Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Professors as students

A long time ago, I used to do workshops for fellow faculty members. The people who came to the workshops were all volunteers who wanted to learn something specific. Since it involved computers, we met in a lab, and none of the things I said before turning them loose on their computers took more than 5-10 minutes.

I learned that I could count on the following:

If there were 15 people in the group
  • Most would listen to what I said, look at what I'd put on the screen, and work with it.
  • 1 or 2 would have clicked ahead instead of listening to me, gotten themselves stuck, and frantically be waving their arms for help.
  • 1 would have been sitting in the back, talking (not in low tones) to the person next to her, chatting away, cracking jokes, and laughing while I gamely tried to explain things at the front of the room. (Yes, a few times I stopped talking, stared in her direction, and waited, just as I do in class. This worked for about 90 seconds until she started up again.) As soon as I stopped talking, her hand would shoot up and she'd say, "What was that? What did you want us to do?"
One of the things I took away from these experiences is that there are people who cannot shut up if they are not the center of attention; they can't help themselves, and you just have to work with them. I think that the experience of being a teacher doesn't help with this tendency, since if you're in a room with others, you're used to being the one doing the talking.

I've seen this in small group committee meetings, too, where people will deflect conversations to irrelevancies, interrupt the chair, interrupt others, talk aloud to themselves, and so on. Again, this isn't malicious; if anything, it's just high spirits and the sense of a small committee meeting as a social as well as a work occasion. I think that sometimes they act this way because they're used to being the one doing the talking (see above) and sometimes because they believe it helps to kill time in the meeting. My take is a little different: if we stay focused and get the work done early, we can leave early.

Professors like to complain about their students' inattention in class, but what these experiences have taught me is that we're not so different after all when it comes to being task-oriented when sitting in a confined space.


Bardiac said...

I find that we also all want to sit in the back, even though we hate when students do that. The dean of my college holds meetings by standing in the middle of the auditorium, since no one sits near enough the front to hear if he stands there.

undine said...

You have a smart dean. I've seen the same thing in our big meetings; everyone wants to sit in the back of the room.