, encouraging humble confidence as they approach work they find daunting, but I am keenly aware that I’m spitting into the wind.


As usual, then, I am focusing on the one intellectually complacent person I can sort of control: myself. I’m making new efforts to notice when, instead of settling into my comfy chair to digest hearty fare, I reach for the equivalent of intellectual potato chips, snarfing them down compulsively and with little real satisfaction. It is certainly not only my students who have been captivated by the lure of the disposable, easy read and, with it, the lazy delight of pat conclusions and facile critique.

This week I will, as I have done so many times during the past decades, return to Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, both to discover new insights from this dense, enigmatic treatise and also to reconnect with the panicked, but exhilarated, undergraduate I once was. Back in the late 80s, I stayed up all night wrestling with that little book. I didn’t win that battle, but I did develop a respect for my opponent and for my own intellectual resources that has shaped who I continue to be as a reader and a thinker.

Obliger students and questioner professors: The four tendencies in the college classroom

According to popular self help author, Gretchen Rubin, most people have far more trouble meeting inner expectations than the expectations of others. For most of us, she says, climbing out of bed at five a.m. to hit the gym is much more doable when there’s a buddy or a trainer waiting for us than when it’s “merely” a promise we’ve made to ourselves. This “obliger” tendency is not a problem, explains Rubin, so long as one works with the tendency, exploiting its strengths, rather than against it. So, an obliger is far more likely to commit to a gym routine if she arranges to go with a friend, gets a personal trainer, or takes a class in which others will be disappointed by her vacant spin cycle.

I focus on obligers here precisely because I am not one. As a “questioner,” I can generally meet both inner and outer expectations so long as I believe I have good reasons for doing so. I have, then, been baffled for years by students, colleagues, and friends unable to complete tasks or meet goals they seem to sincerely want to achieve. Like lots of questioners, according to Rubin, I have been less sympathetic and less effective than I might have been in dealing with these folks. It is, apparently, a downside of questioners that we do not have tons of patience for those who fail to be compelled to action simply by the force of what they themselves perceive to be good reasons and powerful evidence.


“They know how important this is. Why don’t they just do it?” Whether it’s about quitting smoking, completing a thesis, or simply showing up to class, arrogance and ignorance about what motivates people — and not just what motivates oneself — can mean missed opportunities to support others’ success. This is especially obvious when it comes to online students.

I’ve known for some time that online classes are the kiss of death for students who are not good self-motivators. They enroll, poke around a bit, and then seem to forget that they signed up. Guided by my own intuition, as well as experts’ advice, I have transformed myself into a cheerleader for my online students. This morning, for example, I will send out yet another message with deadline reminders and carefully worded messages of sincere confidence and expectation. On their graded work, I will state how eagerly I will be awaiting more of their perspective the following week. I’ve been emphasizing such “outer expectations” for a while and now have a clearer sense of why it helps.

If Rubin is correct, most of my students are not like me. Having a bucket full of “good reasons” for doing the work — it’s expensive, they need the course to graduate, they’ll feel crummy if they fail — motivates some, but not most of them. As a questioner, I too am happy when my work gratifies others, but, for me, this is icing on the cake. In fact, I find that getting lots of deadline reminders or out-of-the-blue encouragement can feel condescending. But to the students who will most struggle with online education, those who flail because of the lack of immediate accountability to real others, concrete strategies to motivate them, to replicate social ties and accountability, may well be critical. And, of course, such outer expectations can take on all sorts of forms, e.g., structured group projects, scheduled discussions posts, etc. Pedagogues of online education have outlined various strategies to do just this.

My point here is less about pedagogical practice than about highlighting how a lack of mindful self-reflection can lead one to be less skillful with others, including one’s own students. I am, surely, not the only professor whose questioner tendency has made student procrastination and failure to persist so incomprehensible. Of course, the systemic causes for this are complicated and no one is suggesting it can all be solved by a simple personality quiz. But what I’m finding is that focusing a little more on accountability structures and motivation is paying off handsomely in both my online and face-to-face classrooms. Paradoxically, being more responsive to my obliger students has required greater awareness of my own questioner nature: Now that I have good reasons for adapting my teaching style, I am eager and willing to do it.

At Your (Customer) Service

A few weeks into teaching my first online class I had a disturbing realization. I’d begun to feel like I was working at a big box hardware store. Here’s how my thinking went: The tiling experts or carpenters who apply at Lowe’s are attracted to the job partly because they believe their expertise will be put to use. Sure,  some of it will be a grind — it’s retail after all — but part of the appeal, surely, is the prospect of putting one’s talents and hard-earned skills to use. Imagine the disappointment when it turns out that the workday’s human exchanges consist overwhelmingly of responding to generic customer service questions like: “Where’s the restroom?”

Similarly, once my online class got underway, I had the sickening, humbling realization that every single direct student question I had fielded had nothing whatsoever to do with the actual ideas, concepts, and arguments that made up the heart and soul of my painstakingly crafted course. There were questions about grades and dates, about how to navigate the learning platform — in my case, D2L — but nary a peep about race, gender or science in a course called “Race, Gender, and Science.” I was, evidently, a customer service employee, tasked with ensuring that my patrons had a smooth, pleasant journey through the semester, an imperative intensified by the university’s pressure on faculty to maintain enrollment at almost any cost.


Of course my content expertise had been leveraged in the initial development of the lectures, introductions, exams and projects that make up my online class. And of course I drew on my years of experience with ideas and information about race, gender and science when I participated in the discussion boards and evaluated student work. But, by and large, and most certainly in my e-mail exchanges with students, my task was one of keeping the train moving along the tracks — removing rocks, lubing the wheels — with little attention to the actual cargo it contained.

While it may be that I’m doing this wrong — I could insert more of my expertise into casual exchanges with students, for example, whether they want it or not — I think the issue may be endemic to online education as it’s now conceived. When we teach in a physical classroom, we are usually not expected to clean the room, provide the chairs, or repair broken windows. When we do find ourselves burdened with such things, we feel put out; we are being asked to do what is not properly our job and does not draw upon our training and credentials.


But in the virtual classroom, the line between our intellectual expertise and our technical abilities — Can you manage the learning platform? Can you help students successfully navigate the often Byzantine trails between various assignments, feedback, etc. — becomes utterly blurry. Sure, our universities have online learning help centers for both us and our students, but we all understand that our journey is, at bottom, a ruggedly individualist one. Both we and are students are expected, for the most part, to manage by ourselves. Our technical and practical skills are more tied up with our pedagogical success than ever before.

It is true, of course, that face-to-face professors are also expected to succeed at a number of rote, bureaucratic tasks, for example, entering grades. It’s also true that the customer service imperative has increasingly come to define many classroom instructors’ professional lives. But never is this more evident than when those emails start arriving from online students who are only interested in your ability to point out the quickest path to the restroom.

Three Resolutions for More Mindful Teaching


Anyone who’s tried mindfulness strategies knows that, though though they are trendy, they aren’t very sexy or dramatic when actually practiced. Whatever benefits accrue are usually small and cumulative, revealing themselves like tree buds opening in an unusually cool spring. If life is a roller coaster ride, then mindfulness practices help us notice the feel of the cold steel safety bars across our laps, and the whiff of nervousness and cotton candy in the air. Through mindfulness practice we learn to pay non-judgmental attention to the buzz of expectation in the creaking, ratcheted climb, and to become as curious as we are terrified at the dropping sensation in our guts as the free fall begins.

When it comes to enhancing our lives, mindfulness turns out to be as useful as zippers, can openers, and sturdy boots. If we merely fetishize the idea of mindfulness, though — devouring articles about it and praising it from afar — it sits on the shelf like a curio. As a longtime student of mindfulness who is easily distracted by the abstract, I’ve resolved to more explicitly link basic mindfulness practices to my upcoming semester of teaching. More specifically, the three simple resolutions I describe below are meant to support my attention to some basic inputs and experiences — feelings, really — as they move through me, instead of fast forwarding to habitual conclusions and reactions. Introducing even this tiny gap of attention could lead to teaching that is a little wiser, more effective and creative. But, at the very least, I will be a a little more awake during the journey.


Resolution #1 expresses my plan to pay better attention to how particular teaching activities impact my mood. Over the years, I’ve tended to accept that certain tasks are intrinsically grueling and must simply be powered through. Grading online discussions falls into this category for me. In fact, my dread of it leads me to try to push through it as quickly and numbly as I responsibly can. This coming semester, though, I plan to pay precise attention to the negative feelings as they arise before my reactivity and avoidance kick in. Is it a bodily tightness? A sense of being trapped? Boredom?

The investigation might not lead me to make any changes, of course. I might simply conclude that grading discussions is a misery to be endured and keep trying to ease the pain; I’m fine taking a little Novocain if that’s the best I can do. But if I can rouse my curiosity about my animus toward this loathsome task, there may be something to discover. It occurs to me, for example, that the poor quality of many of these discussions makes me feel like a failure, a sensation I would definitely prefer to ignore.

Resolution #2 is to notice my feeling responses to informal student feedback, for example, in critical or affirming emails to me or asides made to other students during group work. For most of us much of the time, the leap from a perceived criticism to the arising of defensiveness can seem automatic. For example, I’m sometimes moved to what feels like instant irritation and the need to self-justify when students complain about the reading assignments. Can my feelings point to my implicit, perhaps false, assumptions about what their complaints mean? Am I taking them personally? Why? My goal isn’t to pander to students’ superficial gripes but to be open to real information that can help me either adjust or feel more confident about staying the course. In any case, clues are wasted if I zip blithely past them, supplying my own habitual rationalization as soon as I feel threatened by criticism or puffed up by praise.


Resolution #3 involves reflecting on my feelings about my teaching work as a whole, about how it fits into my overall ethos, values and life goals. Because I’m a professor of gender and women’s studies, my work is explicitly tied to social justice. But for me too the risk of nihilism and complacency is real, and at times I’ve been unable to see my work making a dent or, alternatively, been a little smug about its significance. My commitment this semester is to better notice the sensations of excitement or flatness that arise when questions of larger purpose arise. For example, in recent months, I felt nervously hopeful at the media emphasis on fake news. Taking my incipient excitement seriously led me to explicitly connect some upcoming course activities to the critical skills our country is clamoring for. The changes, while not dramatic, have been motivated by my awareness and acknowledgement of my own feelings. Whether or not such awareness typically leads to visible changes, being honest about feelings of guilt, pride, and purpose in our work can certainly lead to greater sense of intentionality about it.

When I take the sometimes invisible step of noticing, then meaningful improvement and appreciation become possible. For busy teachers, offering the same classes over and over again, the entire semester can become as routinized as a morning commute. We’re suddenly at the destination without knowing quite how we arrived. And, of course, this isn’t the worst of it. The current hunger for all things mindfulness attests to our fear of passing through the whole of our lives on autopilot. As tempting as sexy, dramatic quick fixes are at the new year, what I describe is both more banal and important, a practice of being genuinely present to ourselves. When all is said and done, I will have piled up a startling number of hours grading student work. If this is how I am to use my life, then, at the very least, I want to take responsibility for having done so, even if I ultimately choose to sleep through some of the most tedious parts.