To: Yale professors From: One of your students
Dear Profs, As the semester slips into its groove and we roll around to midterms, I’d like to congratulate you on the excellent job you’ve been doing. Yale consistently distinguishes itself among stellar research institutions, at least in my mind, by the incredible emphasis it puts on undergraduate teaching. Nonetheless, while I admire your teaching talents, I have some pet peeves that I was wondering if you could remedy. No single professor of mine is guilty of all these sins, but at least one of my professors regularly commits each one. I’ve come up with a list of five pieces of advice which would make Yale an even better teaching institution than it already is today.
1. When writing on chalkboards, don’t erase (except to correct a mistake). This one is trivial, but it’s worth mentioning. Students are transcribing what you write on the board into their notebooks. When you write item A on the board, we write it down in our notebooks. When you erase part of item A, write down something in its place, and call what is now on the board item B, we don’t know what to do. Half of the class follows your lead and erases part of item A to create item B, thus eliminating all record that item A ever existed; the other half frantically rewrites item B in its entirety and completely misses whatever you said after it.
2. Always respond to e-mails — even to tell us you aren’t going to answer our question. When a student walks up to you in the hallway and asks a question, do you ever merely turn around and walk away without saying a single word? I hope not. Completely ignoring an e-mail is just as rude. I understand that you’re extraordinarily busy, but at least write back an e-mail telling us why you won’t be answering the question. When you ignore an e-mail, the student doesn’t know what to think. Is the professor too busy to answer? (If so, maybe I should come to her office hours instead of flooding her inbox.) Is the professor annoyed with me for asking so many questions? (If so, maybe I should consider dropping the class.) Would any answer to the question ruin the teaching exercise? (If so, maybe I should work a little harder on my own.) No response, and I’m left wondering.
3. Use examples and metaphors to elucidate abstract concepts whenever possible. Let me give an example. Two of my professors recently explained mathematical induction to two different classes. Both gave a rigorous theoretical explanation of the method. One added, “Mathematical induction is like climbing a ladder. You prove a statement is true for the first step in the ladder. Then you prove that from any step in the ladder, you can get to the next step. That proves the statement is true for the whole ladder.” Can you guess which class asked the professor fewer confused questions?
4. Never use the word “obvious” in response to a student’s question. I’m always surprised that professors still do this, but I hear it all the time. Synonyms of “obvious” in this context include “trivial,” “yet again,” and “as I said earlier.” If the question was trivial to us, why would we ask it? If you already explained something and we ask about it again, isn’t it possible your first explanation wasn’t clear? This brings me to my final piece of advice.
5. Yale students aren’t stupid — but they are inexperienced. If you’re a Yale professor, you’re almost certainly brilliant. But you also have had much more experience with the subject you’re teaching. Just because a student doesn’t understand something the first (or even third) time you explain it doesn’t mean he’s a dunce. He may simply need to try an idea on for size a few times before he gets the hang of it. Also, try to remember that even if you were a prodigy in your field, there are still very smart people who aren’t quite prodigies. Give them a little time, and you might be pleasantly surprised.
Brad Lipton is a sophomore in Branford College.