Professors have ‘happy anxiety’ before classes begin

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As thousands of faculty members in California and across the nation prepare to begin school this fall, many are just as nervous and excited as their new and returning students.

These educators are critical in designing courses, setting standards and influencing the quality of a degree.

And these instructors face intense pressure to push students to graduate more quickly and to do it more efficiently, even as public funding for higher education, especially in California, has yet to fully return to pre-recession levels.


Faculty members from several Los Angeles-area campuses recently reflected on preparations for the first day of class, expansion of technology in the classroom and the methods they use to keep students interested.

What methods do you use to engage students during the first weeks back to school? Are students — are you — anxious?

Char Miller is the W.M. Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis at Pomona College in Claremont:

I have been teaching for 35 years and am as anxious in this my 70th semester as I was on my first (well, maybe not quite as nervous). But this is a happy anxiety — I love the intense interaction with my students and know that the preparations I make now will make our collective return to the classroom more engaging. Which is why I love the emails that inevitably flow in during August from students asking about what we will be reading in the fall, what kind of papers I’ll be assigning. These notes are an important reminder of how much they care about their studies (and that I had better care, too).

Richard A.Cardullo is associate vice provost for undergraduate education and professor of biology at UC Riverside:

Engaging students at any time is a challenge for a professor, but the beginning of the year is critical for both new students and returning students. New students must confront a new environment and are faced with less formal time in classrooms, more time expected outside of the classroom engaged in their own learning and being out in the world by themselves (many for the first time). Am I anxious? YOU BET! There’s a lot at stake. You need to gain the trust of students and have them understand that being challenged is a worthy effort.


Armando Rivera is a professor of chemistry at East Los Angeles College:

I’ve been teaching chemistry for the last 15 years; therefore, it is very hard to be anxious.… I’m actually very excited and eager to meet students, knowing that I will have the chance to change and transform lives in sciences, and that perhaps, a future Nobel Prize [winner] is seated in front of me.

How are wireless technology — and social media — changing the classroom?

Miller: Students may be online in my classes, but because I teach seminar style in most of my courses, with a lot of give and take up and down the table the arguments they get into about John Muir or Rachel Carson are a lot more engrossing than anything they might want to scan on the Web. And fascinatingly enough, most of what they are looking at is pertinent. They love catching me or their peers off-guard with a new reference; yes, they actually read material that is not assigned!

Cardullo: The availability of wireless in classrooms is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, you can have students use laptops, tablets or even cellphones to retrieve information that they can use in real time in a classroom. At other times, students will drift off and surf the Web, check email, communicate with friends, etc… which disengages them from the classroom. Because of this, I am sometimes perceived as Draconian by my students because I insist that there be periods when they are all “off the grid.”

Sherrie Davey is a professor of psychology at East Los Angeles College:


Technology wasn’t a part of my education at all, we just didn’t have it and it wasn’t an option. But now I find it’s an absolute necessity. Today’s students know no different and I have no intention of being labeled a dinosaur before my time.... I do teach online and was hesitant at first ... practicality is beginning to dictate the necessity of online learning. We are simply running out of space to accommodate all of the students who want to pursue higher education.

Virginia Huynh is associate professor of child and adolescent development at Cal State Northridge:

I allow computers and devices in the classroom. However, students complain about being distracted by peers who are off-task and I can definitely tell when someone is taking notes or surfing the Web on a laptop. Depending on the situation, I may call attention to the student or talk to him/her privately.

How much homework do you assign? What is the most inventive excuse you have received from a student for not completing an assignment?

Miller: A book a week and that is often supplemented by a series of articles or other assignments that are designed to deepen our discussions. As for inventive excuses —they’ve actually decreased in number and inventiveness (I miss that quality — today, my students are quite ready to admit that they went hiking in the Sierra rather than do the reading or the paper or whatever!).

Rivera: For a typical chapter I assigned 10-15 exercises from the book.... Students have so many excuses and what worries me the most is that often they seem to not understand that school is like a job, they need to be responsible and professional. They come to me and say I didn’t complete my HW because my sister’s quinceañera was on Sunday, and many other stories.

Davey: Ha! I’ve literally heard them all. From car accidents, to computer glitches to family emergencies and yes, even the dog ate it (or my kid drew on it)....The real world doesn’t care about your excuses, so a few years ago I instituted a “no excuses policy.” If you miss an assignment or due date and did not get in touch with me PRIOR to let me know there was an issue, then the consequence is missing those points. Sounds a bit harsh ... but Psychology lesson #1 is that all behaviors have a consequence.


Twitter: @carlariveralat