Biology Below The Gnat Line

Biy'allogy - (n) the scientific discipline otherwise known as biology, as taught below the Gnat Line. This blog is for educators who teach science in the deep south, where social and political conservatism reign supreme and "evolution" is a cuss word.

Thursday, January 20, 2011


How do you get an entire room full of students to pay attention to everything you say? Apparently, you should drop your papers and say, "Dammit!" The media acknowledges a direct correlation between the use of foul language and approval. Should I use a lot of curse words in my lectures? Is that the way to keep them interested? I consider swearing to be unprofessional, and I try not to do it, which is hard because I always do it. I have a problem with bad language. As a professor I have to curb the urge to yell, "Son of a bitch!" at my contaminated bacterial cultures the same way I try not to say, "What the Hell are you doing?" to my 6 year old nephew. I feel that it's important for me to set an example, to be a leader, a role model.

After I dropped my papers and used a swear, a student said, "You're the coolest teacher I have, Dr. B, seriously." Because I swore? I mean, I am pretty awesome, and you're in for an amazing lecture once I pick all this shit stuff back up, but should you really like me because I swore? That's a silly reason to bestow "coolness" on someone. And yet, I watch educators scrape and grovel for student approval all the time. It's true that if students are paying attention they are going to learn more. But should we make asses fools of ourselves in the name of learning? I don't really need an 18 year old kid to think I'm cool, but I do need him to pay attention.

So, what the fuck would you do? Can you be popular and professional? I'd like to think so. I don't want them to say, "Dr. B is so awesome; she swears!" I'd rather they say, "Dr. B is awesome; we discussed natural selection and she showed us the coolest videos from the Galapagos!"

I've had professors who tried to be "cool" and it was embarrassing. I appreciated a professor who was smart, knowledgeable about the subject, and comfortable enough in their own skin to own their passions. If you think chemistry is dorky, you probably shouldn't stand up in front of 300 students and try to convince them chemistry isn't dorky. I love biology. I love ecology. I love agriculture. I could talk about them all damn day. I sit in my office trying to find ways to engage students, but I'm not going to humiliate myself (or lower my standards) to get a classroom of 18 year old kids to like me. Unfortunately, whether or not your students like you seems to be a big deal.

Sites like Rate My Professor allow students to give scores based on "easiness" or "hotness" instead of quality education parameters. Is this the way we pick our professors? I can't remember choosing science over art because I thought my bio prof was hotter than my art prof. In my case it was true, but that's not why I switched. What people don't appreciate is that educators get up in front of a classroom every single day, sometimes several times a day, and put themselves out there. It's only natural that we would seek approval from our audience. But seeking approval should not take precedent over facilitating the material.

It's intimidating enough to lecture to a large group of people. If I have to worry about which ones like me, I'm in trouble. If they like me, they might learn more, right? I disagree. Many students who fail my course take it over again with me, because they like me and don't want a different professor. Their affection for me had no bearing on their grade or their performance. So why seek their approval? Who is the better professor, the one who is more popular or the one who is more effective? If my students adore me but can't pass the post-test, then what does it matter how many chili peppers I have on Rate My Professor?

I have one chili pepper. That's fine. I'm also apparently helpful and clear, but hard. I can't really disagree with that. One review is a pretty small sample size, though. Without any data to back it up, I feel that today was a fantastic day. My students were really engaged in the lecture material and we had a grand time in lab. I'll take that over "Dammit!" any day.

1 comment:

  1. I'm fighting the urge to get everyone I know to rate you the maximum capsaicin allowance possible. ;-)