When Instructor Pride and Ego Inhibits Learning

Mar 22, 2015 • Phil Rosenfield

The quarter I was to take a class in my PhD program, the professor who had designed and taught it became the chair of the department. Her replacement instructor attempted to exactly follow her course notes. It was soon clear that he was in over his head, though he never would admit it nor change anything about his approach (besides disseminating her notes to the class). After the first week, lectures became more and more incomprehensible as he struggled to convey the subtleties of the material and his inherited notes. Early assignments went ungraded and unreturned long after midterm exams occurred, I remember getting more than half of my course work returned with unintelligible marks two weeks after the final exam.

Despite accepting that I was never going to get feedback on my coursework, I still completed every assignment (they were the same assignments the chair of the department would’ve assigned). I became demotivated when I learned that I was given a lower grade the one of my peers who had become demotivated earlier on; she never finished any assignment after realizing the instructor wasn’t actually grading them. At the time, I felt either the work I submitted was worth less than not doing it, or there was some other rubric that we were graded on. (There was simply no way of quantitatively assessing our grades before they were submitted to the university). However, in that graduate program, grades didn’t matter as long as they were above a certain threshold, and my grade was above the threshold (but the lowest I received in the program).

I think back to that class a lot. Upon reflection, it seems I happened to be penalized for the instructor’s lack of preparation mixed with heavy amounts of ego and pride. However, there are positive take-aways from the experience, I make efforts to ensure I’m open to continual assessment and adaptation, in and out of the classroom (I say something like “I have no intension of sucking” when I ask for student feedback). I also saw first hand that hiding that you do not know something or admitting that you are in over your head is far more personally and professionally damaging than the other way around. Had he enlisted our help, flipped the classroom, said something like “let’s master this material together,” he probably would still be teaching that course today.

I think the fairest way to fix the issue after the fact would’ve been to give students credit for the course instead of a letter grade.