R. Proffitt, Department of Psychology
I have been a teacher for 22 years, 3 at Wesleyan University, and 19 at the University of Virginia. I became comfortable with this role when I realized that students really want their instructors to succeed. Students want their professors to be engaging, humorous, wise, and informative. They will do everything within their power to draw these qualities out of us if given some indication that these qualities are there to be tapped. My approach to teaching is to spend a good deal of effort prior to class in preparation and then to attend to the students carefully to determine what they want and need to hear at any point in the lecture. For each class, I prepare far more material than I can present while bearing in mind which material must be presented and which is optional. The dynamics of each class determine how the optional material is employed. Student questions and facial expressions inform me about what issues to delve into in more depth, what examples to give, and what stories to tell. I attend to faces carefully. I tell a lot of stories.
I like teaching large introductory classes. These are referred to as service courses in my department, and I am thought of as being a good colleague for teaching more than my share. Although I do not attempt to dissuade my colleagues-especially my chair-that I have altruistic motives, in fact, teaching these classes is my preference. In introductory classes, every day I get to present material that is absolutely new to the students. My approach is essentially, "Did you know . . . ? Isn't that amazing?" Imagine yourself teaching Psychology 230, "Introduction to Perception." Perception-the means by which we experience the world and ourselves within it-is to my mind the most fundamental topic in all of psychology. Most students have thought little about perception, and that is as it should be. Perceptions are to be believed and not doubted. Seeing is believing. And yet, when we attempt to explain how our perceptual systems function, we quickly realize that perceiving is the most complicated thing that we are capable of doing. Although we tend to value those cognitive faculties that show evidence of individual differences such as chess-playing skill, these faculties are of trivial complexity relative to basic visual skills such as those that inform us about the layout of the surrounding terrain. It has become a cliché that, although computer systems have been created that play chess at a grand master level (cognition), none has achieved the wherewithal to drive a truck (visual guidance of action). Perception is the most miraculous thing that we do, and I get to teach hundreds of students about this topic for the first time in their lives. For a teacher, what could be more fun?
For me, the fun of teaching is being able to share with students the thrill of discovering something new and amazing for the first time. Did you know that people release pheromones into the air through sweating and that these airborne chemicals influence sexual functions? I embed a half-hour lecture on the history of perfumes within a larger discussion of the role of smells in human society. After coming to the realization that, like all other mammals, our behavior is influenced by the smells given off by our mates and neighbors, students become quite eager to learn about the anatomical pathways for smell, which by the way, are quite distinct from the other senses and pass through brain areas known to influence sexuality. As a mission of the course, students need to know the anatomical pathways for each of the senses including smell; stories about perfumery and pheromones provide a motivation to learn them.
Students often tell me that they talk to their friends about what they learned in class. This is always gratifying to hear. I am sure that their own understanding of the topic deepened through the telling. Mine always does.