Am I interesting enough, yet? -

Am I interesting enough, yet?

Professors try to be engaging, but students have to meet them in the middle.


Some comments on an earlier post led me to thinking about a question that all professors face: how interesting do we have to be?

Of course, it goes without saying that instructors have a basic responsibility to present course material in a way that’s reasonably clear and comprehensible to the students in question. I’ve known only a few professors who actually dislike teaching, but even they go that far. But are there obligations beyond that? Does a professor have to be, dare I say, entertaining?

Many professors actually try not to be too interesting in the way that they think students mean it — funny, relevant, high-tech — because they think to do so would be to compromise the integrity of the discipline they are teaching. They don’t mean that the discipline itself is uninteresting, but that when the material is taught accurately and fully, a certain number of students will never be interested. And even then, in order to get to the exciting parts, one sometimes has to stroll through some pedestrian stuff in order to get there. To paraphrase Samuel Johnson’s remark on Paradise Lost, a palace must have corridors as well as ballrooms. These profs fear the rise of so-called “info-tainment” whereby the deep thought is obscured by flashy gadgets, dumbing down, and lame attempts to make the material relatable.

To some extent, I sympathize with this view, but, naturally funny and steeped in popular culture as I am, I really can’t help imparting a certain amount of ‘tainment to my info. I do worry, however, that the perceived need for professors to be interesting does a lot to absolve students of responsibility in the classroom. Many students seem to feel that if they are not interested, it’s because the prof isn’t interesting. No doubt this is sometimes true; to be sure, I have passed by classrooms where the droning voice of Professor Monotone or Dr Unvarying was pouring into the hall and felt sorry for the poor students inside. Still, being interested sometimes requires an act of will by the student, especially when the class is being guided down one of those Johnsonian corridors.

Put another way, while the professor should make a reasonable effort to offer something interesting, students must make a reasonable effort to take an interest in the  material. It is not going too far, I think, to suggest that students make an investment by listening deliberately, even when the material is not compelling, that they literally pay attention and receive information and insight and profound questions in return. At the very least, they get the promise of a payoff in the future.

Academic knowledge is complicated. It often requires mastery of numerous details, and its conclusions are not always intuitively obvious. Making sense of it means diligence and even tedium. You can’t always sit back and wait for it to get good. I sincerely believe that there are times when the difference between a semi-colon and a comma is utterly fascinating — but you’re going to have bear with me.

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Am I interesting enough, yet?

  1. Pingback: Am I interesting enough, yet? – at Satellite Broadband Internet

  2. I suppose my comment on your previous article had something to do with this follow up article, and I feel it is necessary to comment on this one as well.

    I had said in my other comment that I tend to use my otherwise good intentioned laptop for other purposes such as e-mail or Facebook when a professor is disengaging or off topic. Another commenter to the previous article mentioned similar reasons. Neither comment mentioned the reason for zoning out to be because of a lack of entertainment on the professor’s part. Rather, it is because some professors do not include student participation in lectures. Granted there are the “corridor” parts of a lecture that do not require student participation to get the point across, but I’ve had classes in the Arts and Humanities which would have greatly benefited from class discussion. Understandably lectures of 200+ students pose challenges to class discussion, but perhaps that is an argument for smaller class sizes.

    However, learning styles have changed. Because of television and the internet, attention spans are shorter. People expect things to be faster, more exciting, etc. This isn’t to say that this trend is a good one, but I would assume changing teaching styles to adapt to new learning styles would be easier than reversing this trend…

  3. I believe meeting professors halfway on the “tainment” portion of the lecture is a strong one. One of the best classes I ever took was one where humour was used on both the part of the students and the professors. Furthermore, I’m fairly confident a professor would have a difficult time making organic chemistry seem appealing to me-never mind interesting. However, I think there is an important and distinct difference to be made between “entertaining students” and presenting your material in a manner that is “interesting”.

    I’ve found that while a sense of humour and a few jokes thrown in here and there certainly add to a lecture (and the likelihood I will seek this professor out again) it does not make the material “interesting”. In addition to my own engagement, it is the passion the material is presented in that fuels my interest in the subject.

    I think it is also worth mentioning that in the years I spent in the classroom, I appreciated “gadgets” like powerpoint versus overheads because it eliminated my need to translate a professors bad writing. It was not something that particularly aided my interest. I was just as enthused about research methods taught on overheads as I was on powerpoints. However, in many cases, I’ve found the use of these “gadgets” does a lot to further the learning of students who have disabilities (that also applies to use of laptops in a classroom as well).

    To address the issue of “dumbing down” I would argue the following point. If “dumbing down” is used sparingly in an academic environment to build a student’s foundation of knowledge on the subject, than I believe the integrity of the subject stays intact.

  4. I think there’s a deeper problem, which is that there are too many people in university that don’t belong there. They will not be interested by anything serious and, if they were somehow fooled into being interested by the Sesame Street version, their interest would not be sustained in any useful way when they left the classroom because the real world isn’t like that.

    Even if students have short attention spans, it does not change the fact that you have to have a capacity for tediously taking in detailed information from books if you are going to do serious work. It is too expensive to develop and present the rich and dense content of a broad variety of serious books in a moving picture or interactive form and this will probably never be done in anything but a supplementary way.

    As a student, the main problem for me was the accents of professors. In a subject that required my full concentration, it was distracting to have to spend half of my mental effort trying to decipher the thick accent of some of my professors.

    Forget passion and forget jokes. You have to decide for yourself whether something is interesting to you or not and, as anyone who has ever learned anything non-trivial knows, there is a period up-front where you have to do some work to scratch the surface of an endeavour so that what follows has meaning to you. If you don’t do this, everything will go over your head.

    University students should know this and be able to do this when they come in the front door. If they don’t, they don’t belong there. I know this way of thinking would exclude many and isn’t compatible with a knowledge-based economy, but you have to separate the culture-based problem from the education-based problem.

  5. I have to echo the comment by CM, if indeed it was our two comments on the previous post that influenced this one.

    The issue I raised in relation to matters like Facebooking in class was not how entertaining a professor is, it was how much a professor wastes students’ lecture time with chatter that is irrelevant to the course or with material that is simply repeated from other course materials.

    Profs are under no obligation to be entertaining, but they are obliged to give students’ their money’s worth in terms of actual educational substance.

    Personally, I’ve found that the profs who filled my head with two or three hours of interesting information were, in the end, also far more entertaining than the ones who delivered vacuous lectures spiced up with jokes.

  6. what school did this come from?