College professors may be subject matter experts, but that does not mean that they’re necessarily good teachers. That’s a key point Jessamyn Neuhaus, Ph.D., makes in her book Geeky Pedagogy: A Guide for Intellectuals, Introverts, and Nerds Who Want to Be Effective Teachers (West Virginia University Press, 2019). The good news, she writes, is that anyone can become a better teacher by channeling their passion for their subject into proven teaching techniques.
We spoke with Neuhaus, a professor of U.S. history and popular culture at State University of New York at Plattsburgh, about the tough feedback that led to her book, myths about what makes someone a good teacher, and ways to inspire students.
Extra Credit: “Just because you know a lot about something doesn’t mean you can teach it.” Tell me where this brutal phrase came from and how it changed you.
Neuhaus: At the end of any class, most college instructors receive an anonymous student survey about it. The above quote was the first such comment I got back from a student about my very first college class. Brutal? Maybe a little. Accurate? Yes. I knew a ton about the subject I was teaching, but I didn’t know beans about how to clearly communicate and built rapport with students or to help novice learners utilize my subject to build skills. This comment forced me to start learning how to do those things.
Extra Credit: Your book isn’t really about geeky professors. It’s about how being invested in a subject can, ironically, make for boring instruction that doesn’t inspire students. How can it be true that someone who knows a topic so well can’t teach it?
Neuhaus: Think of an Olympic medal-winning swimmer trying to show someone who’s afraid of water how to dog-paddle. Think about how far back into their memory the Olympian has to go to recall what it feels like to be learning how to implement those foundational skills needed to just stay afloat. Moreover, think about how differently these two people even perceive a swimming pool. To the Olympian, it’s an empowering place of achievement, where innumerable hours of passionate, hard work has made them extremely successful. To the nervous novice swimmer, it’s a scary, mysterious place of fear and danger.
Experts like accountants have spent years accumulating very specific knowledge and applying that knowledge in real, measurable ways. They’ve chosen their field, drawn to it because it interested them and because they find personal and professional satisfaction using the skills and abilities it requires. Effective educators understand and acknowledge that we experts are very different from most of our students in this way. There are so many things we do easily, even automatically, that our students are just starting to learn how to do. That’s why we have to look to the scholarship of teaching and learning — the research and the proven best practices — to help us translate our own knowledge into things our students can do. (Neuhaus recommends resources on her website.)
Extra Credit: How can a professor realize if he or she is not inspiring students before the semester ends?
Neuhaus: Two words: Formative feedback. That is to say, consistently and repeatedly asking for student feedback throughout the class and making adjustments in response to that feedback (and in light of pedagogical research about what works) during the class, instead of relying on one survey at the end of class when it’s too late to make any changes. Many college instructors are so invested in their subject matter, so intent on “getting through” the material, that they don’t want to stop and really assess if students are actually getting it or to take the time to really examine closely how students are responding to their pedagogical practices.
Extra Credit: You write about how teaching is a social craft. How can an introverted person be successful at it?
Neuhaus: What’s helped me the most is understanding how teaching and learning are built on a foundation of clear communication, rapport, and trust with students. That’s what enables me to push out of my comfort zone (being all alone with my lovely thoughts) and find ways to connect with students and create learning communities in my classes, because I know that if I want students to learn how to do things with my subject matter, I must attend to the social and emotional aspects of learning, not just the intellectual work. The science of learning and the brain shows this unequivocally.
But the good news is that there are myriad ways to build rapport with students and maintain positive interpersonal connections. We don’t have to try to be someone we’re not. We do have to communicate to students that we care about their learning and their success in our class and that we want to share our passion for accounting or literature or coding or philosophy or whatever it is we love with all our nerdy, dorky hearts.
Extra Credit: So you don’t necessarily have to be extremely outgoing to be an effective teacher?
Neuhaus: I’d caution anyone who’s teaching anything to avoid the trap of the super-teacher stereotype. I mean a highly idealized, narrowly defined, and unrealistic image of what good teaching and learning looks like, i.e., a charismatic (usually a white cisgendered male) professor standing in a lecture hall expounding effortlessly while students magically, easily learn merely by being in his totally entertaining presence.
That’s not how teaching and learning work. Learning anything is hard and takes a really long time. Learning means making mistakes. It requires not only intellectual, but also emotional effort, and it takes a ton of practice. Helping students do this takes many forms and can look very different from class to class, instructor to instructor. Terms like “inspirational” can trigger the super-teacher fantasy ideal, which subsequently undermines instructors’ belief in their own unique abilities to help students learn.
There’s one, and only one, nonnegotiable quality that every effective teacher must possess: the desire to be an effective teacher. Everything else — personality, pedagogical techniques, abilities, experiences — can vary widely, as long as someone is willing to always keep learning about effective teaching by studying the scholarship of teaching and learning, reflecting on their pedagogical missteps and successes, and seeking support for building their teaching skills.
— Dawn Wotapka is a Georgia-based freelance writer. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact senior editor Courtney Vien at Courtney.Vien@aicpa-cima.com.