Monday, October 29, 2007

Teaching as Operant Conditioning of the Teacher

This year, I've started teaching a section of undergraduates for the very first time. There are two general schools of thought among academics about teaching. A) "Oh god, why do I have to put up with these children? I have research to do!" B) "I love their innocent little minds!" As noted earlier, I expected to find myself in category A, and I'm shocked to instead find myself in category B.

One wonders why. It feels vaguely immoral to like teaching. The suspicion is that one is forming a personality cult around oneself. Should it feel like an ego boost to have a classroom of bright young faces rapt in awe at the words of wisdom (hah!) flowing past one's lips? Is it really healthy to enjoy the peals of laughter (much of it no doubt motivated by grades and the Will to Sucking Up) at one's jokes?

But perhaps the personality cult runs in the opposite direction. For perhaps the Will to Sucking Up is availing them on a very deep level. For now it's Grading Time.

[Incidentally, grading is the reason that my posts have been rather sparse so far. I'm buried under a pile of midterms about Locke, Hobbes, and Mill. That's a spread that's particularly hard for me: Mill is the only one of those thinkers in whom I have much interest, and he's also the hardest. So the students who choose to write about Mill are producing the worst answers. And I'm faced with a choice between boredom and pain.]

'Cause, see I feel terribly guilty when I have to give them bad grades. See how dangerous this conditioning is. (Did Skinner ever write about this?) I teach them and amuse them, and they provide positive reinforcement with their smart comments in discussion and their smiles and their laughter and their learning. Like any reward-driven animal, I seek out that positive reinforcement (and the good teaching evaluations which go along, and hopefully grease my job market skids a few years down the line) and avoid negative reinforcement. Consequently, I feel an aversion to giving them bad grades. There's some dopamine sloshing around making this happen, but it cashes out when I think "but s/he's so smart! And so hard-working! Maybe I can find some more points somewhere in here."

But that thought must be squashed, for down that path lieth grade inflation and an all-A class and unfairness to the (many) people who performed really well. And thus Your Correspondent is revealed as a Total Softie. And this from the guy who was telling cynical jokes months in advance about grading. (I've been known to openly plan to grade in monkey-hours, as in "an infinite number of monkeys in an infinite time could write the works of Shakespeare. Your paper is three monkey-hours." I've also suggested the dead animal method of grading: an A is a dead skunk, and it goes down to roughly plague rat from there.)

Fortunately, my students are pretty smart, so I've had to give very few actual bad grades. Or perhaps they just have me trained very well indeed, and I'm motivated to believe they're smart.

Pellets! I need pellets, now!



Cue Twilight Zone music here.