Claim: A class decides to conduct a psychological experiment in positive reinforcement on their professor. Accordingly, they seemingly pay attention to the professor’s lectures only when he stands near or moves towards a wastebasket sitting in a front corner of the room. Whenever the professor wanders away from the wastebasket, the students talk, act disinterested, fidget, and make noise. Eventually the professor is “trained” to stand next to the wastebasket during the entire course of his lecture.
Taking this experiment a step further, the students start turning the wastebasket over before every class and, in a series of steps, train the professor to lecture first with one foot on the wastebasket, and then with both feet on the wastebasket. The experiment works so well that the professor eventually begins every lecture by picking up the wastebasket, turning it upside-down in the same spot at the front of the room, and conducting his entire lecture while standing on it.
Example: [Collected on the Internet, 1993]
This sounds awfully similar to an anecdote I’ve come across several times. It basically involves similar Skinnerian warfare between a prof (usually a psych prof) and his class. Usually it involves a class learning about conditioning and deciding to try it out on the prof. They decide they’ll train him only to write on the right half of the chalkboard, so when he’s writing on the left half, they talk loudly and refuse to pay attention. When he’s writing on the right half, they listen raptly. Eventually they have him so well trained he only writes things on a tiny corner of the board. I’ve also heard of a prof being trained to stand on one leg while lecturing.
action which the professor is “trained” to perform (e.g., lecturing atop a wastebasket, writing on only one side of the board, standing on one leg, lecturing from one side of the room) varies.
- The legend sometimes specifies that the instructor being trained is a psychology professor.
Origins: The motif of students trying to gain the upper hand over their instructors is a common one in collegiate legends, and the irony of conducting a form of “psychological warfare” on a psychology professor is obvious. Brunvand has collected several anecdotal claims of allegedly successful experiments of this nature and mentions an account of students training their teacher that supposedly appeared in Psychology Today but has proved elusive. Many people claim to have been in a class where such training took place (or to know someone who was); undoubtedly a few attempts have actually been made.
Last updated: 30 June 2011
Brunvand, Jan Harold. Curses! Broiled Again! New York: W. W. Norton, 1989. ISBN 0-393-30711-5 (pp. 311-313).
Also told in:
The Big Book of Urban Legends. New York: Paradox Press, 1994. ISBN 1-56389-165-4 (p. 204).