I taught an undergraduate computer networking course this summer. Since it was my first experience as an instructor, everyone who hears about it seems to ask the same question: “So, do you like teaching?”

Like most good questions, this one has a nuanced answer. I enjoyed many aspects of teaching, but often the good came with a not-so-good side as well. For example, I was happy to revisit core computer networking concepts and learn them more deeply. (My love of computer networking is what got me started down the grad school path in the first place.) However, revisiting an entire semester’s worth of material is a time-consuming process. I spent way more time than I had anticipated preparing lectures; in particular, creating slides1 was a real pain.

In addition to planning how to teach the material, I had to decide what material to teach. Although I largely avoided this problem by following a textbook, I wasn’t able to teach everything from the book and therefore had to decide what to prioritize.2 Some fundamental concepts clearly need to be taught, but many others are not so obviously worth addressing. Ideally, students could explore whatever is most interesting to them. In reality, I usually taught what was most interesting to me because breaking from the one-curriculum-fits-all model in a formal course is hard.

Helping students online and in office hours did give me the opportunity to focus on them individually, though, and I enjoyed that. There’s something special about watching someone’s face light up when they finally understand a tricky concept. And perhaps even more satisfying than fixing a bug in one’s own code is helping someone else fix theirs; one student exclaimed, “Oh my gosh, I got a 100! I did it!” after converting a <= into a < helped him pass all of the test cases for a programming project. Hearing that put a smile on my face.

The flip side of one-on-one time with students is one-to-many time with students: lectures. I struggled all semester to get students to answer my questions or ask their own. Granted, I’m sure that the lack of engagement was largely my own fault. Were I a better instructor, I would hopefully have more success getting the students to do something besides stare blankly at me (or worse, at their laptops). Regardless of the cause, it’s no fun to talk at 30 unresponsive 20-year-olds for two hours. (Yes, my lecture slot was two hours long, and yes, we took a break in the middle.)

Not all one-on-one interaction with students is great either. I’ve always been told that there’s “no such thing as a bad question”, but I’d beg to differ. One student essentially asked me, “The third question on the homework says to do such-and-such. Should we do that, or should we do the opposite?” Well, what does it say? I received many other questions, particularly about how to complete an assignment, that made me wonder whether the person asking had even read the assignment’s instructions. When a question shows that the person asking it has put zero effort into finding an answer on their own, it’s a bad question. I don’t enjoy answering those.

I suspect that these irritating questions are just another symptom of the root of most of teaching’s ills: grades. As an instructor, I like to think that my job is simply to help students explore and understand the subject matter. Unfortunately, I’m also responsible for assessing their understanding via a grade. Students tend to forget about the first part and focus solely on the grades. (And why wouldn’t they? They’d be crazy not to prioritize the metric that will determine whether they retake the class, get that scholarship, or land a good job.) The result is silly questions, low engagement, and minimal effort. Teaching someone who truly wants to understand is fun; teaching someone who just wants to do well on the exam, less so.

Actually assigning the grades is just as bad as teaching grade-focused students, too. I often struggled to balance fairness with kindness, and I still haven’t figured out what exactly I’m trying to measure with a grade. Is it about how hard the student worked? How well they understood the material? How well they followed instructions? Whether they got it all done on time? Some of those things are clearly more important than others, but the most significant ones – like understanding – are the hardest to measure. So what’s the point in trying to make a judgement if doing so is destroying students’ motivation anyway?

Despite my distaste for grades, I did like designing questions and projects. It’s interesting to think about where students likely have gaps in their understanding and try to write a question that will force them to fill that gap. And as a former software engineer (and current hobbyist programmer), I of course enjoyed finding ways to let students get hands-on experience with networking concepts through code. Once a project was designed, I also had the pleasure of coding an auto-grader to evaluate the students’ submissions – who knew that could be so fun?

One final, important positive aspect of teaching is the way that it feels like a real, useful contribution to the world. Many aspects of formal education seem to get in the way of the supposed goal of formal education3 – that is, helping people acquire new knowledge and abilities – but I appreciate working towards that goal anyway. It sure beats helping some corporation increase its bottom line.

So, do I like giving long lectures about a uniform curriculum, answering low-effort questions, and then assigning grades? Not so much. Do I like helping others understand and do new things? Yes, and I’ll certainly be looking for opportunities to do more of that in the future. Does that mean more teaching?

I still haven’t decided.

  1. In general, I don’t love slide-based teaching; it’s easier to pay attention to a teacher who’s using the whiteboard liberally. But I know that, as a student, having detailed slides is wonderful for reviewing the content later. Creating slides also forced me to think through each individual concept and how I wanted to explain it. So I made slides and tried to use the whiteboard, too. ↩︎

  2. There is of course plenty of interesting and worthwhile material not included in the textbook as well. As a first-time instructor, I chose to stick with the book to keep things manageable for myself. ↩︎

  3. I recently read Free to Learn, an interesting book all about how the Western world’s top-down model of education is unnatural and ineffective. ↩︎