The downside of college teaching

“Teaching young minds is great and keeps you young!”

There is some truth to this made-up quote. Growing older, you might get set in your ways, but younger people will most certainly challenge you to rethink those. While there is a lot of positive things to say, I want to discuss two difficult but critical issues that a new college teacher needs to be aware of, in particular if they are coming in from industry.

The first one is a general issue: Young people are, well, younger. Their life experience and personal development does not match yours and the people you usually deal with in your age group. College may be the first time in a student’s life where they are failing. Failure is subjective: For some it may be as simple as not getting a good grade, for others it may be not being #1. In addition, some students may not be able to manage their emotions. As a consequence, a small subset of students, unused to the challenges and lacking the ability to deal with the emotional fallout, may take it out on the person most easily identified as the culprit: The professor. In ten years of teaching, I have seen everything, from the simple rude email all the way to death threats. If you can’t swallow it, this is not your business.

The second one is a general misunderstanding about the teaching students appreciate. I thought my industry experience would make for interesting courses, and it did. However, students often don’t have sufficient background to value the relevance of said teaching. Your peers may tell you how much they’d have loved to have had you as a teacher, but many students wouldn’t know. Only later in life might they be able to appreciate what you were trying to teach them. Sadly, teaching for five or ten years out won’t do the students much good, even if you think it is fundamentals they’ll be able to use over and over again. If students can’t relate, they won’t remember, and the best content can’t change that. There are ways of simulating or forcing some of the experience, most notably project work, but this easily doubles the effort needed for teaching, if not more. And there is only so much time available in a day.

That said, teaching can be very satisfying, and many students will make it worth your while. However, rest assured, the squeaky wheels will make themselves heard.



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