Last month I taught two short classes in Germany – a rare exception to my vow to avoid teaching and instead focus on new furniture designs. The reason I taught those two classes is quite personal, so I won’t discuss it here. But during the classes I was struck by an odd question I’ve struggled with for 30 years:
Is it a good idea for students to personally like their instructors?
It might sound like a ridiculous question, but hear me out. First, know that I am nice to my students. They pay a lot of money to attend a course, we share many of the same interests (woodworking being only one of them) and woodworkers are generally friendly and affable (for a band of introverts).
What plunged my head into this question was my own training, both as a journalist and a woodworker.
My undergraduate journalism training was a trade-school education wrapped in soft, gooey layer of a liberal arts education. My 12 journalism classes were all nuts and bolts. No theory. We covered grammar, sentence structure, Associated Press style, law, ethics and not much else.
And I can honestly say that I did not personally like any of my journalism professors. Looking back now, I suspect it was intentional on their part. Students were weeded out (more the half my class was thrown out or left the program during my four years). We were regularly tricked into making mistakes to feel humiliation (basic aversion therapy). We were given mountains of work that had to be memorized. (“Here’s the newspaper stylebook. Memorize every word.”)
The students who survived the program did so (in part) to prove our professors were wrong about us. For me, obtaining an A in the Copy Editing class – arguably the hardest classes of the four years – was more important to me than any personal goal I’d had to that date (I earned an A-, boo).
The result of all that education was it was easy to land a newspaper job when I graduated (even in a recession), and my training allowed me jump in with little assistance from my superiors.
When I arrived at Popular Woodworking Magazine in 1996, I had a similar experience. I’d had woodworking classes where I’d learned a little bit, I had some training from my dad and my grandfather, and I had worked at a door factory for a summer – assembling and finishing doors.
When I started working in the magazine’s shop, one of the other editors agreed to train me on hand tools. And almost every day, he would yell “You’re fired” when I did something wrong or poorly. Even though I outranked him on the editorial masthead, he seemed to enjoy torturing me.
Of course, I had played this game before at journalism school. Plus as a newspaper reporter I had been screamed at, shot at and even interrogated by the state police. So having someone tell me my chisel edge looked like s&%t only made me work harder to become as good a sharpener as he was.
I know that people learn differently. And many people wouldn’t respond well to direct, cutting and correct criticism – especially if they had paid $1,000 or more for the privilege.
But I wonder if many woodworking students would advance faster in the craft if they had more of the whip and less of the carrot.
Maybe next time I agree to teach a class I should bring my leather pants and bullwhip.
— Christopher Schwarz
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