The title of Professor, in the broad sense, is applied to many who teach in Higher Education. But for me, this short note launched a long relationship with the reflected glory of the title. The status instantly conferred was dazzling. I bit the hook without seeing the line and sinker attached by equating it with fallacies about the unidirectional transfer of knowledge.
It was the journey away from Professor Rubino that proved valuable. I learned how my perceptions of who I should be negatively impacted my teaching.
Ultimately, I discovered that the title was part of a fable I told myself about what it meant to be a teacher. The burden of being solely responsible for leading students to learning and being the all-knowing oracle is hardly the best model for teaching most adults. I had overemphasized me and de-emphasized those who came to learn.
From my very first class students called me “Professor” Rubino. I embraced it because it lifted my ego. Looking back, I knew the title would create a distance, because I’d felt that separation as a student. But I didn’t want anyone too close as I struggled to live up to the honorific. I was aiming to be both a fountain of all knowledge and a dazzling one-woman show. In retrospect this ideal was rooted in schoolgirl dreams of popularity rather than sound pedagogy.
The flip side was the self-imposed pressure to achieve my fount/star ideal. To manage the discomfort, I took every opportunity offered by my school’s teaching support centers to develop my instructional skills--even working with their coach. I relaxed into my role. But I held on to my title.
Crashing and Learning
Then one semester I hit a brick wall right away, misjudging the difficulty of the course’s textbook. I initially resisted a suggestion of putting the students in teams to share the reading. That strategy seemed too easy. But I relented when it became clear they couldn’t do the work individually.
While the reading groups were instructed to debrief before class, the classroom was still my time for solo pontification. But after a student complained that nobody wanted to meet before the session, I added in-class debriefings.
To my surprise, these exercises sparked a lively environment in which the students grew comfortable and confident, and more engaged for the whole session. Those who said nothing early in the semester suddenly had their hands up multiple times every session.
I too learned from this pedagogical change up. Up until that point, a part of me still believed I was the center of all learning in my class—even though the school’s trainers tried to pry me away from that myth. Seeing the re-structured session’s success was a powerful indicator that I was wrong.
As my perception of teaching evolved, I wondered if there were other actions I could take to enhance the student experience. But I continued to hold onto “professor.” What harm could it do?
I changed my mind fairly abruptly during an unpleasant midterm grade conference with Brigitte(a pseudonym). During our conversation I explained why she earned a C+. The displeasure about her grade forced to the surface emotions she’d been saving all term. She scolded me angrily about how upsetting the class was. Brigitte was communicating something that I recognized as fear, perhaps of failure and possibly of me.
In the most obvious sense it was easy to see why. She was an outlier among her classmates in terms of age and work experience, an introvert among extroverts.
Equally importantly, the small class size made it impossible for her to hide her inattention to coursework. When I spoke to her about it early in the semester, she explained that she was “too busy” to do her work. I was shocked by her casual approach. Out of earshot of her peers, I told her to step up her game.
Brigitte needed to do her work and find a way to express herself among her lively classmates. But it takes two to tango. Based upon my relationships with her peers, I didn’t think her feelings were universally held by the class. But her words resonated. I felt lousy that she was afraid—the same yuck I get when students have an outsized fear of public speaking, despite it being a course requirement. It was the same yuck I get experiencing the fear she expressed.
The experience with Brigitte affected me to the point where I wanted to do something different. I concluded that re-calibrating the power dynamic was part of the solution. There was one straightforward action I could take immediately--drop the whole “professor” thing and let students call me by my first name. It forced them to be deferential—if in name only. While not the most original idea ever, it was easy to do and all I could conjure up in the moment.
Felt the Fear. Did It Anyway.
But I resisted my instinct. I wanted to maintain the control/status I imagined the title gave me. I worried about giving students too much power. What if I changed my mind in the middle of the semester? Could I change it back? Could I try it on for a semester?
Still, the more I thought about it, the more it began to itch. So I used my first name only to sign a welcome email before the next semester. I made sure to refer to myself as Diane in the first session. Throughout the term students would revert to calling me professor, which seems to be the norm where I teach.
Once out of the habit, the title rapidly began to feel phony. Now I just tell students that I prefer to be called Diane.
They don’t seem to be sweating it one way or another. I recently discussed with a former student how the title is only part of a constellation of symbols—some as basic as standing at the head of the room—that convey power.
Whatever I thought the honorific would do, it did the opposite. At first it seemed to generate power. But when I learned more about teaching and gained additional experience the glittery title and all that it represented to me became, I realized, kryptonite.
*I dedicate this piece to all who shared their insights with me and it is a reflection of my journey, not a one-size-fits-all prescription.
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