Make Yourself Expendable

I recently had a discussion with a friend who prided herself on having students come to her office quite frequently. She took it as a measure of how she was doing as a teacher: the more students came to her for help, the more frequently each student came to her for help, and the longer each student stayed, the better she thought she was doing. Moreover, she thought that this was a fair metric to use on anyone.

I would like to argue the opposite. Now, I definitely think that a good teacher should be approachable, willing to help, and frequently available. However, this can go too far. It seems that—taken to the extreme—this could create a co-dependent relationship. A student who does not learn to think/work/whatever without the professor present is not really learning what they should. A happy medium must be struck.

When I worked in industry, my supervisor told me that my goal should be: “Make yourself expendable.” This seemed a little ridiculous to me at the time, since I was a little concerned about my job security (I was never laid-off, but lay-offs came in droves soon after I left for graduate school). However, I think that this is fantastic advice for teachers. A teacher’s goal should be to produce independent thinkers. Somewhat paradoxically, this frequently requires students to work with others (including the teacher) first, but the students should get there eventually.

A quick aside: I am under the impression that she might be providing yet another example of Campbell’s Law. She is asserting that “total number of student-hours in office” is a measure of teaching effectiveness. She also has a reputation of giving out hard and numerous homework assignments, which many students want to discuss with her. It is possible (speculation forthcoming) that she designs her homework assignments so students have to visit her to get them done, giving her the impression that she is a better teacher.

I would love to hear what you think. I think that this is a balancing act, but you can definitely tilt too far in either direction. I believe that she would disagree; you can only spend too little time with students, but not too much.

What do you think?

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2 Responses to “Make Yourself Expendable”

  1. James Henke Says:

    In my undergrad experience, my professor visits wouldn’t last more than 15-20 minutes. We would address my coursework to date and discuss current events related to the field of study. On average I visited each Professor twice a semester, which would sum to 30-40 minutes. I don’t agree that more is better, but instead would suggest that it’s a reflection of your instruction and student learning styles.

    • bretbenesh Says:

      Hi Jim,

      I agree that, in practice, it mostly is “a reflection of your instruction and student learning styles.”

      In theory, however (and maybe “in practice” for my friend), I think that I could make it so that either students a) never visited me, or b) filled my office every day. I think that I have enough control over the class that I could make the student learning styles irrelevant for more than half of the students in the class.

      I could do this simply the homework I assign. I could make all of the homework ridiculously easy. If this were the case, students would get the message that they would not have to see me. On the other hand, I could give out ridiculously hard homework, and my students would come see me in droves (at least, once they saw how poorly they were doing on the homework). In fact, I am reasonably confident that I could do either without affecting my student evaluations very much.

      Of course, I would not actually try this experiment; that would be irresponsible.

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