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Never apologize

September 28, 2011

Last night I was talking to a friend of mine about my teaching experiences, and what’s it’s like to be a woman in math and to be taken seriously. We were going over the standard stuff, that women are too self-effacing compared to men and tend not to strut their stuff enough. But then I remembered this story from my early teaching experiences that kind of put a different spin on that.

I was in grad school, and over the summer I went to Berkeley to teach at a women in math program, which was still called the “Mill’s program” even though it was being held at Berkeley. It was a really fun experience, something like 30 days of lecture and problem session, and I led the problem sessions.

It was some time in the second week when, one day because of something or other, I hadn’t prepared completely and I apologized to the class for being slightly unprepared. I said something like, “sorry I’m not completely prepared today”. I remember thinking that, in spite of that, the class went very well and there was no “damage” from my being unprepared. Every other day I was completely, perhaps overly prepared, and that was the only day I ever mentioned something about my preparedness.

At the end of the summer we got back teaching evaluations, and I remember that a full half of the evaluations described me as unprepared.

I made a promise to myself never ever to apologize for anything again. And I never have, and I’ve never been accused like that since. Which isn’t to say I pretend to be a perfect teacher, but there are subtle ways of dealing with imperfections (my favorite: turn a self-criticism into a flattery. Instead of saying, oh how stupid I am for not thinking of that, say oh how smart you are for thinking of that. Generosity is not a negative in my experience!).

Going back to last night, though, it’ a two-way street. Women may be too self-effacing, but other people (including women!) are absolutely too dismissive. It’s a very important thing to keep in mind when you are teaching or presenting.

One other thing, in a one-on-one, professional setting, I believe you can apologize and not be executed for it (sometimes and depending on the person), but in a teacher-students setting, or when you’re presenting to clients in business, or even when you’re presenting to colleagues, you’re giving a performance and need to be flawlessly confident.

In an ideal world, we would use this information to learn to become better audiences, to not be dismissive and overly harsh of self-effacing people, and I do try to keep this in mind when I’m in the audience. But it’s going to take lots of effort for this to happen on a large scale, especially among strangers. It’s a cultural axiom in a certain sense.

My advice to young people, especially women: never apologize.

  1. September 28, 2011 at 10:06 am

    I agree in spirit with your blog. Women are too quick to apologize. Men often forget the civil gesture. You were unprepared for the one lecture, but at least you held the lecture. When I took one of my field classes in grad school, one prof had trouble getting it together for our class. He is a brilliant, think on another planet kind of economist, but we–a bunch of students–freaked him out. So I would fight traffic and sleep to hustle in for an 8:30am lecture and many times find a note on the door..’class canceled’ or we’d have class with no structure. We never even got a syllabus. I could have freaked out and yelled at him, but that would not have done any good. I still respect him as a super economist, but lecturing is not his strong suit. Comparative advantage is cool..he should have been doing research. He did apologize a few times to the class, but that made it worse. It was not his fault. He’s who he is. I was pissed at the person who arranged the grad schedule. Clearly he should not lecture undergrads, so let’s give him to the students who can teach themselves. Not nice. But I believe you need to attack a problem at its root not just treat the symptoms. I was frustrated with him, but he was not the source of the problem. When I mess up. I apologize. But I try not to apologize for things that are not my fault or things that are not mess ups. I try to forgive people if they say they’re sorry (you would have had different evaluations from a class of men). Also I try to accept compliments gracefully. Another toughie for women. As much as I would like to be ‘one of the guys’ I am not and never will be. I am a mother hen and I care about other people (often to my own detriment…and sometimes theirs). I use self-deprecating humor because it seems to work and lets me run my mouth. And I try to be nice, but confident, yet this is work in progress. PS I am reading Confidence Men and The Male Brain.

  2. majordomo
    September 28, 2011 at 6:32 pm

    Cathy, perhaps your lecturing style made you sound unprepared. I know you say you were prepared most of the time, but perhaps your teaching wasn’t good enough to make you sound prepared. Remember, how well a lecture goes is a subjective opinion that could differ between the lecturer and the students, and even among the students. It is possible for a lecturer to think they did a good job of explaining the material but the students feel differently. It is also possible for a lecturer to think they did a horrible job on a particular lecture even though the students think it went well and they understood everything. So even though you believe you were prepared for all but one of the lectures, perhaps the quality of your lectures did not lead the students to believe this. Do you really think those students who said you were unprepared on the evaluations were irrational and crazy enough to base that judgement on just the one lecture you admitted to being unprepared for ? Your post actually proves how arrogant (as opposed to self-effacing) you are, that you actually think you did a wonderful job lecturing and any student who claimed otherwise was ruthlessly punishing you for apologizing.

    • September 28, 2011 at 6:44 pm

      Way to prove my point!

      • majordomo
        September 28, 2011 at 7:16 pm

        Wow, you refuse to even consider the remote possibility that your lectures sucked. In other words, any form of criticism you received HAD to be the result of some sort of systemic sexism (even if it was being perpetrated by women), and could NOT possibly be because of your lackluster lecturing. That is a stunning level of arrogance and lack of self-awareness that even the majority of males do not display. I’m a guy, and if nearly half of the students in a course I taught opined that I was unprepared, I’d be seriously concerned, even if I believed my level of preparation for most of those courses was, at the very least, adequate.

      • September 30, 2011 at 8:37 pm

        One of my new pet peeves online are people who do not post under their real name. I think the post that questions whether maybe Cathy was not as prepared as she thought is fair and yet the language is “a bit” more combative than needed. Sure our perceptions of ourselves are often different than other people’s perceptions of us. In my experience, women tend to be overly critical of themselves and men tend to be overly critical of others. Somewhere in the middle is healthy, but we need to talk and not blog troll to accomplish that. Majordomo would you really say this to Cathy’s face? Would you say it in a personal email to her? Maybe you would. I wouldn’t. I try to post under my real name as a disciplining device. And it kind of weirds me out on some blogs that I don’t know who I am really talking to.

  3. September 28, 2011 at 7:26 pm

    Not at all. At the time I was of course very concerned. But I had already taught quite a few times and had never had that criticism levied at me nor have I since. Not to say I’m a perfect lecturer, but I’m certainly prepared. And after all, nobody said my lectures sucked. Plus they didn’t suck.

    I don’t consider it arrogance to look at evaluations over time (I have had about 14 years of teaching experience) and notice that I am not someone who gets criticized for being unprepared, except for the one time I apologized for it. It’s more like me being confident. Which is what I’m encouraging other people to be, and to project.

    • majordomo
      September 28, 2011 at 7:48 pm

      Ok, in that case I will concede that those negative evaluations were likely because of your “admission of guilt” by apologizing. But you have to understand that it’s unusual for professors to apologize for their teaching, and that sort of thing tends to stand out in the minds of students, more so than a consistent record of good lectures does. By apologizing, you admitted a failing on your part and weakened, in their minds, your sense of infallibility as a teacher. You knocked your own self down a peg or two and brought their attention to your flaws, and I bet that from that point on, they all began (perhaps unconsciously) monitoring your level of preparedness on subsequent days more closely than they would if you had never apologized. So you’re right, NEVER apologize.

  4. September 28, 2011 at 8:03 pm

    Although I have always enjoyed teaching and lecturing, my favourite lectures were always the ones where, as a result of questions from the audience, it became apparent that I could meet their needs better with a slightly different lecture than the one I had prepared.

    Interestingly, this would only happen in commercial training courses, in which the students had a good idea of what they wanted to achieve. When I have lectured to MSc courses, I rarely got any feedback from the audience.

  5. Sean Crowell
    October 3, 2011 at 10:34 am

    On our first day of the teaching college math course for first year grad students, our graduate director said “You can never give the students the idea that you’re anything less than completely prepared, focused, enthusiastic, and master of the topic, or else they check out.” I’ve tried to keep to this every time I teach. It’s less important as the course goes on, and as the students get to know you, but somehow the appearance of authority is more important than the actual having of authority.

  6. Victor
    March 23, 2013 at 1:43 pm

    The lesson you’ve taken away from your experience is incredibly self-serving.

    This semester I was in a mathematical methods for physics course taught by a male. Who never once apologized for anything. And I eviscerated him on his course evaluation, as I’m sure many other students did as well. Do you know why?

    Because he was unprepared.

    The lesson you should be taking away from your evaluations isn’t “Never apologize.” It’s “Never be unprepared.”

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