Am I interesting enough, yet?

Professors try to be engaging, but students have to meet them in the middle.

Some comments on an earlier post led me to thinking about a question that all professors face: how interesting do we have to be?

Of course, it goes without saying that instructors have a basic responsibility to present course material in a way that’s reasonably clear and comprehensible to the students in question. I’ve known only a few professors who actually dislike teaching, but even they go that far. But are there obligations beyond that? Does a professor have to be, dare I say, entertaining?

Many professors actually try not to be too interesting in the way that they think students mean it — funny, relevant, high-tech — because they think to do so would be to compromise the integrity of the discipline they are teaching. They don’t mean that the discipline itself is uninteresting, but that when the material is taught accurately and fully, a certain number of students will never be interested. And even then, in order to get to the exciting parts, one sometimes has to stroll through some pedestrian stuff in order to get there. To paraphrase Samuel Johnson’s remark on Paradise Lost, a palace must have corridors as well as ballrooms. These profs fear the rise of so-called “info-tainment” whereby the deep thought is obscured by flashy gadgets, dumbing down, and lame attempts to make the material relatable.

To some extent, I sympathize with this view, but, naturally funny and steeped in popular culture as I am, I really can’t help imparting a certain amount of ‘tainment to my info. I do worry, however, that the perceived need for professors to be interesting does a lot to absolve students of responsibility in the classroom. Many students seem to feel that if they are not interested, it’s because the prof isn’t interesting. No doubt this is sometimes true; to be sure, I have passed by classrooms where the droning voice of Professor Monotone or Dr Unvarying was pouring into the hall and felt sorry for the poor students inside. Still, being interested sometimes requires an act of will by the student, especially when the class is being guided down one of those Johnsonian corridors.

Put another way, while the professor should make a reasonable effort to offer something interesting, students must make a reasonable effort to take an interest in the  material. It is not going too far, I think, to suggest that students make an investment by listening deliberately, even when the material is not compelling, that they literally pay attention and receive information and insight and profound questions in return. At the very least, they get the promise of a payoff in the future.

Academic knowledge is complicated. It often requires mastery of numerous details, and its conclusions are not always intuitively obvious. Making sense of it means diligence and even tedium. You can’t always sit back and wait for it to get good. I sincerely believe that there are times when the difference between a semi-colon and a comma is utterly fascinating — but you’re going to have bear with me.

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