Now, I haven’t taught undergraduate students for a few years, but if I recall correctly, at one time browsing my University of Arkansas profile at RateMyProfessors.com was always a good antidote to an overcooked ego. The listing was removed when I changed institutions, but I think “aloof” was used to describe me more than once and apparently I too often “used words that you have to look up in the dictionary.” I’d also be lying if I said that a two-week Slimfast diet back in 2006 was just coincidentally timed with one student kindly noting that I'd put on a few pounds one semester.
In many respects, teaching is a peculiar problem for university professors. Most professors active in research didn’t train to be teachers, but rather they got to the lecture stand by way of their accomplishments in the quiet eden of the laboratory. Because of this, there’s almost a paradoxical selection bias for introverted people as professors. It might sound good in principle, but when you first find yourself caught in those caffeine-fueled headlights of two hundred pairs of bleary freshman eyes at nine in the morning-- eyes which are expecting to see a performance as entertaining as it is enlightening -- this tends to be the perfect climate for annoying behaviors to “present” in an otherwise shy personality. Of course, some professors are perfectly oblivious and their annoyingness isn’t exactly climate-sensitive; some get even worse. But most learn as they go and the nervous tics eventually subside.
Perhaps all of us professors can learn a thing or two from Moore’s old findings, though. I actually agree with Moore when he writes that: “The fact that college professors are among the most independent and less supervised groups in any of the professions may account for the lack of or effectiveness of critical self-analysis.” It seems to me it boils down to the law of averages: smile, but don’t smile too much; slow down your lecture, but not too slow; don’t be formal, but don’t be try to be too familiar either; don’t just stand there, but don’t gesture like a lunatic. And for the love of God, clean your nails and iron your clothes every once in a while. If this helps students to learn, it’s a small price to pay for a more educated society.
On the other hand, so long as the teaching itself is good, perhaps students should cut their professors a little slack on their quirky habits. Personally, I like one 1937 student’s rather bohemian philosophy. She simply wrote to Moore: “I think it’s much more interesting to have my teachers use various habits and expressions. It usually makes their lectures much more interesting, and they are more interesting to look at during class.” If this student is still alive today, she’d be about ninety-two years old. I can only hope that her approach to life never changed -- maybe it even led her to some interesting places along the way. And if there’s any justice in this world, her seventeen-year-old cohort who complained that year about “some professors who let their coat pockets wear out and hang in tatters below the edge of their coats” is living happily ever after in a cozy nursing home, tending to clothes for the slovenly husband she eventually fell in love with.
As for Joe Moore, I followed his publishing tracks as far as they would take me. A few years later, he dug up even more dirt on the annoying habits of high school teachers. And somewhere along the way, he even began looking into the evidence available at the time for mental telepathy, concluding, “It would seem logical at the present stage of 'telepathic' investigation to take an agnostic position, an attitude of 'I do not know.'” And then there was also the rather dubious 1942 study in Child Development comparing white and black preschoolers on their vocabulary and eye-hand coordination. (Whites scored better on the former, black children on the latter.) After that, Moore vanishes into the mysterious obscurities of academic time, leaving us all a bit annoyed.
In this column presented by Scientific American Mind magazine, research psychologist Jesse Bering of Queen's University Belfast ponders some of the more obscure aspects of everyday human behavior. Ever wonder why yawning is contagious, why we point with our index fingers instead of our thumbs or whether being breastfed as an infant influences your sexual preferences as an adult? Get a closer look at the latest data as “Bering in Mind” tackles these and other quirky questions about human nature. Sign up for the RSS feed or friend Dr. Bering on Facebook and never miss an installment again.