Professor-students cross the great divide

It’s happened to almost all of us. You walk in on the first day of class and the only seat left is next to the professor.

Wait, why aren’t you up front? And don’t you teach Economics? Didn’t I sign up for The Digital Age? I thought this class would be easy. Do you have an extra sheet of paper and a pen I can borrow?

Despite this awkward initial exchange, the professor seated to your right is now your classmate. That’s right, first names NOW! Oh wait, they already went by their first name…

The practice of professors enrolling in courses of their interest has become fairly common at Grinnell.

There are many reasons you may find an extra faculty member next to you: while some connect these new ideas to their research interests, others enroll simply for the joy of learning (they must not have suffered enough in their own undergraduate years). We suspect some enroll to relive the nostalgia of their own college years, though our hypothesis is purely speculative and as of yet unsupported by statistically significant empirical evidence.

But enrolling in courses taught by their colleagues must be a difficult decision for a professor-student. On top of the age difference, professor-students face insurmountably high academic expectations. Why, you may ask?

They are professors first, and students second, and therefore, should have no trouble understanding the material of an undergraduate course. In addition, they may encounter—and, God forbid, even work with—former students of theirs. If that is the case, it may heighten the already palpable awkwardness.

On the other hand, the professor-professors now face a dilemma. Do they follow their regular teaching methods, or do they adjust now that they are teaching a colleague? As much as they may hate to admit, the situation poses a more difficult teaching environment, but one that may be more rewarding.

After all, if they successfully engage their colleagues in the classroom, and encourage their active participation, they will know their teaching methods are successful and of a high quality. And this validation ought to be worth something at an institution that emphasizes teaching the way Grinnell does.

If it were not for the extra work to grade, we see no reason professor-professors would not encourage this professor-student practice. However, we have to ask, if a professor completes the major requirements, do they earn another degree?

-Pat Stuchlik ’11