Help Students Write Better. Now.

Posted May 24, 2017
    Diane Rubino
Diane Rubino
Adjunct Instructor, New York University


ESB Professional Shutterstock.jpgStruggling To Help Students Write Better?

My earliest efforts to help students improve their writing bombed. Pointing out problems and explaining how to correct them did not have an impact. However, I began to see results when I put students in charge of identifying their own mistakes and tracking their own progress.


My quest began when I started teaching midcareer. I quickly became overwhelmed by the sad state of student writing. But I wasn’t teaching writing per se. So, what’s someone like me to do?


Writing Hacks for Hack Writing

After commiserating with peers got me nowhere, I turned to the assignments to explore what I meant by shoddy prose. I asked myself, “Why doesn’t this piece work?” I noticed patterns across students, papers, and classes. I then focused my efforts and theirs on addressing the key trends I found. The remedies won’t generate Pulitzer Prizes. But students who take their work seriously get surprisingly better, surprisingly quickly with these easy-to-use ideas.


  • Oh, The Places You’ll Go With MS Word©. A key component of bad writing is long, leaden, stream-of-consciousness sentences that seem to go from brain to computer to “send,” without reflection and editing.

    I initially provided a litany of feedback and tried to help students set goals, by suggesting priorities for each person. I now focus on two areas in every course. Keeping it simple improves adherence and is easier on them and me.

    Happily, MS Word’s Authoring and Proofing tools have many options to help beginners become attuned to pitfalls.
    • Passive aggressive. It was not unusual to see an assignment with one-third of the text in passive voice. Explaining that this habit translates into boring writing wasn’t enough to make change happen. What did make a difference was articulating a target (around zero percent) and having students write their passive voice score in the document. If students can’t identify this problem, MS Word can be set to perform that function for them.
    • Slash-and-burn sentences. My students regularly clocked in with rambling sentences which were dozens of words in length. Windy phrases from beginning writers are almost invariably weak. Now they use the word-per-sentence meter in MS Word to keep sentences under 15. Here too there was zero change until students were instructed to submit a word tally with the assignment. I also help them identify culprits by looking for phrases that spill over two lines of word-processed text without a period.

       These two adjustments help a lot. For example, they changed one student’s first tedious slog into a noticeably more readable essay just one week later.


  • The Music of Language.
    Reading your writing aloud is a surefire method to discover clunky wording. There’s no easy way to ensure students complete this task. So I conduct a staged reading to show how a deliberate pace and careful listening helps identify weaknesses. They then read an assignment to a partner in a pair-and-share to help each other hear problems. In the same session, students also read aloud a section of James Joyce’s The Odyssey to get a taste of the value of punctuation. They decide how the text should sound, which means they spontaneously insert commas and periods to create the rhythm giving meaning to the text.


  • Ideas From Last Century to Last Month
    Introducing a few other tools provides students with additional self-help options.
    • A classic that seems modern. I assumed students would be familiar with the near-perfect Strunk and White’s Elements of Style. I was wrong. Since its table of contents conveniently telegraphs its lessons, I have students review only the ToC—an assignment so micro even the most beleaguered can manage it.
    • Modern classic. I also ask everyone to use an online grammar checker like Grammarly to enhance their ability to catch mistakes. Though I thought every student would know about these tools, I was wrong about this too. Yet they seem to appreciate it. Even one of my most reluctant students spontaneously announced that she was now using this program for all her work.


  • Common Sense Is Not Common Practice            

    • Articulate expectations. Conveying the importance of writing well and a sense of urgency about corrective action may be the only step needed. A syllabus alert and a short discussion on the first day of class reinforces the idea that form and function matter. It also allows for the airing of a routine question: Don’t I get credit for my ideas? Because I teach in a communications program it’s easier for me to say, “Only good ideas well expressed matter in the class and in your career.”                    

    • Use existing resources. If you’re a part-time instructor, you may not know about all the student services on campus. It may be valuable to research what’s available. If there is a writing center at your school, it may be time for a referral. I do this often.


As a whole, these ideas are helpful because they encourage students to reflect on and edit their work, something they didn’t seem to do on their own. Another benefit is that they provide an obvious next step. Students may not know what to do with a comment about wordiness, for example. Being instructed to put phrases on a 15-word diet, however, makes expectations clear.


Writing is a complex craft and improving it is an arduous, lengthy endeavor. However, I’ve found a middle ground. For me, this place is located somewhere between ignoring bad prose completely and adopting the role of iconic writing teacher William Zinsser.


Students need assistance with their writing. Some require more guidance than others. How have you incorporated writing skills improvement in your course? Let us know in the comments below. 


Image credit: ESB Professional / Shutterstock


The Summer 2017 Reading List

Posted May 17, 2017
    Christopher Ruel
Christopher Ruel
Community and Social Marketing, Wiley



Sun, Surf, and Stealthy Loons

Ahhh…it’s over; and it’s time for a well-deserved break, some rest, and relaxation. Whether you’re headed to a sandy beach with the soothing sounds of waves lapping at the shore, or the mountains where lakes resound with the haunting sounds of loons, we’ve pulled together a summer reading list for you.


Our Scientific Methodology for Developing This Summer’s Reading List

Creating a high-caliber reading list should always be based on sound research. We used a rigorous methodology by which we challenged the assumption that people use reading to relax and learn. To test our hypothesis, we posed the following question to educators and students: What are you reading this summer? The results verified our assumption; reading, relaxation, and education go together like hand and glove.



Breaking Down the Research

Our comprehensive findings are listed by genre in the handy table below. Happy reading and have a wonderful summer!







Alexander Hamilton

Ron Chernow

In the first full-length biography of Alexander Hamilton in decades, Ron Chernow tells the riveting story of a man who overcame all odds to shape, inspire, and scandalize the newborn America.


Carl Sagan: A Life

Keay Davidson

Carl Sagan was one of the most celebrated scientists of this century—the handsome and alluring visionary who inspired a generation to look to the heavens and beyond. His life was both an intellectual feast and an emotional rollercoaster.


American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer

Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin

J. Robert Oppenheimer is one of the iconic figures of the twentieth century, a brilliant physicist who led the effort to build the atomic bomb for his country in a time of war, and who later found himself confronting the moral consequences of scientific progress. In this magisterial, acclaimed biography twenty-five years in the making, Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin capture Oppenheimer’s life and times, from his early career to his central role in the Cold War.


Think Smarter: Critical Thinking to Improve Problem-Solving and Decision-Making Skills

Michael Kallet

A comprehensive guide to training your brain to do more for you. Written by a critical thinking trainer and coach, the book presents a pragmatic set of tools to apply critical thinking techniques to everyday business issues.


The Fifth Discipline

Peter M. Senge

In The Fifth Discipline, Senge describes how companies can rid themselves of the learning “disabilities” that threaten their productivity and success by adopting the strategies of learning organizations—ones in which new and expansive patterns of thinking are nurtured, collective aspiration is set free, and people are continually learning how to create results they truly desire.


Head Strong: The Bulletproof Plan to Activate Untapped Brain Energy to Work Smarter and Think Faster-in Just Two Weeks

Dave Asprey

For the last decade, Silicon Valley entrepreneur Dave Asprey has worked with world-renowned doctors and scientists to uncover the latest, most innovative methods for making humans perform better—a process known as "biohacking."


Small Great Things

Jodi Picoult

Small Great Things is about racism, choice, fear, and hope. The novel is based on the true story of a labor and delivery nurse who was prohibited from caring for a newborn because the father requested that no African-American nurses tend to his baby. In the fictional version, Ruth, the African-American nurse in question, finds herself on trial for events related to the same request made by a white supremacist father. Using the narratives of Ruth, the baby’s father, and the female public defender who takes Ruth’s case, Picoult examines multiple facets of racism.


Learning to Stay

Erin Celello

Elise Sabato is proud of her husband, Brad, for serving his country…and grateful when he returns home to her. But the traumatic brain injury he suffered in Iraq has turned him from a thoughtful, brilliant, and patient man into someone quite different….someone who requires more care and attention than Elise can give while working in a demanding law firm. And when Brad ends up on his family’s farm, hundreds of miles away, she wonders where their marriage is headed.


Mathematical Mindsets: Unleashing Students’ Potential through Creative Math, Inspiring Messages and Innovative Teaching

Jo Baoler

Mathematical Mindsets provides practical strategies and activities to help teachers and parents show all children, even those who are convinced that they are bad at math, that they can enjoy and succeed in math. Jo Boaler—Stanford researcher, professor of math education, and expert on math learning—has studied why students don’t like math and often fail in math classes.

Environmental Issues

The Hour of Land: A Personal Topography of America’s National Parks

Terry Tempest Williams

America’s national parks are breathing spaces in a world in which such spaces are steadily disappearing, which is why more than 300 million people visit the parks each year. The Hour of Land, a literary celebration of our national parks, an exploration of what they mean to us and what we mean to them.


Ranger’s Apprentice (12 book series)

John A. Flanagan

They have always scared him in the past—the Rangers, with their dark cloaks and shadowy ways. The villagers believe the Rangers practice magic that makes them invisible to ordinary people. And now 15-year-old Will, always small for his age, has been chosen as a Ranger’s apprentice.


Harry Potter (7 book series)

  1. J.K. Rowling

The most evil and powerful dark wizard in history, Lord Voldemort, murders James and Lily Potter but mysteriously disappears after failing to kill their infant son, Harry.


A Natural History of Dragons (5 book series)

Marie Brennan

All the world, from Scirland to the farthest reaches of Eriga, know Isabella, Lady Trent, to be the world’s preeminent dragon naturalist. She is the remarkable woman who brought the study of dragons out of the misty shadows of myth and misunderstanding into the clear light of modern science.


Eragon (4 book series)

Christopher Paolini

The #1 New York Times bestselling Inheritance Cycle about the dragon rider Eragon.

Historical Fiction

The Time In Between

Maria Duenas

The inspiring international bestseller of a seemingly ordinary woman who uses her talent and courage to transform herself first into a prestigious couturier and then into an undercover agent for the Allies during World War II.

Historical Fiction

The Zookeeper’s Wife

Diane Ackerman

When Germany invades Poland, Luftwaffe bombers devastate Warsaw, the city's zoo along with it, most of the animals are killed, or stolen away to Berlin. Zookeepers Jan and Antonina Zabinski begin smuggling Jewish refugees in the empty cages to safety. As the war escalates Jan becomes increasingly involved in the anti-Nazi resistance.


The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics

Daniel James Brown

Out of the depths of the Depression comes an irresistible story about beating the odds and finding hope in the most desperate of times—the improbable, intimate account of how nine working-class boys from the American West showed the world at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin what true grit really meant.


Salem’s Lot

Stephen King

Stephen King’s second novel, the classic vampire bestseller Salem’s Lot, tells the story of evil in small-town America.



Stephen King

Seven adults who return to their hometown to confront a nightmare they had first stumbled on as teenagers…an evil without a name: It.


The Way of the SEAL: Think Like an Elite Warrior to Lead and Succeed

Mark Divine

In The Way of the SEAL, ex-Navy Commander Mark Divine reveals exercises, meditations and focusing techniques to train your mind for mental toughness, emotional resilience and uncanny intuition. Along the way you'll reaffirm your ultimate purpose, define your most important goals, and take concrete steps to make them happen.


Yes, Please

Amy Poehler

In her first book, one of our most beloved, funny folks delivers a smart, pointed, and ultimately inspirational read. Full of the comedic skill that makes us all love Amy, Yes Please is a rich and varied collection of stories, lists, poetry (Plastic Surgery Haiku, to be specific), photographs, mantras and advice.


Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood

Trevor Noah

Born a Crime is the story of a mischievous young boy who grows into a restless young man as he struggles to find himself in a world where he was never supposed to exist. It is also the story of that young man’s relationship with his fearless, rebellious, and fervently religious mother—his teammate, a woman determined to save her son from the cycle of poverty, violence, and abuse that would ultimately threaten her own life.


Lab Girl

Hope Jahren

An illuminating debut memoir of a woman in science; a moving portrait of a longtime friendship; and a stunningly fresh look at plants that will forever change how you see the natural world
Acclaimed scientist Hope Jahren has built three laboratories in which she s studied trees, flowers, seeds, and soil.


The Women’s Murder Club (16 book series)

James Patterson

Set in San Francisco, the novels follow a group of women from different professions relating to investigating crime as they work together to solve murders. The series follows the women through their personal issues, including Lindsay Boxer’s medical issues, marriage, and pregnancy.


The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Stieg Larsson

Murder mystery, family saga, love story, and financial intrigue combine into one satisfyingly complex and entertainingly atmospheric novel.


13 Reasons Why

Jay Asher

When Clay Jenson plays the tapes he received in a mysterious package, he’s surprised to hear the voice of dead classmate Hannah Baker. He’s one of 13 people who receive Hannah’s story, which details the circumstances that led to her suicide.


Poirot Series

Agatha Christie

Scores of novels and short stories chronicling the Belgian detective Hercule Poirot.


Big Little Lies

Liane Moriarty

A murder…A tragic accident…Or just parents behaving badly? What’s indisputable is that someone is dead. Big Little Lies is a brilliant take on ex-husbands and second wives, mothers and daughters, schoolyard scandal, and the little lies that can turn lethal.


The Poetic Works of Lord Byron

George Gordon Byron, 6th Baron Byron

Described as ‘Mad, bad and dangerous to know’ by one of his lovers, Lady Caroline Lamb, Lord Byron was the quintessential Romantic. Flamboyant, charismatic and brilliant, he remains almost as notorious for his life - as a political revolutionary, sexual adventurer and traveler - as he does for his literary work.

Race Issues

Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness

Blake Crouch

In Dark Matters Simone Browne locates the conditions of blackness as a key site through which surveillance is practiced, narrated, and resisted. She shows how contemporary surveillance technologies and practices are informed by the long history of racial formation and by the methods of policing black life under slavery, such as branding, runaway slave notices, and lantern laws.



Stephanie Meyer

Isabella Swan’s move to Forks, a small, perpetually rainy town in Washington, could have been the most boring move she ever made. But once she meets the mysterious and alluring Edward Cullen, Isabella’s life takes a thrilling and terrifying turn.

Science Fiction

The Magicians

Lev Grossman

Quentin Coldwater is brilliant but miserable. A high school math genius, he’s secretly fascinated with a series of children’s fantasy novels set in a magical land called Fillory, and real life is disappointing by comparison. When Quentin is unexpectedly admitted to an elite, secret college of magic, it looks like his wildest dreams have come true

Science Fiction

Ready Player One

Ernest Cline

At once wildly original and stuffed with irresistible nostalgia, Ready Player One is a spectacularly genre-busting, ambitious, and charming debut - part quest novel, part love story, and part virtual space opera set in a universe where spell-slinging mages battle giant Japanese robots, entire planets are inspired by Blade Runner, and flying DeLoreans achieve light speed.

Science Fiction

The Program (5 book series)

Suzanne Young

Sloane knows better than to cry in front of anyone. With suicide now an international epidemic, one outburst could land her in The Program, the only proven course of treatment. Sloane’s parents have already lost one child; Sloane knows they’ll do anything to keep her alive. She also knows that everyone who’s been through The Program returns as a blank slate. Because their depression is gone—but so are their memories.

Science Fiction

Ancillary Justice (3 book series)

Anne Leckie

On a remote, icy planet, the soldier known as Breq is drawing closer to completing her quest.
Once, she was the Justice of Toren - a colossal starship with an artificial intelligence linking thousands of soldiers in the service of the Radch, the empire that conquered the galaxy.
Now, an act of treachery has ripped it all away, leaving her with one fragile human body, unanswered questions, and a burning desire for vengeance.


The Five Love Languages: The Secret to Love That Lasts

Gary Chapman

Falling in love is easy. Staying in love—that’s the challenge. How can you keep your relationship fresh and growing amid the demands, conflicts, and just plain boredom of everyday life? The 5 Love Languages is as practical as it is insightful. Updated to reflect the complexities of relationships today, this new edition reveals intrinsic truths and applies relevant, actionable wisdom in ways that work.


The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change

Stephen R. Covey

This is one of the rare books that has influenced presidents, CEOs, educators, and individuals all over the world not only to improve their businesses and careers but to live with integrity, service, dignity, and success in all areas of life. It has had an undeniable impact for the past 25 years--and will no doubt continue to be influential for many more.


Swipe Right: The Life and Death Power of Sex and Romance

Levi Lusko

There is nothing more powerful on earth than the forces of love, sex, and romance. In fact, relationships are a matter of life-and-death importance.


The Grid

Gretchen Bakke

America’s electrical grid, an engineering triumph of the twentieth century, is turning out to be a poor fit for the present. It’s not just that the grid has grown old and is now in dire need of basic repair. Today, as we invest great hope in new energy sources--solar, wind, and other alternatives--the grid is what stands most firmly in the way of a brighter energy future.


The Holy Bible


The Bible is the various collections of sacred scripture of the various branches of Judaism and Christianity. The Bible, in its various editions, is the best-selling book in history


Studies in the Sermon on the Mount

David Martyn Lloyd- Jones

A spiritual classic, this detailed and comprehensive study by one of the greatest expository preachers of our time explains Christ’s teaching in the Sermon on the Mount and incisively applies it to the Christian life.


No Middle Name: The Complete Collection of Jack Reacher Short Stories

Lee Child

Get ready for the ultimate Jack Reacher experience: a thrilling new novella and eleven previously published stories, together for the first time in one pulse-pounding collection.


Miss Peregrine’s Peculiar Children (3 book series)

Ransom Riggs

A mysterious island. An abandoned orphanage. A strange collection of very curious photographs. It all waits to be discovered in this groundbreaking novel, which mixes fiction and photography in a thrilling new kind of reading experience.


The Circle

Dave Eggers

When Mae Holland is hired to work for the Circle, the world’s most powerful internet company, she feels she’s been given the opportunity of a lifetime. The Circle, run out of a sprawling California campus, links users’ personal emails, social media, banking, and purchasing with their universal operating system, resulting in one online identity and a new age of civility and transparency.

Urban Issues

Zoned Out

Jonathan Levine

Researchers have responded to urban sprawl, congestion, and pollution by assessing alternatives such as smart growth, new urbanism, and transit-oriented development. Underlying this has been the presumption that, for these options to be given serious consideration as part of policy reform, science has to prove that they will reduce auto use and increase transit, walking, and other physical activity.

Urban Issues

The Life and Death of Great American Cities

Jane Jacobs

Jane Jacobs, an editor and writer on architecture in New York City in the early sixties, argued that urban diversity and vitality were being destroyed by powerful architects and city planners.  Rigorous, sane, and delightfully epigrammatic, Jacobs’s small masterpiece is a blueprint for the humanistic management of cities.


We hope this list has provided you with suggestions if you were pondering what to take with you on vacation or while relaxing at home. What’s on your reading list this summer? Let us know in the comments below.


Image Credit: Tischenko Irina/Shutterstock


    Christopher Ruel
Christopher Ruel
Community and Social Marketing, Wiley

To celebrate Early Careers Week, we asked educators the following question: What was the best lesson you learned early on in your teaching career? Here are their answers.



Do not try to impress your students with the depth and breadth of your knowledge of the subject matter that you are teaching. Concentrate on teaching the most important things well, rather than attempting to cover everything that could come up for a particular topic. It is much more important in accounting to have them understand well the most common method rather than to teach them three or four methods of doing something, and [have them] not comprehend any of them. —Reb Beatty, CPA, CFE, CGMA, Anne Arundel Community College


I realized that I did not know enough. When students asked questions, I learned I needed to learn more. And deeper, and [from] many different approaches. What I learned in college was "stuff" but what I was asked by students were "wonder" questions. Now I like to focus on asking students "what are you wondering" or other questions like that. —Joe Vignolini, Flint Hill School


Be flexible. There are a ton of curveballs that you have to be able to react to. —Steve LaMore, Lorain County Community College


It was adjusting to the class. I mean you need to spend some time to understand the students’ capabilities and their background knowledge, then teach accordingly. —Chathuranga Vidanage, Texas Tech University


Students can see when you care. —Amy Kwan, University of Toronto


Confidence! The students can sniff you out—fake it till you make it if you have to. —Elizabeth Stelley, Richland College


You should not believe they will prepare for a class, even when you ask them to read or do an assignment before the next class. Also, do not assume students will look at a syllabus or an exam schedule. —Pam Graybeal, University of Central Florida


Never assume that the students know the stuff I think they should know. —Wafaa Khattou, Valencia College-West


Learn to evolve; the teacher you are on day 1 is slightly different from the one you’ll be on day 100 and drastically different on day 10,000. Don't be afraid to share what you do well. It's a great way to model such behavior for your students, and it will allow you to grow. Lead a balanced life, and remember that no one is perfect, but if you are thinking about what you might do differently from one class session to the next, you are already ahead of 99% of those out there.—Douglas Petrick, Upper St. Clair High School


The students often teach ME! —Amber Raley, Dallas County Community College District


Do not underestimate the time it will take you to prep for the first semester you teach. —Melissa Altman-Traub, Community College of Philadelphia


Stay on top of grading! —Levente Borvak, North Lake College


I think the best lesson I learned was never to believe I know everything and be willing to take constructive criticism. Doing so has allowed me to grow and evolve as a professor continually. Hopefully, I've become a better instructor and guide for my students that come through my classes. —Theopholieus Worrell, Delgado Community College


Be Prepared. —David Hunt, The College of New Jersey


What was the best advice you received when you started your career as an educator? What advice would you provide to a new colleague just beginning their journey? Share your thoughts in the comments below.


Image Credit: iStockphoto/Getty Images


    Christopher Ruel
Christopher Ruel
Community and Social Marketing, Wiley

123496227.jpgWe recently asked educators about the advice they often give students who are about to graduate and begin the next part of their lives. Sixty professors responded, all providing excellent wisdom based on their own experiences. We’ve selected ten of the best to share with you and to use as a springboard should a student ask you, “What should I do now?”


Be humble and be willing to continue to learn.  Education is a never ending endeavor.

Professor Theopholieus Worrell, Delgado Community College


My advice is to be courageous. There is no better time in your life than now to try something new, move to a new city, start a job, etc. I often wish I was more adventurous early on, but mostly, the key is to know that you will only regret the things you never tried!

Professor Elizabeth Stelley, Richland College


Be true to yourself, your passions, and your long-term goals, but realize there are many ways to reach your goals, not just one path. What may look like setbacks can be the best lessons in life.

Professor Terry Thompson, Wor-Wic Community College


Remember to celebrate the smallest accomplishments. If you lose sight of your daily path, then your goals aren’t as joyful.

Professor Amanda Rosenzweig, Delgado Community


What you know and how good you are at doing it will only get you so far. It is just as much about the personal connections as it is your knowledge base (if not more). Get off your phones and Facebook accounts and connect with people face-to-face.  I continually get job offers (even though I'm not looking), because of my personal connections.

Professor Reb Beatty, CPA, CFE, CGMA, Anne Arundel Community College


Take time to get to know the people around you, work hard and work smart.  Remember the people who helped you get this far and pay it forward.

Professor Cynthia Peck, Delta Community College


See challenges as opportunities and never stop learning.

Professor Amber Raley, Dallas County Community College District


Don't be afraid to advocate for yourself because there is nobody who is going to help you more than YOU.

Professor Candace Witherspoon, Valdosta State University


Don't worry if you don't get your "dream job" or hired at one of the top firms. You may be surprised that you like a smaller firm, or your career may take a different and better path than you ever expected. Life is a journey.

Professor Melissa Shirah, Santiago Canyon College


Learn to talk with real people in person. Networking is a skill that can be learned. Personal connections make your career and life richer. Be proud of what you accomplished. Help lift someone else up.

Professor Joan Barber, Delaware Technical College


You can wander a little. I majored in Biology and didn't like my work, so after a few years I found a way to transition to another area. It's OK to realize that what you studied might not be the right fit for you.

Professor Susana Velez-Castrillon, University of West Georgia


Do you have a favorite tip you give your graduating students? Did a professor give you valuable advice prior to donning your robe and mortar board? Feel free to share your inspiring words below in the comments below.


Image Credit: Skip ODonnell/Getty Images


    Diane Rubino
Diane Rubino
Adjunct Instructor, New York University

Instructor at Whiteboard.jpg“How about a communications instructor position in my department, Professor?” my friend Eva messaged on Facebook.


The title of Professor, in the broad sense, is applied to many who teach in Higher Education. But for me, this short note launched a long relationship with the reflected glory of the title. The status instantly conferred was dazzling. I bit the hook without seeing the line and sinker attached by equating it with fallacies about the unidirectional transfer of knowledge.


It was the journey away from Professor Rubino that proved valuable. I learned how my perceptions of who I should be negatively impacted my teaching.


Ultimately, I discovered that the title was part of a fable I told myself about what it meant to be a teacher. The burden of being solely responsible for leading students to learning and being the all-knowing oracle is hardly the best model for teaching most adults. I had overemphasized me and de-emphasized those who came to learn.


Unrealistic Expectations

From my very first class students called me “Professor” Rubino. I embraced it because it lifted my ego. Looking back, I knew the title would create a distance, because I’d felt that separation as a student. But I didn’t want anyone too close as I struggled to live up to the honorific. I was aiming to be both a fountain of all knowledge and a dazzling one-woman show. In retrospect this ideal was rooted in schoolgirl dreams of popularity rather than sound pedagogy.


The flip side was the self-imposed pressure to achieve my fount/star ideal. To manage the discomfort, I took every opportunity offered by my school’s teaching support centers to develop my instructional skills--even working with their coach. I relaxed into my role. But I held on to my title.


Crashing And Learning

Then one semester I hit a brick wall right away, misjudging the difficulty of the course’s textbook. I initially resisted a suggestion of putting the students in teams to share the reading. That strategy seemed too easy. But I relented when it became clear they couldn’t do the work individually.


While the reading groups were instructed to debrief before class, the classroom was still my time for solo pontification. But after a student complained that nobody wanted to meet before the session, I added in-class debriefings.


To my surprise, these exercises sparked a lively environment in which the students grew comfortable and confident, and more engaged for the whole session. Those who said nothing early in the semester suddenly had their hands up multiple times every session.


I too learned from this pedagogical change up. Up until that point, a part of me still believed I was the center of all learning in my class—even though the school’s trainers tried to pry me away from that myth. Seeing the re-structured session’s success was a powerful indicator that I was wrong.


Rude Awakening

As my perception of teaching evolved, I wondered if there were other actions I could take to enhance the student experience. But I continued to hold onto “professor.” What harm could it do?


I changed my mind fairly abruptly during an unpleasant midterm grade conference with Brigitte (a pseudonym). During our conversation I explained why she earned a C+. The displeasure about her grade forced to the surface emotions she’d been saving all term. She scolded me angrily about how upsetting the class was. Brigitte was communicating something that I recognized as fear, perhaps of failure and possibly of me.


In the most obvious sense it was easy to see why. She was an outlier among her classmates in terms of age and work experience, an introvert among extroverts.


Equally importantly, the small class size made it impossible for her to hide her inattention to coursework. When I spoke to her about it early in the semester, she explained that she was “too busy” to do her work. I was shocked by her casual approach. Out of earshot of her peers, I told her to step up her game.


Brigitte needed to do her work and find a way to express herself among her lively classmates. But it takes two to tango. Based upon my relationships with her peers, I didn’t think her feelings were universally held by the class. But her words resonated. I felt lousy that she was afraid—the same yuck I get when students have an outsized fear of public speaking, despite it being a course requirement. It was the same yuck I get experiencing the fear she expressed.


The experience with Brigitte affected me to the point where I wanted to do something different. I concluded that re-calibrating the power dynamic was part of the solution. There was one straightforward action I could take immediately--drop the whole “professor” thing and let students call me by my first name. It forced them to be deferential—if in name only. While not the most original idea ever, it was easy to do and all I could conjure up in the moment.


Felt the fear. Did It Anyway.

But I resisted my instinct. I wanted to maintain the control/status I imagined the title gave me. I worried about giving students too much power. What if I changed my mind in the middle of the semester? Could I change it back? Could I try it on for a semester?


Still, the more I thought about it, the more it began to itch. So I used my first name only to sign a welcome email before the next semester. I made sure to refer to myself as Diane in the first session. Throughout the term students would revert to calling me professor, which seems to be the norm where I teach.


Once out of the habit, the title rapidly began to feel phony. Now I just tell students that I prefer to be called Diane.


They don’t seem to be sweating it one way or another. I recently discussed with a former student how the title is only part of a constellation of symbols—some as basic as standing at the head of the room—that convey power.


Whatever I thought the honorific would do, it did the opposite. At first it seemed to generate power. But when I learned more about teaching and gained additional experience the glittery title and all that it represented to me became, I realized, kryptonite.


*I dedicate this piece to all who shared their insights with me and it is a reflection of my journey, not a one-size-fits-all prescription.


Image Credit: Image Source/Getty Images


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