July 1998 // Faculty and Staff Development
Professors are Human:
Breaking Down the Barriers Between Instructor and Student
by Steven Kreis
Note: This article was originally published in The Technology Source (http://ts.mivu.org/) as: Steven Kreis "Professors are Human:
Breaking Down the Barriers Between Instructor and Student" The Technology Source, July 1998. Available online at http://ts.mivu.org/default.asp?show=article&id=1034. The article is reprinted here with permission of the publisher.

The delivery of information on the World Wide Web has the distinct possibility of enhancing and transforming current pedagogical attitudes and practices in higher education. Faculty in a number of disciplines have succeeded in making additional course material available on the Web. Some professors have uploaded syllabi along with links to additional resources. Others ask that their students deliver their assignments online for peer review. Still others have taken the rare step of uploading their lectures and initiating e-mail forums for discussion. One need only view the collection of course materials at the World Lecture Hall to get an idea of the possibilities which exist in the integration of technology with the practices and goals of higher education. Instructional aids, multimedia technology, interactive Web sites, MUDs, discussion lists, audio, video, and innovative content all have helped to transform the classroom experience in profound ways. This transformation necessarily involves both student and professor.

Although most online course material includes some details about the instructor, few of these Web sites go so far as to discuss the professor as a unique individual. This is a missing ingredient in faculty development programs. Students often enter the classroom without an idea of what is expected of them beyond course requirements. Rarely do professors explain why they teach or even how they came to teach in the first place. This is important, because if students know this information, they may be more likely to perceive their teacher as a human being who is willing to share themselves as well as what they know, and, therefore, become more approachable. If students sense a personal relationship with their professors, they may be more willing to engage in constructive dialogue about the course content.

The purpose of this article is to describe a publication available to my students on the Web that not only provides access to the content of an entire course online, but also personalizes the course by including details about myself that convey a sense of who is teaching (and why they should trust me) as well as what is being taught. This publication is The History Guide.

The History Guide

The History Guide includes a number of sections of use to all students, regardless of whether or not they are enrolled in my courses. The first section of The History Guide consists of a multi-part primer that was created to assist students who are enrolled in history classes at either the secondary or college level. One of these sections, "A Student's Guide to the Study of History", was written to supply answers to fundamental questions about the study of history and discusses the following issues:

  • The Proper Attitude
  • Why Study History?
  • Why Write History?
  • How to Read a History Assignment
  • Taking Notes in Class
  • Studying for the Examination
  • About Your Instructor

The "Student's Guide" concentrates on writing both the short essay and the longer research essay (11 parts). The tone is deliberately conversational, based as it is upon experiences over the course of my academic career. Perhaps the most important section of the "Student's Guide" highlights the necessity of maintaining a proper attitude throughout the course of study. The proper attitude, it is suggested, is as much the responsibility of the student as it is the instructor. Since education is a dialogue between the instructor and student, all those concerned must be prepared and willing to engage in the process of self-improvement.

History departments often supply their students with printed guides to the study of history. These guides can certainly help students with a number of details pertinent to the discipline of history in general. However, these guides rarely go beyond the mechanics of writing or research techniques. The "Student's Guide," on the other hand, personalizes the historian's craft by discussing history from the viewpoint of the actual experience of a practicing instructor in the field. The fact that the "Student's Guide" is an online publication means that its content can by updated with a frequency impossible in a more traditional format.

The next component of The History Guide is a brief "What is History?" page that offers up a number of quotations by historians about their craft. The intent here is to energize and stimulate the historical imagination. The "What is History?" page is followed by a section of hand-picked "History Resources." Since extensive meta-lists of history resources already exist, the idea was to choose resources for their specific content and presentation rather than inundate the student with hundreds of links arranged in more or less random order.

The most ambitious section of The History Guide is composed of two sets of lectures: "20th Century European History" and "Modern European Intellectual History." Included in these sections are the actual lectures that are presented during class, and these are hyperlinked extensively. Besides external links, I have also included a number of images that point to internal Web pages. For example, a student reading my lecture on "The Age of Anxiety: Europe in the 1920s," encounters a discussion of Jos?ɬ© Ortega y Gasset’s Revolt of the Masses (1930). An inline image of Ortega is included—clicking on the image takes the reader to an internal page that contains a brief biography of Ortega as well as a lengthy selection from The Revolt of the Masses. Such an approach presents the student with a lecture as well as additional material, something accomplished traditionally (in history, at least) by a textbook and another book of primary and secondary sources.

There is something decidedly different between students reading a textbook or monograph and students reading the lectures of their professor. It is a psychological difference; students begin to get the impression that their professor—someone whom they can now identify by sight and sound—is talking to them, rather than an anonymous author whose name adorns the cover of the text. The goal is to break down the traditional barrier of authority erected between instructor and students and to empower students with knowledge rather than hide that knowledge as if it were the instructor's intellectual property alone. This has profound ramifications for the students' classroom experience in terms of both what they retain and what they learn about the learning process itself.

With this in mind, I concluded The History Guide with my Vitae, Intellectual Autobiography, and a statement of my Educational Philosophy. The intent of including these materials is so that students will gain a greater sense that their instructor is a unique human being with a unique experience and not "just a professor." In this way, the authority of the instructor over students is further relaxed as I allow my students into my private world, the world of an academic, historian, father, and individual.

Lessons Learned and Taught

What is to be concluded from such an exercise? Allowing students to obtain syllabi, lectures, handouts, assignments, and take-home examinations from the Web site encourages them to trust their instructor. After all, I present my students the opportunity to view the entire contents of the course freely and outside the confines of the classroom. Students enjoy the fact that they can contact me via e-mail whenever they choose. And students appreciate the fact that I made the effort to let them know that I was "only human."

One criticism leveled at professors who publish their lectures on the Web is that students will not bother to come to class. My experience on this issue has been decidedly different. Students are eager to attend classes because they have a better idea of what is going to be discussed. In the classroom, they can actually listen to the lecture rather than busy themselves with note-taking which, in many respects, forces most students not to listen to the lecture. And of course, having the freedom to download, print, and read any lecture at any time means that students can gain a greater sense of the continuity of the course, thus enhancing their overall experience. Furthermore, a relationship of mutual trust is created between the instructor and students as well as among the students themselves. Classroom discussions of various subjects are more vibrant and more informed and students hesitant to speak in class find themselves "integrated" into the classroom experience. All this is accentuated by an e-mail forum that engaged the students in the "class after the class."

It is crucial that students understand that their instructor is human and not just a body standing at the lectern. With this in mind, I have made myself available to my students in a number of ways. The rewards have been immense. Students not only learn more but are eager to learn more. Likewise, I too feel improved since I have had the opportunity to understand the needs of my students in a manner quite unlike that of the traditional classroom. And because I have made a conscious effort to keep abreast of the latest developments in the World Wide Web and the Internet, I have had the chance to experiment with new forms of information delivery. The Web is clearly an excellent vehicle of communication when used in conjunction with the more traditional classroom experience. And by helping to break down the barriers of authority, it has made students more willing to follow their professor down the path of individual self-improvement.

The History Guide as Development Model

The basic question which the preceding discussion raises is this: in what ways is it desirable to include a project like The History Guide in future faculty development programs? Technological issues aside, the vast majority of professors would consider their written lectures their intellectual property and would hesitate to place them in the public domain. This is certainly understandable. Current conditions of tenure require publication in the traditional manner. Whether Internet publications will eventually qualify for tenure review is uncertain.

Most history departments have created their own Web sites since the explosion of the World Wide Web in 1995. These sites do contain valuable information regarding degree programs and course offerings; e-mail addresses, fields of expertise, and degrees conferred upon faculty are frequently included as well. However, important details about the instructors are often absent. Why is this the case? Is it because faculty find this sort of information of little use to others? Is it really that important to prospective students to know something beyond where one faculty member or another received a Ph.D.? I would suggest that it makes a profound difference. Faculty should realize that students are interested in such details for the simple reason that it helps personalize the classroom experience. Furthermore, since many of us are engaged in training a future generation of teachers, it makes sense that we pass on to them an explanation of why we came to teach in the first place. My own classroom demeanor suggests to the students that I am engaged in teaching them how to learn as much as I am teaching them how to teach. It seems necessary to me that both roles be present at the same time.

This article does not intend to suggest that every professor create a Web site containing the full text of their lectures. What I would like to suggest, however, is that in the interests of student motivation and success, professors ought to be more willing to let their students partake of at least a glimpse of their private world. The History Guide has been my attempt to complete such a task. If the barriers of traditional professor-student authority are not relaxed or at least modified, we, as educators, may certainly fall victim to the admonition of Cicero: The authority of those who teach is often an obstacle to those who want to learn.

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