Dispelling the mystery of the mass lecturer

Shrinking the 'larger than life' perception

Economics Prof. Lee Coppock’s Macroeconomics lecture is always jam-packed. If you don’t get there a good 10 minutes before lecture started, you won’t get a decent seat. Even coming to class on the dot forces you to squeeze into the nosebleeds and squint to make out Coppock as a small figure a good 100 feet away.

It always strikes me that I don’t even know what my teachers look like after taking classes in such enormous lecture halls. All I can make out is a general form wearing clothes and a voice usually projected through a microphone. Facial features are vague.

Such a physical separation coupled with the fact that most of the interactions I’ve had with them were one-way created this image of my professors being larger than life. This was especially noticeable during the few times I actually got to see them up close. It was a surreal feeling and I’d say to myself, “look at that, it’s The Great Professor. The mastermind behind those infamous tests. The head honcho of all TA’s.”

Even after nearly two years of college, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to dispel this impression of mass-lecturer professors from my head.

However, I recently had an experience that deflated this impression. Over the past week, there was a visiting photographer on Grounds named Terri Weifenbach. She was incredible and even came to my photography class to share her work and experience with us. Not only is she nationally recognized, but also her work has been successful overseas with an exhibition in Japan under her belt and people all over the world buying her photo books.

Despite being so accomplished and so worldly, there were three things about her that punctured the larger than life façade. The first one was that she preferred being called her first name — just Terri, not Ms. Weifenbach or anything else. The second was her appearance. She wore no make-up, her fingernails weren’t enhanced with fancy manicures, she wore comfortable, sensible clothing and her reading glasses were an ordinary, chunky, rectangular shape perched atop her hair. The third was that the moment she arrived to my class, she situated herself right at the middle of the table we all were sitting around. She didn’t stand at the head of the room or the table. She sat down and made herself at home amongst us.

What was more, she was generous enough to offer one-on-one time with students so we could receive advice from her about our work and our approach to photography. I jumped at the chance and scheduled a meeting with her.

When I walked into her office last Friday afternoon she smiled, greeted me and asked me to lay out my photo prints on a table. I was standing no more than two feet away from a professional photographer with nearly 40 years of experience. Even though I was a beginner just beyond learning how to work a film camera, my interaction with her felt natural and easy. She even reminded me of my own mother at times. We spent an hour simply talking about photography and art during which she also showed me websites to look at for inspiration and advice on how to refine my picture-taking skills. I left her office feeling a little more confident about myself and my work.

Looking back, I realized that I could draw a parallel between my interaction with Terri Weifenbach and my impression of my professors and other faculty members at U.Va. The power of a small-scale interaction was incredible and diffused feelings of alienation. It was an important reminder that my professors are also people with regular experiences and problems similar to mine. There was no need to feel as if they were out of reach from me. The key to separating the person from the inflated image in my head was to think about personal interactions, be it office hours, lunch and so on. What I see in class is not what justifies my perception of them by any means.

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