Thursday, September 9, 2010

Back to School Blues

It's that time of year again: thousands of university students getting ready to go back to school. A summer's gone by, and now it's time to hit the books again. Let's be honest: most students look forward to the start of classes about as much as they would to a root canal. It's just tough to get back into the routine after a summer of fun, frolic, and travel, especially when the weather's still nice and you're cooped up in a classroom listening to someone drone one about something you don't really care about anyway except the course is a requirement of your program.

To any of you freshmen out there reading this, jumping in for the first time, or any of you upper classmen returning for more, here's a little secret: your professors dread the start of classes just as much as you do, if not more.

We've also enjoyed our summer, and have been frankly thrilled not having to deal with your complaining emails, quibbles about your grades, and your ever-fancier excuses for not being able to take exams -- which are especially annoying if they involve being someone warm or exotic while we're battling it out back at the ranch.

I know some of you are nervous about meeting your professors for the first time. Here's another secret: we're as nervous as you, if not more. I've been in this game for fifteen years, and worked as a teaching assistant while a grad student, so I've been doing this pretty much for my whole adult life. Even then, when I face a new class and a new group of students, large or small, I've got a case of nerves as large as that keg you've hidden in your dorm room's closet. (A sip or two from that keg will help calm the nerves, but then you already you knew that.) Small classes are easier, since you can at least see everyone you're talking to, and everyone has to pretend that they're listening, at least for a while.

The large classes are much tougher. For some reason, perhaps the early onset of insanity, I volunteer to teach a section of our first year introduction to economics course, and so confront about three hundred freshmen, just out of high school, usually in a large lecture theatre where I'm standing at the bottom and looking up at rows upon rows, so much so that I can't even see to the back of the room. I have to be wired up to a microphone as well, since, unlike some of my colleagues, I don't have stentorian lungs and don't much enjoy shouting to be heard.

They tell me that I'm teaching this class because I have a Ph.D. and it's important to indoctrinate these young minds early, before they gravitate to other fields and bring down our enrolment statistics. Now, it's true I have a Ph.D., but to be honest I wish I had a background in stand-up instead. Because that's what it takes to keep three hundred eighteen-year olds engaged for an hour and a half at a time, when they'd rather be chilling with their friends or trying to chat up that cute new barista at the coffee place in the library. Spoiler alert: like real stand-ups, I hone my one-liners and my bits, and use them on successive classes, making them appear as spontaneous when they're actually rehearsed. The biggest thrill I get is when my first year class laughs at my jokes: it means somehow I'm connecting with kids who inhabit a totally different mental world from me, who are old enough to be my kids if I had any, and who've never known life without the internet, cellphones, or music downloads.

The other thing I've figured out the hard way is to keep things short and sweet. I know I'm allotted just under ninety minutes per class, but I try to wrap things up in an hour. (I hope my department chair isn't reading this.) Psychologists say that that the average person's attention span is about forty-five or fifty minutes, maximum. For a university freshman, it's probably closer to fifteen minutes. In a culture of the sound byte, in which wisdom has to be distilled down to 140 characters or less, brevity is most certainly the soul of wit.

The last and maybe most important thing I've learned is that, not only is it OK, it's absolutely necessary, to deviate from the script. If you can do without one, even better. In our technological age, a class in which the professor just wades through the textbook on PowerPoint slides he got from the publisher, seems a total waste of time, yet that is more often the case than not. The truth is, despite all our complaints about being underpaid and overworked, we've got a pretty good life as university professors. The least we can do is add some intellectual value when we're teaching. In economics, it can be as simple as connecting a concept from the textbook to something that's just been reported in the news. And when I sense that the kids have gotten that connection, when I can feel the jolt caused by two facts intersecting and sparking an idea in their still-impressionable minds, I feel I've earned my pay packet for the day. Now, if only it were a little fatter ....

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