Occasionally, in preparing stories for this column, I’ll stumble across an ancient, glittering gem of empirical research that has been either buried in the dust of an obscure library bookshelf or swallowed up in the great electronic morass of some online academic archive. Such studies contain precious, long-forgotten data or ideas that, in being ahead of their time, now twinkle in the modern-day sun of science with the extraordinary promise of revolutionizing our thinking or jarring loose an otherwise stagnant paradigm. But more often, I come across old studies like the one I’m about to describe—not so much a bright diamond to newly illuminate the discipline, but rather a little chunk of gray asphalt wedged into its foundations. Nobody notices it and probably for good reason.
That being said, such studies can also be rather entertaining. And if nothing else, the late Joe Moore’s work in the 1930s on the “annoying habits of college professors” just goes to show that the social ethos operating on American college campuses probably hasn’t changed all that much over the last seventy-four years. Moore was employed by Vanderbilt’s George Peabody College for Teachers in Nashville, Tennessee and, as a researcher in this field, he wanted to know how students’ perceptions of their professors contributed to the learning dynamic in the college classroom. Let me clarify that. He wanted to know just which of those “quirky” or “eccentric” behavioral traits and habits students were able to shrug off and which really got under their skin. Thus, “the college professor,” Moore reasoned, “might possibly improve his teaching if he were more aware of some of his most annoying habits.” Now remember, this was 1930s middle America, so Moore was dealing primarily with male professors. But to his credit, he did distinguish between those traits that “girls” found most irritating versus those judged most intolerable by the “boys” at the colleges where he did his research.
As was common in those days, the methods in this antiquated study were very simple. In a series of related articles published in the The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology (in 1935 and 1937), Moore instructed a group of over 300 social science students who were studying at universities in North Carolina, Tennessee, Alabama and Idaho to keep a diary in class in which they were to jot down, as they occurred, any and all things irritating about their professors. “Be critical but fair,” Moore advised. The students diligently took notes on their professors’ quips, foibles, movements, insults, hygiene, color coordination and whatever else rubbed them the wrong way over the next few weeks in class. An important caveat was that the specific professors would never find out what was said, so students could presumably feel free to unleash their frustrations without fear of their professors’ retaliation. And Moore wasn’t naive. He knew that annoyingness, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. “It should be stated at the outset,” he wrote, “that no hard and fast definition for annoyingness can be stated.” (He might have felt differently had he known some of my colleagues.)
Nonetheless, to give the students some sense of what he was looking for, Moore started off by listing a few examples of annoyances, mannerisms and habits such as “cocking head,” “not looking at class,” “peculiar styles in clothing,” “nails soiled,” and “sticking hands in pocket.” This got the students out of the gate in making their judgments, but they soon found that Moore’s list needed some adding to -- actually, a lot of adding to. Some 63 additional items were amended to Moore’s initial list of 25. The final sample included about 200 professors and some telling patterns did seem to emerge in the data. Among the habits judged by students as being “very annoying,” some of the most frequently listed were rambling, “riding” students, pausing too long, and using pet expressions. I’m not sure how these particular pet expressions would go over in today’s college classroom, but in Moore’s study, some of the more bothersome ones apparently included “Ain’t that right, pal?;” “In the final analysis;” “Interestingly enough;” “Like an old mule” (I can only guess what this was referring to.); “If you please, gentlemen;” “Yes suh! Yes suh!” and perhaps my personal favorite, “That’s the meat of the cocoanut.”
Some professors went so far as to scratch their head, clear their throat, act too formal, rub their chin, frown, use slang, gesticulate or pause too long. A few even had the indecency to wear their clothes unpressed and smile too much. Both male and female students found rambling by their professors to be insufferable, but the women were generally more offended by inattention to physical appearance and tended to dislike sarcastic professors more than the men, who were unhinged by inarticulate, slow-talking professors who stuck their hands in their pockets a little too often. Some annoying habits were difficult to shoehorn into one of Moore’s categories. For example, one student was perturbed by the nasally quality of his teacher’s voice, and another didn’t appreciate the limited standup repertoire of her instructor: “He knows three jokes and tells them every class.” It’s unclear if this was the same professor who “pays more attention to one sex than the other.” (And also unclear which gender that was -- though we can probably guess.)