Jesse Bering

Credit: Jesse Bering

Occasionally, in preparing stories for this column, I’ll stumble across an ancient, glittering gem of empirical research that has been either buried in the dust of an obscure library bookshelf or swallowed up in the great electronic morass of some online academic archive. Such studies contain precious, long-forgotten data or ideas that, in being ahead of their time, now twinkle in the modern-day sun of science with the extraordinary promise of revolutionizing our thinking or jarring loose an otherwise stagnant paradigm. But more often, I come across old studies like the one I’m about to describe—not so much a bright diamond to newly illuminate the discipline, but rather a little chunk of gray asphalt wedged into its foundations. Nobody notices it and probably for good reason.

That being said, such studies can also be rather entertaining. And if nothing else, the late Joe Moore’s work in the 1930s on the “annoying habits of college professors” just goes to show that the social ethos operating on American college campuses probably hasn’t changed all that much over the last seventy-four years. Moore was employed by Vanderbilt’s George Peabody College for Teachers in Nashville, Tennessee and, as a researcher in this field, he wanted to know how students’ perceptions of their professors contributed to the learning dynamic in the college classroom. Let me clarify that. He wanted to know just which of those “quirky” or “eccentric” behavioral traits and habits students were able to shrug off and which really got under their skin. Thus, “the college professor,” Moore reasoned, “might possibly improve his teaching if he were more aware of some of his most annoying habits.” Now remember, this was 1930s middle America, so Moore was dealing primarily with male professors. But to his credit, he did distinguish between those traits that “girls” found most irritating versus those judged most intolerable by the “boys” at the colleges where he did his research.

As was common in those days, the methods in this antiquated study were very simple. In a series of related articles published in the The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology (in 1935 and 1937), Moore instructed a group of over 300 social science students who were studying at universities in North Carolina, Tennessee, Alabama and Idaho to keep a diary in class in which they were to jot down, as they occurred, any and all things irritating about their professors. “Be critical but fair,” Moore advised. The students diligently took notes on their professors’ quips, foibles, movements, insults, hygiene, color coordination and whatever else rubbed them the wrong way over the next few weeks in class. An important caveat was that the specific professors would never find out what was said, so students could presumably feel free to unleash their frustrations without fear of their professors’ retaliation. And Moore wasn’t naive. He knew that annoyingness, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. “It should be stated at the outset,” he wrote, “that no hard and fast definition for annoyingness can be stated.” (He might have felt differently had he known some of my colleagues.)

Nonetheless, to give the students some sense of what he was looking for, Moore started off by listing a few examples of annoyances, mannerisms and habits such as “cocking head,” “not looking at class,” “peculiar styles in clothing,” “nails soiled,” and “sticking hands in pocket.” This got the students out of the gate in making their judgments, but they soon found that Moore’s list needed some adding to -- actually, a lot of adding to. Some 63 additional items were amended to Moore’s initial list of 25. The final sample included about 200 professors and some telling patterns did seem to emerge in the data. Among the habits judged by students as being “very annoying,” some of the most frequently listed were rambling, “riding” students, pausing too long, and using pet expressions. I’m not sure how these particular pet expressions would go over in today’s college classroom, but in Moore’s study, some of the more bothersome ones apparently included “Ain’t that right, pal?;” “In the final analysis;” “Interestingly enough;” “Like an old mule” (I can only guess what this was referring to.); “If you please, gentlemen;” “Yes suh! Yes suh!” and perhaps my personal favorite, “That’s the meat of the cocoanut.”

Some professors went so far as to scratch their head, clear their throat, act too formal, rub their chin, frown, use slang, gesticulate or pause too long. A few even had the indecency to wear their clothes unpressed and smile too much. Both male and female students found rambling by their professors to be insufferable, but the women were generally more offended by inattention to physical appearance and tended to dislike sarcastic professors more than the men, who were unhinged by inarticulate, slow-talking professors who stuck their hands in their pockets a little too often. Some annoying habits were difficult to shoehorn into one of Moore’s categories. For example, one student was perturbed by the nasally quality of his teacher’s voice, and another didn’t appreciate the limited standup repertoire of her instructor: “He knows three jokes and tells them every class.” It’s unclear if this was the same professor who “pays more attention to one sex than the other.” (And also unclear which gender that was -- though we can probably guess.)

Now, I haven’t taught undergraduate students for a few years, but if I recall correctly, at one time browsing my University of Arkansas profile at RateMyProfessors.com was always a good antidote to an overcooked ego. The listing was removed when I changed institutions, but I think “aloof” was used to describe me more than once and apparently I too often “used words that you have to look up in the dictionary.” I’d also be lying if I said that a two-week Slimfast diet back in 2006 was just coincidentally timed with one student kindly noting that I'd put on a few pounds one semester.

In many respects, teaching is a peculiar problem for university professors. Most professors active in research didn’t train to be teachers, but rather they got to the lecture stand by way of their accomplishments in the quiet eden of the laboratory. Because of this, there’s almost a paradoxical selection bias for introverted people as professors. It might sound good in principle, but when you first find yourself caught in those caffeine-fueled headlights of two hundred pairs of bleary freshman eyes at nine in the morning-- eyes which are expecting to see a performance as entertaining as it is enlightening -- this tends to be the perfect climate for annoying behaviors to “present” in an otherwise shy personality. Of course, some professors are perfectly oblivious and their annoyingness isn’t exactly climate-sensitive; some get even worse. But most learn as they go and the nervous tics eventually subside.

Perhaps all of us professors can learn a thing or two from Moore’s old findings, though. I actually agree with Moore when he writes that: “The fact that college professors are among the most independent and less supervised groups in any of the professions may account for the lack of or effectiveness of critical self-analysis.” It seems to me it boils down to the law of averages: smile, but don’t smile too much; slow down your lecture, but not too slow; don’t be formal, but don’t be try to be too familiar either; don’t just stand there, but don’t gesture like a lunatic. And for the love of God, clean your nails and iron your clothes every once in a while. If this helps students to learn, it’s a small price to pay for a more educated society.

On the other hand, so long as the teaching itself is good, perhaps students should cut their professors a little slack on their quirky habits. Personally, I like one 1937 student’s rather bohemian philosophy. She simply wrote to Moore: “I think it’s much more interesting to have my teachers use various habits and expressions. It usually makes their lectures much more interesting, and they are more interesting to look at during class.” If this student is still alive today, she’d be about ninety-two years old. I can only hope that her approach to life never changed -- maybe it even led her to some interesting places along the way. And if there’s any justice in this world, her seventeen-year-old cohort who complained that year about “some professors who let their coat pockets wear out and hang in tatters below the edge of their coats” is living happily ever after in a cozy nursing home, tending to clothes for the slovenly husband she eventually fell in love with.

As for Joe Moore, I followed his publishing tracks as far as they would take me. A few years later, he dug up even more dirt on the annoying habits of high school teachers. And somewhere along the way, he even began looking into the evidence available at the time for mental telepathy, concluding, “It would seem logical at the present stage of 'telepathic' investigation to take an agnostic position, an attitude of 'I do not know.'” And then there was also the rather dubious 1942 study in Child Development comparing white and black preschoolers on their vocabulary and eye-hand coordination. (Whites scored better on the former, black children on the latter.) After that, Moore vanishes into the mysterious obscurities of academic time, leaving us all a bit annoyed.

In this column presented by Scientific American Mind magazine, research psychologist Jesse Bering of Queen's University Belfast ponders some of the more obscure aspects of everyday human behavior. Ever wonder why yawning is contagious, why we point with our index fingers instead of our thumbs or whether being breastfed as an infant influences your sexual preferences as an adult? Get a closer look at the latest data as “Bering in Mind” tackles these and other quirky questions about human nature. Sign up for the RSS feed or friend Dr. Bering on Facebook and never miss an installment again.