How Tough to Be; How to Be Tough: Four Themes on Promoting the Student's Learning

10 Pages Posted: 21 Dec 2001

See all articles by Robert F. Bruner

Robert F. Bruner

University of Virginia - Darden School of Business

Date Written: December 2001


"He knows not his own strength that hath not met adversity." -- Ben Jonson

So, boy, don't you turn back. Don't you set down on the steps 'Cause you finds it kiner hard. Don't you fall now - For I'se still goin', honey I's still climbin'; And life for me ain't been no crystal stair. -- Langston Hughes, Mother to Son

A man invited Nasrudin to go hunting with him, but mounted him on a horse which was too slow. The Mulla said nothing. Soon the hunt outpaced him and was out of sight. It began to rain heavily, and there was no shelter. All the members of the hunt got soaked through. Nasrudin, however, as soon as the rain started, took off all his clothes and folded them. Then he sat down on the pile. As soon as the rain stopped, he dressed himself and went back to his host's house for lunch. Nobody could work out why he was dry. With all the speed of their horses they had not been able to reach shelter on that plain.

"It was the horse you gave me," said Nasrudin.

The next day he was given a fast horse and his host took the slow one. Rain fell again. The horse was so slow that the host got wetter than ever, riding at a snail's pace to his house. Nasrudin carried out the same procedure as before. When he got back to the house he was dry.

"It is your fault!" shouted his host. "You made me ride this terrible horse."

"Perhaps," said Nasrudin, "you did not contribute anything of your own to the problem of keeping dry?" -- Idries Shah, "Dry in the Rain," from The Pleasantries of the Incredible Mulla Nasrudin

"Fear is an instructor of great sagacity, and the herald of all revolutions." -- Ralph Waldo Emerson

The tough teacher is a familiar heavy in film and literature: martinet, boor, hellion, or iceman. Such characterizations are a repugnant self-image to most teachers. Perhaps for this reason the tough teacher seems to be a fading breed on campuses. It is hard to imagine one who is tough and compassionate, student-centered, learning-focused and successful as measured by conventional student ratings. But the quotations of Emerson, Jonson, Hughes, and Shah can feed our imagination in useful ways. To do so is important because how tough one should be is almost the hardest choice about teaching style that an instructor must make. Erring by too much or too little suboptimizes student learning. Then, too, one must choose how to be tough. The limitless combinations of content (how tough to be) and form (how to be tough) enrich the dilemma. Where can the instructor - particularly the novice - find guidance? One could listen to the students, especially their teaching evaluations. But student feedback is an imperfect guide for calibrating one's style. A second approach would be to follow the crowd of one's colleagues. But as examples of grade inflation suggest, following the crowd sometimes results in a race to the bottom. Third, one could imitate an exemplar with whom one studied in the past. But exemplars became that way because of how they responded to their circumstances; what you need is a response to your situation. This month's column argues that a concern for learning outcomes is the best lamp with which to find one's way through these dilemmas. It helps immensely to have a view about toughness in teaching: why and how to be tough. The column offers some reflections.

Suggested Citation

Bruner, Robert F., How Tough to Be; How to Be Tough: Four Themes on Promoting the Student's Learning (December 2001). Available at SSRN:

Robert F. Bruner (Contact Author)

University of Virginia - Darden School of Business ( email )

P.O. Box 6550
Charlottesville, VA 22906-6550
United States
434-924-3823 (Phone)
434-924-0714 (Fax)


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