An Instructional Experience

I just finished my first term as a professor at Singapore Management University. I taught an undergraduate course called Computer as an Analysis Tool, which is on business modelling and data-driven decision support. I had about 130 students, in three sections of three classroom hours each per week. I have to say the whole thing was a very enriching experience. Of course, the reasons behind this statement will be expounded on, theorized and hypothesized – this is Unreal Blog, after all.

First things first though. Although I wanted to write about my teaching experience a while ago, I thought I would wait till I got the student feedback first. After all, students are the stakeholders, and my theories and hypotheses don’t mean much unless they felt that they derived some benefits out of my efforts. I was happy to see that I was rated well. About 20% of my students gave me the highest “Excellent” rating across all the metrics. About 30% gave me “Very Good” and another 30% gave me “Good.” In other words, an overwhelming 80% percent of my students rated me good or better. Surprisingly, this rating extended even to my weakest points – my presentation and speaking skills. This, of course, was all extremely gratifying.

That was the good news. The bad news is that with that kind of positive rating, I was still in the bottom 15 to 20% of all the instructors at my university! I think it speaks volumes of the quality of our professors, rather than the lack thereof in me. At least, I would like to think so. But, as any of my college buddies would understand, it is psychiatrically dangerous for an IITian to find himself in the 20 percentile range in any cohort, unless the cohort happens to be an IIT class. So this anomaly will have to be rectified, and rectified it shall be, in the years to come.

Moving on to the theory – why is teaching an enriching calling, noble even? I think it is because of the immediacy between the profession and its stakeholders. The students are right there in front of you. What they think of you and how they respond to your performance as a teacher is immediately obvious and felt. A similar kind of immediacy exists between doctors and patients too, I guess. Probably between lawyers and their clients as well. But in teaching, you have a sense that you are influencing and shaping something bigger and much more permanent. You are influencing and orienting the arc of your students’ lives, and by extension, that of a future generation, and hopefully your influence is a positive and constructive one. In any case, the projection of your tiny influences is huge down the road. This may be the reason why we still remember our good teachers, thirty or forty years on. This also is the reason why teaching is different from a corporate career, where the overall profit motive and monetary incentives may seem a bit less worthy, more transient and too extrinsic. Even research, while immensely gratifying in terms of knowledge generation, is a bit less worthy because your additions are minuscule. The arc that you are trying to shape and orient through your efforts bends but unwillingly — unless you are an Einstein or a Feynman.

On a different note, I think teaching suits me for an entirely separate reason related to my personality. It goes like this. We people are social beings, and we put our fellow beings in various categories, at varying emotional distances from us. We have spouses, immediate family members, friends, extended family, people of your religion, race, from your country and so on, for whom we have varying levels of concern and connection. For me, all these categories fall in a very narrow band of emotional distance. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think this is a great quality at all and I am certainly not recommending it to anybody. In fact, I think it makes personal connections and attachments almost impossible, diminishing (or even negating) the human condition that we are supposed to find ourselves in. Do not try this at home, for it’s lonesome road.

But, as luck would have it, my universal emotional distance happens to be almost exactly right for a teacher-student relationship. I am genuinely concerned about my students and their wellbeing. This concern of mine shone through in my interactions with them, and was reflected in their comments and feedback. I really want every single one of them to understand, learn, do well and succeed. But this concern is confined to the narrow context of the classroom. It is a concern devoid of a sense of responsibility. A perfect combination, in my opinion.