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From the Student’s View: Difference

by Derek Bruff

In this column, we feature the perspectives of Vanderbilt students, focusing on what they find effective (or not) in their learning experiences at Vanderbilt. For this issue, we interviewed several students and asked each one to describe a course or two in which the teacher was in some significant way different from most of the students in the class. Student perspectives can help teachers analyze their own teaching more critically. However, each student interviewed here presents only one of many perspectives that might be brought to the particular course he or she describes.

Teaching Styles

A topic often mentioned by the students as impacted by differences was teaching style. One student spoke of a class taught by a teacher educated in a different culture. The student attributed some aspects of the instructor’s teaching style to his cultural background. “For example, he wouldn’t really answer questions in class. Students were supposed to sit and listen during class. Questions were for office hours,” the student said, adding, “Once we got used to this style, it was fine.”

Another student described two courses in the same discipline, one taught by a female professor and one by a male professor. The student found herself responding better to the more interactive teaching style of her female professor than to the more formal style of her male professor. She said, “With him, we would talk about theoretical issues but we didn’t really get personal. He sat at the end of a long table, and it was like him against the class.”

When asked why she thought he taught in this manner, the student answered, “I don’t know if it was because he’s from another country or because he’s male or because he’s just that way.” Other students expressed similar difficulties in identifying the source of a particular teaching style or behavior when there were multiple differences between themselves and their teachers. For example, another student mentioned a professor who seemed to have higher expectations of his students than those to which the students were accustomed. However, the student was not sure if that was a result of his teacher’s cultural background or recent experience teaching at another university or both.

A Culture of Inquiry

One of the themes that emerged from these interviews was the difficulty of creating a classroom atmosphere in which students are free to critically discuss issues about which the teacher or the students have strong opinions, an atmosphere called “a culture of inquiry” by philosophy professor David Wood in this newsletter’s lead article .

One student mentioned this difficulty as she described a social science class in which the professor brought up a number of issues that made some of the more conservative students uncomfortable. “She would bring up these subjects, and you could just watch people go rigid,” the student said.

Other students described teachers who seemed to them to have overcome this difficulty. One student mentioned a social sciences professor whom she felt was fairly liberal. She said the professor usually refrained from sharing her own views on the issues discussed in class, adding, “That helped encourage people to say whatever they thought, no matter what it was.”

Another student described a professor who similarly downplayed her own beliefs about a course topic. He told of a course on a particular religion taught by a professor who practiced that religion. “On the whole, she tried to present a pretty objective view of the religion,” he said. “You couldn’t escape her as a variable, but since we focused on the texts, the class was more academic.”

On the other hand, some professors appeared to meet with some success by disclosing their personal views and experiences. Another student described taking a class on social issues in which the professor used her personal experiences to help students connect to the content of the course. “You can relate to the topic more when there’s someone standing in front of you who knows someone who’s dealt firsthand with the issue we’re discussing,” the student said, indicating that Vanderbilt students can have a hard time relating to social issues to which they are not often exposed.

That approach was not without its problems. The professor stated early in the semester that she wanted the students to express their opinions, even if they were different from hers. However, the student indicated that she did not always feel comfortable doing so. “You don’t want to say something your professor is not really going to like when they’re giving you your grade,” she said, adding that this was especially true when the grade depended largely on class participation. She said that while some students felt hesitant to share their opinions, the atmosphere in the class was generally much better than the one in a course she attended for one day before dropping. She said of that class, “I didn’t agree with what the professor had to say at all, and it would have been very difficult to remain in the class. I felt that if you didn’t think what she thought about certain social issues, you were really going to be at a disadvantage.”

Overcoming Differences

Several students described ways in which teachers overcame what might be seen as problematic differences between themselves and their students through commitment to student learning, appropriate use of humor, experience, and finding common ground on course content.

One student described a foreign language teacher she once had for an introductory course. Since the students were not fluent in the foreign language and the teacher was not fluent in English, communication was sometimes difficult. The student attributed the success of the class to the teacher’s determination. “She wanted us to get it, and she would help us get it any way that we could,” the student said. “Had she been a teacher who was a little less likeable, we might have more apt to see problems.”

Another student described a science course taught by a female professor. The majority of the students in the course were male, and the teacher seemed to defuse any potential problems arising from her gender by using humor, particularly humor on topics often associated with the subject and those who study it. “She might talk about Star Trek,” the student said, “or about t- shirts featuring engineering jokes that people wouldn’t get unless they were scientists.”

Experience was also cited as a way of overcoming differences. One student mentioned a course in which the teacher was male and all the students were female. She indicated that the teacher’s experience with women in his personal and professional lives helped him relate to the students in the course. She said that he was married and had two daughters, “so I think he knew how to act with girls.” Also, he had taught the course a few times in the past, and she said, “He knew what he was facing.”

One student described a lesson he learned as a freshman in how course content can overcome differences of culture and language. “When I began taking these science courses with teachers from China, India, Japan, Turkey, and all over Europe,” he said, “I realized that they all understood the same equations, the same science. I felt that I was making my own personal world larger by seeing these other people doing the same thing that I did.”

From: Teaching Forum 5:2 Spring 2003 CFT Newsletter

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