Muriel Medard | Good lessons from bad teaching

[MUSIC PLAYING] Thank you. Thank you very much, and
thank you for inviting me. So I have to say,
when I first was asked to do this, I very
enthusiastically said yes. Failures, I had such a rich
set of choices to pick from. And then I also
started thinking, because part of Francesco’s
very kind invitation was, you have been highly
recommended for this. [LAUGHTER] So I shall not disappoint. But anyway, as
[INAUDIBLE],, I have to say, I was really
worrying about what I was going to say more and more. And at some point, I
thought this was maybe going to be more a
demonstration than a narrative. But I’m going to share with you
a pretty spectacular failure, a pretty spectacular failure. Not just a short-term setback– really a massive,
well-documented screw-up. Let me start off with
“Tubthumping,” and the reason why that was my song. So when I was a kid and a
teenager, I used to go riding. And I had a just incredibly
intense riding instructor, Madame [? de Voltz. ?] And
she would make you get up on the horse no matter what. And if the horse had
refused the obstacle– say, I had gone
over the obstacle, just without the horse beneath
me, or something like that. Which I thought was– that’s OK. The horse did get me over
the obstacle, technically. She would make you get up. And she would ultimately say,
you cannot let the horse learn that it can refuse the obstacle. I dislocated my
shoulder one time. She made me get up. I blacked out one time. She made me get up. This was the ’80s. This was France. We just didn’t know about
lawsuits, or liability, or anything like that. So she just made you
get up, and that was it, because you could not let
the horse learn that it could refuse the obstacle. OK, fast forward
some amount of time. I’ve done my PhD, I’m
working at Lincoln Lab, and I’m trying to figure
out what to do next. And my very dear
friend Andrea Goldsmith at Stanford said, why
don’t you go into academia? Now, as background, I come
from a family of academics, and I had decided I was
definitely not an academic, because I was normal. And I was very proud of this. And I was going to
have a normal life. And when my advisor
was asking me as I was graduating what I
wanted to do, and he asked me, are you interested in academia,
my answer was, absolutely not. Look at your job. Why would I want that? [LAUGHTER] But thank you, because I
was well brought up, also, in my family of academics
to say thank you. So here I am going
into academia. I have mixed feelings about it. Not because I don’t
like the research and supervising students,
but really, this wasn’t what I had set out to do. So I’m starting in
University of Illinois. This is late ’90S. And I’m eager, I want to at
least show that I can do well. Now, I have a few things
that are not going for me. I have one very young daughter. I had my first daughter
in grad school. I’m pregnant. I am moving to a new place. My house there is not ready,
so I’m really living out of a construction site. And my daughters
ask me, why is it that in Illinois, one
does not have a kitchen and one washes the
dishes in the bathtub? And my husband at the time
is gone every week all week, so I’m by myself. And I’m told that I have
a teaching assignment. Now, I’m told this in August,
and classes start in August. And I’m thinking,
OK, no problem. I can do the move, and I can
move into this construction site with the bathtub where you
can wash children and dishes, sometimes simultaneously. And I’m also teaching a
very, very large class, which is a quasi-required
class for graduate students because it’s one of
the qualifying classes for their PhD. And by the way, this class
is an absolute killer and the students hate it. I’m like, no, that’s great. I can do this. This should be good. And by the way, the
class starts at 8:30. And that should be no problem,
but remember, I’m by myself, and my daughter’s
school starts at 8:15. And I’m thinking,
I look on the map. I’m like, I can make from
her school to the classroom. And given, OK, I have
a little bit more drag because I’m getting
more and more pregnant, but I can do this. This should be no problem. I’ve got this. All right. So here I am. I’m going to start my class. I ask my colleagues, well,
where are the materials? So they say, oh, I think
somebody has some notes. And there’s a book. Now when somebody told
me there was a book, I thought, oh, this is great. This is fantastic,
because, as it so happens, when I was a student,
if there was a book, I generally didn’t go to class. I just read the book. So I thought, this is great,
because if they’re like me, they probably don’t go to class. They’ll just read the book. This should be a cakewalk. Don’t do this, by the way,
because then otherwise you end up like me, as
I’m going to describe. Do go to class, please. So I think, OK. I show up in class,
and I discover that the person who was rumored
by the people to have notes did have notes, but these
notes were more like reminders to himself of what was covered. So each lecture was
maybe like half a page of “don’t forget to tell
them about blah.” But there was nothing before. So here I am. I basically have no notes. I have a book. And I have this class of people
who are first-year graduate students in a class that’s
required for them to qualify for the doctorate, for
the doctoral program, and I’m a brand new
instructor, and I have a completely unreasonable
expectation of what it means to teach at this level. And I’m trying to
teach the way I would have liked to be
taught, which, remember, was actually not going to class. So basically, the
class was a disaster. Let me just give you one
vignette I decided that, since everybody reads
the book, of course, rather than lecture
on a particular thing, I would tell them
to read the book. And I noticed with
glee and a little bit of nasty satisfaction
that there was a mistake in the proof in the book. So I thought, why don’t you
guys look for the proof mistake, and then we’ll
discuss it in class? It flew like a lead balloon. Nobody could find the
mistake because, of course, nobody knew the material,
which was the reason I actually was supposed to teach
it in the first place. The TA left, absconded
with all the homeworks. I had a student who was
deeply emotionally disturbed and would talk to himself
loudly in the class, and I didn’t know
how to manage it. Basically, the class was just
going from disaster to disaster to disaster. And my teaching evaluations
told of this disaster. OK. So at the end of the
term, I thought, OK, that was the reason I didn’t
want to go into academia. And I thought it was
because I was normal. But actually, I
probably shouldn’t have gone into this
because, clearly, I stink at this teaching thing. Now, to give you more context,
my mother was a professor. She was a history professor. And she was an
excellent teacher. I remember going to her
lectures even as a child. And it was fascinating,
it was captivating. Of course, she had ancient
Egypt, and all that stuff. My father was an
education inspector. Literally, he
would go to schools and see how people taught. So everybody around me
taught, and taught well. And I couldn’t, clearly,
teach a first-year graduate course of the most basic kind. Afterwards, I sat down, and I
looked at the list of failures, and I noticed there
were several things. And I think this
is what I learned. Just look at it, and
just divide and conquer. Because it just
felt overwhelming. There was so much stuff
that had gone wrong. First thing is I should
have said no, I wasn’t going to teach that term. I wasn’t ready. I was just moving in. Second of all, if I couldn’t
get to that class on time, I should have either made
a different arrangement. Or I should have told
my department so. Thirdly, I should
have not counted on just there being
notes somewhere. And I should have
learned how to teach. And I took that to heart. I actually signed up at
the School of Education, and I signed up for a
one-year course to teach. So I went to the
School of Education, and I sat, and I took notes,
and I learned how to teach, because I didn’t
know how to teach. And I reminded
myself that my father used to teach how to teach. So this was something you could
learn, like anything else. I also figured out that
I shouldn’t have just tried to ignore that
the TA had absconded. I should have gone
to headquarters, I should have dealt with it, and
I should have gotten a new TA rather than trying to
manage it on my own. I shouldn’t have
let the poor student who was clearly disturbed and
in need of help just sit there and basically be in
pain in front of me. I should have intervened early
on, and tried to get him help. And when my colleagues
couldn’t advise me to how to get him help, I
should have gone to medical and gotten him help. All these different things
that seemed to accumulate one on top of the
other were actually separable items that,
individually, were manageable. And I think once I realized
they were all individually manageable, and I could have
managed them differently and not just felt like they
were all piling up on top of me, and probably
constructively interfering so that each– as opposed
to having 1 plus 1 be 2, it’s like 4 or
something like that. I could have dealt with it. And therefore, I took
that very much to heart. It would be nice to say, in
some sort of glib, facile way, that I had all these
fantastic epiphanies, and I never made those mistakes. You do repeat mistakes,
but not as much. You learn. So you learn certain things. You start falling
into those again, of trying to manage
everything by yourself, trying not to say no. And you keep
correcting yourself. You keep correcting
yourself, and trying to separate these things and
deal with them individually. So some time later, I was
actually thinking again of Madame [? de Voltz. ?]
By the way, I made her sound like
she was a monster. She wasn’t. One time, I got hit
really badly by a horse, and she did seem
genuinely concerned. But I realized, when
she kept telling me that it was about not
teaching the horse that it could refuse the obstacle, it
really wasn’t about the horse. It was about me. I should not learn to
refuse the obstacle. You have to keep at it. And of course, the
first thing that she would do when you would
get back on the horse is to talk, what did
you just do wrong? And she would divide all
the different aspects of having to go
across the obstacle, and separate them, make
them into manageable pieces, and deal with each
of them separately. Triage the things
that had gone wrong. Deal with them
individually, separately– each of them was manageable– and keep getting
back on the horse. So that’s it. That is my story. Thank you. [APPLAUSE]

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