Professors with attitude

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Sometimes you can’t fake it.

This summer I was in Bali, conducting another of my social entrepreneurship trainings for a group of Balinese students and students from my university. In the past this program has been a real struggle for me and for my assistants, caused by personality conflicts, cultural misunderstandings, and less than helpful “partners” on the ground. And my own attitude, it turns out, is a huge indicator of how much I will enjoy the (sometimes) grueling six weeks of the program, but, more importantly, how my students will experience my class.

I took last summer off out of sheer exhaustion—I had run the program in India during the spring semester and it was difficult on many different levels. My assistants and I (all women) were basically sequestered in our hotel every evening, as were the students (all women but one) because of cultural attitudes towards women in public places in the small city where we worked. I was homesick. I had a handful of particularly unhappy students (who were completely unprepared for the culture shock), and the divide between the relatively privileged students from my university and the Indian students — who were largely from small villages — made communication (both culturally and verbally) a huge obstacle. I was not happy.

I decided to dive back into the fray this summer, with the help of a local partner with whom I’d worked before and trusted. I took on two new assistants and started fresh. And it was an amazing experience. The students were happy and joyful (they sang every day during breaks), my assistants were laughing and energetic, and I was feeling less stress than I had in months. I was enjoying teaching again, and it showed.

And so this makes me reflect on my own attitude, and how my personal life and stresses are carried with me into the classroom, no matter how much I think I can fool everyone.

I went back over my evaluations over the past few years, and sure enough, the student comments almost perfectly tracked my personal attitude during each time. Going through a bad break-up and divorce: “the professor seemed unapproachable,” “the professor was short and abrasive,” “the professor wasn’t very good at answering emails, or wasn’t around.” Those were the days I couldn’t get out of bed, or was giving my lectures on autopilot. Meeting someone new and falling in love “the professor was so energetic and a great lecturer!”, “the professor made class fun and made me want to study harder.” Those were the days I was practically skipping to work.

Teaching is more than giving a lecture. It’s about reaching into a deep reserve of good attitude, if we’re going to be effective. Sometimes that’s easy, and sometimes it’s virtually impossible. But I think it’s worthwhile to check in, and be singularly present in that time and space. Be happy in the classroom because, well, teaching is fun, or it should be. Especially when your kids are singing during breaks.

Denise Horn is an Assistant Professor of International Affairs at Northeastern University and a founding member of the editorial collective at University of Venus. She is the author of Women, Civil Society and the Geopolitics of Democratization (Routledge 2010) and the forthcoming book Democratic Governance and Social Entrepreneurship: Civic Participation and the Future of Democracy (Routledge 2012).

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