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Sunday, January 18, 2009

Realistic expectations

Thinking about my resolution to stop trying to be perfect, I was browsing in the self-help section at Borders (yes, I'm perfectly willing to admit it). Like many academics, I seem to believe that the answers to any question must be in a book somewhere; it is just a matter of finding it. So I was looking for some advice about how to create more balance in my life. I can't remember the title of the book but at some point, I read a description of burnout that really resonated with me - the author basically described burnout as occurring when people have unrealistically high expectations of success. When those expectations are not met, they work harder but that just leads to more frustration and then disillusionment, loss of motivation, boredom.

That pretty much describes me to a T right now. I've been killing myself over my classes for the last several months while feeling less and less enthusiastic about them. And since I'm usually a fairly positive person, I've been sort of bewildered and dismayed at how stressed out and cynical I've let myself become (hence, looking at self-help books in the first place).

When I read that description of burnout, it resonated with me because I'm slowly becoming aware how much I seem to set really unrealistic expectations. Specifically, I want to feel like I'm good at teaching but I seem to measure whether or not I'm any good by what my students think, particularly by their evaluations. And while this may seem like a "duh" statement to some, I'm only now realizing how bad a measure that is. Aside from the cynical view that many students don't recognize "what's good for them", there's the basic reality that you simply can't please all of the people, all of the time, and certainly not when there's 500 of them. When I had 50 students, I could at least give the struggling students some extra attention so they knew I was trying to help. But with 500? Do I really think that there is some magic approach that will reach all of them?

Of course, once this little revelation started sinking in, it led me to wonder: What is realistic to expect, in terms of what my students think of me and the course? And if I can't rely just on what my students think, how do I measure whether I'm any good at this teaching thing?


  1. First, I'll confess to a (now not-so-) secret addiction: when I need brain candy, I *also* go into a bookstore or library and browse among books that have nothing to do with my area or specialty. Usually it's in the business section, and I call it "MBA porn."

    Then I wrote several different versions of the same paragraph and deleted each one because I'm fairly sure you know it already. So here, please insert your affirming platitude of choice. I've never had a 500-student class, and I think it's not only very human but reassuring that you worry about reaching each student. It would be much worse for the students if you were a callous ******* who didn't give a damn.

    Insert another reaffirming platitude here.

    Part of the issue may also be the economic reality outside the class. Is there a chance that there's some leaking of concerns? In most semesters, you'd be teaching about the standard ways of looking at the world to students, most of whom couldn't tell an opportunity cost from a kumquat (which isn't their fault, usually). But for the last few months, you've been looking out at a sea of faces and saying, "Here's what you need to know about economics, oh, ... and look at all the indicators fall off the table. How interesting..." Not precisely, but it would probably affect MY teaching.

    Insert another platitude here.

    Oh, yeah, and working up a new class for ... 500 students. That plays a role, I bet.

  2. Thanks Sherman! I've been trying not to sound too whiny but one of the best things about blogging is getting affirmation from others who know exactly what I'm experiencing. I think you're right that the current economic situation certainly isn't helping - when I tell students 'here are the tools that economists use to explain and predict events', I dread the obvious questions about why economists didn't predict the housing/financial crisis or why no one seems very sure about how to fix it. Good times... So those reaffirming platitudes are much appreciated!


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