Thursday, September 27, 2007


I ran across this blog post on teaching a college class as a substitute for another faculty member. It reminded me of the first college class I taught.

I wasn't on the teaching faculty, I had faculty rank but had a full time research job in the Division of Economic Research. I was a part-time doctoral student in Quantitative Business Analysis. I wasn't very far along in the program but knew a lot of the grad students who were further along than me because I'd had a student research assistant job as an undergraduate that given me an office in the basement with all the graduate students.

So, I'd known Phil for a a pretty good while when he called me at my desk at 8:15 one morning. He taught an 8:30 class, the intro sophomore course in QBA, and his car had broken down. This was the last class before an exam and he didn't want to cancel it. He had no lecture planned, it was just a Q/A session on the test material. He wanted me to cover the class for him. That time of morning there really wasn't anyone else he was going to be able to get hold of.

I balked. 1) I'd never taught a class. 2) I'd never read the textbook he used. 3) I wasn't sure I was going to be off-the-top-of-my-head familiar with the material.

"You'll do fine, there's no actual lecture to give". "Shirley (the QBA department secretary) will get you a copy of the book, Chapter 6 and 7". And, "It's just Central Limit Theorem and t-test stuff, you know all that stuff just fine".

Against my better judgement I caved and agreed to meet the class.

Everything went fine for about 10 minutes.

Then a young woman with a very small, quiet voice asked a question from the back of the room that I couldn't hear well. So I stepped a little further into the room, asked her to repeat the question and focused all my attention on her.

That's when I discovered the importance of keeping eye contact with the whole room, engaging the class, making it at least seem like you're addressing everybody. Clearly I was addressing just that one student so the rest of the class took a break and began talking among themselves. A faint background roar began and quickly grew to the point where I still couldn't hear the young woman's question.

I stepped back and said to the class "Just shut up. If you don't want to be here then just leave. If you're going to stay then shut up." They left.

Everybody walked out except the one young woman in the back of the room.

Without the distraction of other students it was easy to then address her question. She came to the blackboard with me and I went through the answer in detail until she seemed to grasp it.

Later, when Phil showed up, he stopped by my office to ask how it had gone. I told him what happened. He asked what her question had been. I told him. He put it on the test.

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