02/27/2012 06:07 pm ET Updated Apr 28, 2012

Dirty Professor Secrets

No, sadly, not the kind of "dirty professor" who pretends his appointment was an internship at Penthouse Letters, nor the kind who advertises his course with glamour shots straight out of a bizarro-universe Van Halen video. What I'm talking about here are secrets of the professorial trade. They're not even shameful, but for some reason nobody shares them with students -- which is too bad, because knowing how we operate can help students succeed. So, though it may blackball me from every Faculty Club in America, I'm sharing them now.

1. We are people.
It may seem like professors design our lives with the express purpose of impeding student fun. And yes, it would do us good to remember that students have personal relationships to our assignments: One that appears to be busywork, or needlessly arduous, is nothing less than a personal affront. I try to avoid this by communicating the purpose and time expectations of each assignment, but even then I sometimes encounter student thoughtlessness and hostility: texting and Facebooking in class, treating me like the hired help in demanding emails, turning in plagiarized papers, and even the occasional mouth-off. The dirty secret is that no matter what we say, this hurts our feelings, because we are people. I know, it's a bit uncomfortable to think of your prof as a person with a (somewhat) regular life who eats, sleeps, uses the restroom, probably even has s-e-x with a spouse. I once had a pair of scandalized students bursting to tell me that OMG they saw me walking to the train listening to my iPod and "if we saw you at Trader Joe's or something, we'd have a heart attack!" Yes, it's true that we do keep things somewhat impersonal in class, and sometimes we are many decades older than students, but that does not make us any less real. I try to cultivate human relationships with my students by assigning group work and then "visiting" each group, and I find that helps tremendously on both our levels, because it's pretty difficult to dehumanize someone when you talk to them all the time.

2. We are probably doing an experiment on you.
It's a well-deserved cliché that teachers are the ones who do most of the learning, and that is because every class -- especially the bad ones -- is a vital learning experience for us. Most of us study pedagogy (the art of teaching) in addition to our chosen field, and we are eager to implement the latest advances in the classroom, whether that be "learner-to-learner" activities (that's why you have to do all those presentations) or some cringe-worthy attempt to incorporate Twitter into a Renaissance Poetry course (Iambic pentameter tweets only! "@ProfCringey I hope you wrote your essays all yourself"). Sometimes these innovations will be an unmitigated disaster. So, another dirty secret is that while we are always solid on the material we're teaching (it takes seven years to get a PhD), sometimes with our method we have no idea what we're doing. But this is a good thing -- if you have a prof who's been using the same yellowed typewritten (!) notes since 1981, or who still uses an overhead projector (!), chances are you're going to be bored.

3. We put too much on the syllabus on purpose.
Back in the Mesozoic age of the mid-90s when I was in college, a "syllabus" was one sheet of paper with a list of books on it and maybe a single paragraph about the aims of a course. Today, most of my syllabi top eight pages and are crammed with grading rubrics and class policies, all with the express purpose of avoiding lawsuit in case of a Snowflake Student or perceived (or actual--remember, I'm human) professorial error. I have to assign the syllabus homework to make sure anyone reads it -- and while they do, they often suffer a minor cardiac infarction when they see the piles of work I'm expecting. Here is what is perhaps the dirtiest professor secret of all: This will almost certainly be pared down as the term progresses and students' capabilities become clear. In the rare case we have a room full of Hermiones, every page might stay, but, as one of my former colleagues used to say: "If you take something off the syllabus, then you're the hero." I've completely decimated all future heroics by sharing this, but it's true. Of course, this is contingent on students pretending they don't know about it -- the surest way to make sure something stays on the syllabus is to ask if I'll take it off (remember, human).

And, finally, here is a Bonus Secret: We do play favorites. Everyone who does his/her work and participates nicely in class is tied for our favorite. Everyone who doesn't is tied for our least favorite. The end.