Waaaaay back when I first joined this board, it was to attempt to report on this legeand. I never got any kind of response, and posted again, and again got no response, and was disappointed . . . became very quiet afterwards and didn't post for a long time. Well, I'm going to try again.
The UL about students training a professor is not false -- there has been at least one incident in which it has occurred.
How do I know? Because the professor was my psychology professor at Cornell University. His name is James Maas, and he has been teaching psych 101 for about 30 years. Its the largest live lecture in the world, due to his charisma as a lecturer.
He reports that in his first couple years as a lecturer, he was nervous and was one of those professors who stands behind a podium and reads from notes. At that time, one of his TAs led several sections. She decided to lead the students in her sections to sit front and center, and give him positive (lean forward, smile broadly, listen raptly) whenever he moved from behind the podium. While he stood behind the podium, they exhibited boredom.
She apparently kept count of how much time he spent in each position (behind podium and in front of it) as the semester wore on, and at the end informed him of the experiment and the results. His time in front of the podium had greatly increased.
He commented that he was aware that the audience seemed happier when he was not behind the podium.
Anyway. There is an instance of the UL really happening -- perhaps, considering how many thousands and thousands of students Prof Maas has had (enrollment is up to 1,700 per semester) -- he is the originator of this UL which has become embellished over 30 years.
I am sure that he'd be willing to discuss or confirm the story, and his contact information is available.
That's interesting. I have a couple of questions - what's a TA? And how did she manage to get the students to join in on her experiment? When was she alone with the students? I'm not doubting the veracity of this or anything, just in need of some more facts!
quote: That's interesting. I have a couple of questions - what's a TA? And how did she manage to get the students to join in on her experiment? When was she alone with the students? I'm not doubting the veracity of this or anything, just in need of some more facts!
TAs -- Teaching Assistants as pointed out above -- are also class instructors in large lectures. Generally the class is broken up into a bunch of small class groups (10 or 15 or 25 students) and do an additional class or two every week which the TA teaches. The TA administers and grades quizzes and assigns projects. Thus, this experiment was an assignment by the TA to her two sections of students.
quote:Waaaaay back when I first joined this board, it was to attempt to report on this legeand. I never got any kind of response, and posted again, and again got no response, and was disappointed . . . became very quiet afterwards and didn't post for a long time. Well, I'm going to try again.
Well, Shari, I’m glad you’ve returned. I remember when you posted your comments, and I’m sorry you didn’t get a response (I’d say that that happens to everyone here once in a while, so don’t take it personally). In any event, I’m glad you’re trying again on “The Trained Professor.”
quote:I am sure that he'd be willing to discuss or confirm the story, and his contact information is available.
Ah, I was sort of hoping, hint hint, that you’d forge ahead and write Professor Maas yourself, asking him whether he would provide more information about his experience. I’m sure he’d be delighted to hear from a former student (in fact, I’m sure you’d get farther than any of us would) and might not mind jotting down a few notes on the topic. (Of course, you’d need to get his permission to post his reply or excerpts thereof here.)
If you’re trying to establish provenance, it’s important to get specifics: for example, where and when he found himself his students’ guinea pig and what precisely happened during this series of lectures. I also wonder whether he’s still in touch with his former Teaching Assistant and whether, as Pinklefish suggests, she could also supply information about how she designed and conducted this experiment. Moreover, does he remember whether there were any roughly contemporaneous write-ups about this episode? Anything in the campus newspaper? A short, informal paper he may have written about this episode for a professional society? Something in a departmental newsletter?
A word of caution, however: don’t be too taken aback if presenting the professor’s response generates more questions or, worse case, some skepticism on the part of the peanut gallery.
Finally, it’s important to note that the ULRP on “The Trained Professor” doesn’t hold that the tale is false, just that it’s taken many different forms, some of which are also included in Brunvand’s Too Good to Be True. (Lots of pages here present a legend or anecdote without commenting on its ultimate veracity.)
In any event, I say go for it. It’d be interesting to see what Professor Maas has to say.
Bonnie “let’s get the Skinner on it” Taylor
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All public speakers, including professors, ministers, politicians, etc., are trained by their audience.
If a speaker (performer) does not pick up on signals from the audience they are not fit to perform.
But a psychology prof with a large class, who did not pick up on up to 1,700 students Pavlovian like response to his stepping from behind the lectern is not a very alert chap. He should have immediately detected the orchestrated scenario and recognized that it was a put-up job.
BTW One does not stand behind a podium. One stands on a podium. One stands behind a lectern.
Actually, I'm not sure you did. I checked the definition at this site, and while Jim B is definitely correct in his definition, at least of the definitions I found supports your use of the term.
quote:But a psychology prof with a large class, who did not pick up on up to 1,700 students Pavlovian like response to his stepping from behind the lectern is not a very alert chap. He should have immediately detected the orchestrated scenario and recognized that it was a put-up job.
Let's not forget, though, that Shari does mention Maas’s assertion that this took place some thirty years ago, early in his teaching career. I doubt he’d be lecturing to 1,700 students right off the bat. (In fact, I understand that the only way he was eventually able to lecture to such a large group was that some of his students were seated in other lecture halls, where Maas’s lecture was presented live on closed circuit TV.)
Besides, regardless of the truthfulness of this tale, what we skeptics may consider to be incredible is precisely what makes this tale work from the standpoint of the average teller. That the legendary trained professor, a psychologist of all things, doesn’t recognize he’s undergoing operant conditioning, a core tenet of modern behavioral psychology and education theory, and that his students succeed in this endeavor affirms everything that many tellers believe about academicians and know-it-alls in general. On another level, it reinforces the notion of “those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.”
It’s interesting that Brunvand mentions that B.F. Skinner “claimed to have applied the system [of operant conditioning] to a human subject, specifically to a rival psychologist who was conducting a seminar.” Further, Brunvand notes that “Skinner’s story, often repeated or paraphrased in lectures and in published sources, is the likely basis of the campus pranks and legends [about the trained professor].” 
Now, I’m not familiar with Skinner’s assertion that he surreptitiously trained a rival, but Brunvand notes that Karen Pryor recounts this anecdote in her book, Lads Before the Wind.
Finally, in his Encyclopedia of Urban Legends, Brunvand cites a “1988 report  of an attempt to duplicate the ‘anecdotes about groups of students conditioning their professors as a practical joke’ ... However, [Joan] Chrisler’s method was somewhat different from that described in the legends in that she was herself the subject of the attempted conditioning and the class was working together on an assigned project.”
Of course, I’d like to tell you what’s in Pryor’s book and Chrisler’s article ...
Bonnie “but Pavlov’s dog ate my homework” Taylor
 Too Good to Be True, p. 327.  J.C. Chrisler. Conditioning the instructor’s behavior: a class project in psychology of learning. Teaching of Psychology 15: 135-137, 1988.
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