The Teacherly Ego

A sign posted to the side of a building reads, "Curb your ego."
Photo by Orkun Azap on Unsplash

There’s not much I have supreme confidence in. I think of myself as basically competent but not expert in lots of areas and decent at my job really just because I am comfortable facilitating the transfer of knowledge about teaching and learning. So listen when I tell you: I am freaking great at lecturing.

And of course I am. I was a former drama kid who paid her way through her undergraduate degree doing cartoon voice work. I also had drunk the flavor-ade of every great teaching and learning movie and un-ironically hankered after my own oh-captain-my-captain moment à la Dead Poets Society. I loved literature but I also really loved it when people listened to me talk about literature. Lecturing fed my ego in a really satisfying way because I knew I was good at it: students laughed at my jokes, stayed after class to chat, and wrote me notes at the end of the term about how much fun they had. I loved it.

I was also very, very aware that lecturing wasn’t necessarily teaching. I was trained from my time as an undergraduate peer educator in meaningful active learning through the Centre for Initiative in Education at Carleton University. I knew what worked in the classroom to reinforce learning — and I knew the research that backed it up — and I knew that the lecture was not ideal. I could also share a million reasons why I chose lecturing: as a young graduate student, it felt like a more authoritative move; in the lecture theatre and with my student population, it felt expected; as someone learning how to convey information effectively, it felt safer to do all the delivery myself. But also, it has to be said: I loved lecturing. I still do.

Clearly, I don’t think my lectures were bad, as lectures go. There was lots of space for discussion and there was lots of interaction. But there wasn’t much opportunity to work with the material, and the implicit structure of the class made me the central focus. The reality is that I think the ego is part of the story of the persistence of the lecture as a form in spite of what we know to be the benefits of more active strategies. This was so clear to me in the pandemic closure period, when it was so clear that the video lecture was both not working and impossible to overthrow.

Let me be clear: I know there are gifted lecturers and I know that there are learners who prefer the form. But when a practice persists in the face of so much criticism, I think a lot about why. And certainly there are structural pressures — especially over-sized classes and precarious faculty — that invite the lecture as a kind of teaching-at-scale. I get all of that.

For me, putting aside the lecture in favour of an active, learning-centred, task-based classroom required putting my ego aside, and I was driven to it by nine years spent primarily teaching academic writing. You cannot lecture in an academic writing class and pretend anyone is learning anything: you have to get hands-on with the course material. You have to write and rewrite and edit and draft and mess up and laugh and fix your mistakes and write some more. You just do. And when I realized how much more learning — demonstrably more, because that’s how skills acquisition works — was happening in my composition classes than in my literature classes, well, I had to admit the lecture had to take a backseat.

Since that time, I’ve learned that the smartest person in the room is the room itself (concept and framing thanks to pal and co-conspirator David N. Wright), and that it’s more useful to learn how to acquire knowledge than to absorb it from a so-called sage on the stage. I like students checking my claims on their devices and I like being able to ask them to use those same devices to answer lower-order questions so we can work together on analysis, instead. There are lots of fine applications for lectures, for sure. For example, I actually prefer a lecture-style keynote, but there’s a very concrete reason why that is: I want to have a passive learning experience, because I need that from my professional development at this stage of the never-ending pandemic. I’m making a trade-off and I know it. But new knowledge acquisition often requires opportunities to practice and manhandle that knowledge, and there are few opportunities for that in the bog-standard, traditional lecture format.

But lectures are what they are, and not everyone is like me — an admitted egoist — about them. I can acknowledge that. And in fact, when I think about the trouble with the teacherly ego, it’s not really lectures I think about. I’m much more curious about how the teacherly ego plays into our relationship to information, data, and privacy.

I wonder a lot about why we feel entitled, as faculty, to the information we can access on the emergent edtech platforms. It’s a question I ask a lot in my faculty support work — though I choose less triggering language than “why do you feel entitled to this information?” I think about things like demanding (rather than gently inviting) cameras to be on in a video session, which interjects the professor into the personal home space in a way that feels, well, entitled. I think about why we want to know that a student handed in an essay 2 minutes or 2 hours or 2 days or 2 weeks before the deadline, and what conclusions we are drawing from that information that might be based on our own assumptions and biases. Some tools will offer you information about your students like what time they usually work on their assignments or how much time they spend in the word processor — again, why should we have access to that information? All of these tools are designed to centre the instructor’s assumptions about learning and not the needs of the learner. And they are all predicated on the sentiment that it is our right as faculty to know. It all feels a bit… ego-centric to me.

Indeed, I think academic ego-stroking is a general force for ill in the university. It must be at least part of what is motivating responses to fraudulent journals, whose solicitous emails always make me guffaw. (“Dr. Gray, we know you to be a globally-recognized, world-renowned leader in the field of TITLE OF CONFERENCE PAPER FROM TEN YEARS AGO HERE and as such we would be humbled if you shared your genius with the world and submitted to our journal FOR THE LOW PRICE OF A GAZILLION DOLLARS.”) I am a world-renowned expert in literally nothing, but there’s always a split-second between seeing that email and processing that it is spam where a little part I am not super proud of goes, “Finally, I am being recognized.”

Confronting my relationship to the lecture made me acutely aware of how ego is the achilles heel of my own teaching, and it makes me attuned to how it functions in the broader post-secondary context. When we talk about student-centred learning, maybe we need to talk a little bit more about what sometimes gets in the way: the teacherly ego.


  • You write, I read, the deal still stands 😉

    And risking the saying of what you know, I wonder about the way we speak about such a wide range of practice of the Lecture as a single thing, like air. And the pitfall of finding one modality that works for everyone.

    My first classes I definitely talked and showed too much, plus I tried to emulate a colleague who made it look so easy and fluid. They gave me advice to provide more things for students to do during the class, plus I figured out how to find my own style, rather than trying to be like someone I saw successful. Like finding your voice, it’s finding your teaching personality.

    I have a piddly amount of teaching experience mostly in a non-content driven subjects. But I know (a) I suck at doing lectures and (b) the last thing I want to do is fill a class (or presentation) room with me.

    This post by Kathy Sierra always stays somewhere within my neural banks, the idea of shifting a presentation, lecture from the presenter/lecturer to what she calls a user (participant) experience.

    What I do in either mode is (a) always start with a demo, an activity, something to do/discuss, participate in and (b) I always try to provide more of the the topic as something at a public url, people can come back, read more, domore activities, contribute to.

    And (becoming that commenter who writes a post) (hopefully not like the presentation q&a abuser who uses it to talk about themself) I found my stuff was much better when I made mistakes. Go things wrong. Let the tech fail. I am a huge believer in failing in public, because that’s not the problem… the problem is not showing how you recover. o me it’s a most human way to be, and that way you do not have to feel short of perfect.

    But for sure my expertise in doing this is rock bottom.

    • I really liked this bit:

      found my stuff was much better when I made mistakes. Go things wrong. Let the tech fail. I am a huge believer in failing in public, because that’s not the problem… the problem is not showing how you recover.

      This is a really important part of faculty support, I have found (and I think it’s why I have chafed at so much glossy PD over the years). It’s important to show how whatever you’re showing works in a real-world context where things go wrong. I also heard from lots of colleagues at the start of the remote teaching period that the way our team models grace when the stuff breaks made them feel less anxious. As I always try to remind people, we aren’t doing heart surgery, here. Our mistakes are part of the process. And no one dies.

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