How My Biggest Mistake Made Me a Better Teacher
March 10, 2021
Much has been written about the pressure that contract adjunct professors face just to stay in academia—and nobody wants to fool around with so much at stake.
Before leaving the private sector to _become a Professor of Political Science_ at LaGrange College, a small liberal arts school in Georgia, I had worked in Washington D.C. for a defense contractor where wearing a coat and tie was a must.
When I started at LaGrange, my job wasn't tenure-track, but a multi-year contract position, so I only had a short time to make a good impression and get my contract renewed. Much has been written about the pressure that contract adjunct professors face just to stay in academia. Nobody wants to fool around with so much at stake.
Given the demand, I was reluctant to wear so much as a golf shirt and khakis to campus. It wasn't unusual to see tenured professors at other colleges show up to class in t-shirts, but they had better job security. I couldn't take that chance. Who knew if an administrator, chair, or a member of the promotion and tenure committee would walk by the classroom?
I suppose some of that some of the stiffness in my outfits may have translated into my teaching. My subject was politics, and though I tried to make it enjoyable, something was missing—perhaps a more relaxed approach.
Maybe I could be a little more approachable.
A Scooby-Doo costume changed everything
When my daughter's daycare asked parents to attend its annual Halloween party in disguise, I went dressed as Scooby-Doo, my favorite cartoon character. The kids loved it. Once I realized that I was running late on my way back to campus, I decided to stay in costume instead of stopping to change and risking that students leave due to my absence. Besides, it was Friday. The coast was probably clear.
Not only was every student present for class—and amused by my outfit—but also a few parents who were shadowing alongside their children, the prospective students who were considering a major in political science. "Oh, great," I thought. "Now everybody will hear about this."
They did—but in the best way. I still dress professionally more often than not when teaching, but I've found more ways to lighten up the material. I work in more analogies, humor, and even a few Scooby-Doo references to connect mysteries to the theoretical approaches I teach in my research methods class.
For instance, I often make a case out of an episode where the gang is investigating a graveyard after a ghost terrorizes the local populace. The cast of characters Scooby-Doo fails to find any clues and feel as though they've wasted time until they realize that not seeing any evidence is a clue in itself.
Soon, Fred, Velma, Daphne, and Shaggy recognize that the paranormal activity was an elaborate hoax carried out by a villain to cover up a real estate swindle. I use this to show students the importance of not finding statistical significance when conventional wisdom suggests there's a connection. One shouldn't throw out findings just because you can't locate a mathematical relationship between variables.
It's a message my students always understand.
In the semesters following my Scooby-Doo getup, I noticed an increase in the number of students in my classes and political science majors as well. I made it to a tenure-track status and eventually earned tenure at LaGrange due to hard work, exceptional students, and maybe loosening my collar a little.
My mistake isn't just a personal lesson, but one that many can use.
Learning from a mistake is perhaps more important than being error-free. The Dalai Lama is reputed to have said: "When you lose, don't lose the lesson." While I was initially concerned about the lasting effects of my choice to dress as a cartoon character, I figured out how to turn my mistake into an advantage.
Throughout history, there are cases in which professors make discoveries but fail to appreciate the lessons. In Erik Larson's book Thunderstruck, renowned British Physicist Oliver Lodge, sends a wireless signal before the genius inventor Guglielmo Marconi does. He then becomes obsessed with the idea that communication's electromagnetic waves are evidence of the paranormal. It is then up to Marconi to determine the commercial application of these electromagnetic waves, which he does through early radio.
Later, Lodge admits his error of not appreciating the value of the wireless technology over the telegraph. He had almost become the father of radio but was too proud to change his thinking until it was too late.
My story isn't about wearing a costume every day to impress your students; there are other ways to grab their attention while teaching a lesson.
Take chorus members of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra who, in music class, demonstrate how a lead carries in a song. The musicians wear Green Bay Packers jerseys. Whoever sings the lead holds a football, tossing it to a new singer as a means of signifying that the lead has changed. You can use pop culture references, word games, outdoor activities—virtually any tactic from Professor John Keating in the 1989 film "Dead Poets Society."
In college, you’ll meet professors who will want to be the coolest collegian on campus, engaging in off-the-wall behavior. Remember that your mission in college is to learn all you can. If you have a professor who tries too hard to make a humorous point, make sure they can tie it to the subject matter, so you don't lose the lesson.
Administrators and academic leaders
As my story demonstrates, you’ll have a lot of nervous assistant professors, adjunct professors, and scholars on contract. They'll try hard to make a good impression—perhaps, sometimes, to a fault. Make sure you create an environment where they can be creative and not so stiff or even scared of losing their jobs.
LaGrange College does a good job fostering this kind of environment, but I know that this isn't the case everywhere else.
The pay scale that adjuncts face compared to their tenured colleagues is no laughing matter. While I can't help that, I can get leaders to focus on the pressures those on a lower rung of the ladder face and what the untenured faculty want—the latter of which, primarily have to do with salary, benefits, and long-term job security.
Think of these professors as your farm team, your prospects, the future of your faculty. Some may not work out, but you don't want to lose a potential star who suffers burnout after trying too hard to impress you.
It's all about fostering an environment that helps new faculty become the type of scholar they want to be, not the stereotypical professor they think everyone wants.
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