Good teaching is about passion

When I was a law student in the 1970s, we had one lecturer whose teaching was simply appalling. He sat while lecturing (with no physical reasons for doing so). He never looked at the class. He never asked questions, rhetorical or otherwise. He never encouraged analysis. His delivery was monotonous. He never showed or used humour. He never varied the content of his lectures from year to year. In examining, he rewarded (and therefore got) the uncritical regurgitation of his own views. He was a kind of icon of pedagogical awfulness.

What made this particular lecturer so terrible was that he seemed to have no passion of any kind for his subject, or for the topics that he covered. His teaching, if it was that, was simply something that got him from the beginning to the end of the lecture, and from the beginning to the end of the academic year. It had no purpose other than that of filling an allotted slot in the syllabus. This kind of emotional disengagement is however contagious. A lecturer who shows no real interest or spirit stirs up similar apathy amongst their students. Despite that, some of them will base their careers on the topic in question, and will become another generation of the disengaged.

All subjects, if they are worth teaching, are worth getting excited about. When I was a PhD student in Cambridge, I occasionally amused myself by attending the lectures of a Botany lecturer who had this extraordinarily infectious enthusiasm for his subject. I knew nothing about the subject, but I loved the passion he showered on it.

There are many things that make a lecturer good. Charles L. Brewer, Professor of Psychology in Furman University, in a well known address in 2005 on the Joy of Teaching, stated that he had always ‘tried to teach with passion, preparation, parsimony, perseverance, and patience.’ I would suggest that the greatest of these is passion.

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10 Comments on “Good teaching is about passion”

  1. Jilly Says:

    I entirely agree about the importance of that kind of passion for teaching, and think that the majority of academics who enter the profession full-time begin with just that passion. I think the difficulty – and one which doesn’t get much discussed – is in sustaining that passion for 30+ years. This can, to say the least, be difficult in the face of a number of factors such as increased student numbers (so that you no longer experience much personal connection with most students), increased levels of responsibility and stress in other aspects of your job (which drags focus and energy from teaching), and year-by-year exposure to unmotivated and uninterested students (who you keep telling yourself are a minority, but they’re a minority whose accumulated influence on your perception of the student body over years and years is pernicious).

    I’m not even half-way through my likely 30year+ academic career, and already I find myself nostalgic for the days when my working life revolved around teaching, and when I hadn’t yet been jaundiced by the encounters with demoralising student behaviour.

  2. don Says:

    That university lecturer should have been subjected to a performance appraisal. What you described in your account was one of the down-sides of ‘academic freedom’ where no-one could tell that person to buck up his ideas. Unfortunately, that is still the prevailing currency in many universities.

  3. Rockamoor Says:

    Thanks for sharing Charles Brewers article on the joys of teaching.It is inspiring .

  4. jfryar Says:

    I sometimes wonder if things are getting worse as time goes on due to the research-focused nature of recruitment these days. Talk to most postdocs and they’ll tell you about how they’d love an academic career, how they’d love to apply for their own project fundng, how they’d love to conduct their own research … what you won’t hear them say is ‘I’d love to be in front of a class of undergrads teaching them’.

    • Wendymr Says:

      And switch that around and you’ll find the same attitude in senior academics, particularly those doing hiring and also staff supervision and recommendations for promotion. When I was an academic, I loved teaching. Students seemed to think I was pretty good at it, as well. Did that get recognised or rewarded? No, because it’s not considered anywhere near as important as research/publishing/getting grants. Talk to any academic who does love teaching more than research and they’ll tell the same story. Not that this will be any news to you…

  5. cormac Says:

    Jfryar: I did ! (but I take your point in general). When I was doing my PhD in physics, I used to teach 4 hours/wk in DIT Kevin St, teaching basic physics to 1st science students. I loved it and it definitely influenced my career choice when an RTC job came up after my postdoc.
    I must say I’ve missed teaching this year, I’ve never lost my enthusiam for it. The problem in the IoT sector is that there is so much teaching (typically four different courses per semester, plus all the admin that entails), it leaves very little time for research ,so even the most dedicated researchers fall behind after a while..

  6. Al Says:

    I would be cautious about the passion!
    I remember getting ear bashed for a whole night in a pub in connemara many years ago by a person who orated their passion and commitment to their viewpoint of ….. (long story) Enduring this tirade of bullshit long enough I pointed out that he was telling me more about himself and his passion than about the topics we were discussing.
    This point didnt go down well.
    Seriously though, I remember a change of courses at january years ago where the lecturers changed too. The change of the face in front of them disturbed alot of people who went to the HOD to complain. But they were wrong to do so.
    The rambling point that I am making is that if we prioritise passion we are asking for a good BS’ing. Someone can show up, do a good job, keep the back ground stuff up to date without auto arousing in the lecture hall.
    That should be good enough.

  7. cormac Says:

    I think that’s a different sort of passion Al! People who genuinely enjoy teaching (as opposed to a subject, or a particular slant on the subject) don’t tend to go off on a rant – it’s all about communication, so a tirade would be a contadiction in terms..

  8. Iphigeneia Mariou Says:

    Good teaching isn’t only about technique. It involves people who have some sort of connective capacity, who connect themselves to their students, their students to each other and everyone to the subject being studied.

  9. Iphigeneia Mariou Says:

    In time, I have come to understand what Ferdinand is talking about, ’cause PhD research does boost your knowledge but what brightens a classroom is the teacher’s authenticity, his/her constant and contagious enthusiasm, not the degrees he/she holds. To me teaching is all about:

    Communication Skills
    Sense of Humour
    and Funding;)

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