BEDSIDE MANNERS

As a rule, if it gets published on a moderately popular website and has anything to do with academia I will see it a dozen times before 9 AM. This is a logical consequence of having so many teachers and academics in my social circle. Monday's have-you-seen-this piece appeared in Slate and asks whether academics need to be nicer to students. Well, the author puts it a bit differently – stressing "empathy" – but the bottom line is that we are talking about students getting less from college than they should because they find professors unapproachable, rude, or just so lacking in interpersonal skills that they are ineffective in the classroom.

My first reaction, as it is so often when I see these mass media "The problem with those damn ivory tower academics" pieces, was disdain. Students endlessly make excuses and showing empathy is a sign of weakness that they identify, target, and attack relentlessly. By far the least appealing part of the job, in my opinion, is dealing with the constant excuse-making. I try being empathetic, I really do, but unless I want to double my workload in any given semester it is necessary to be "mean." From the students' perspective, being mean refers to doing things like insisting that they show up to class, take the exams, and hand in un-plagiarized work on the assigned dates. I know, I know. I'm history's greatest monster.

Upon reflection, though, the article is not entirely misguided. A frank look at my colleagues past and present was enough to convince me that being approachable and having basic interpersonal skills are not essential preconditions to having a long career in academia. Lots of us are jerks. In fact there are so many jerks – and they are so prolific at jerkitude – that if we put every academic on a spectrum from Nice to Total Jerk, I would be closer to Nice. In other words, I'm surly and kind of a dick and I don't even count as a surly dick by academic standards. Rather than rejecting the argument out of hand, then, here are a few comments on the relevant points.

1. It is absolutely correct to state that academics are never taught how to teach. I began teaching – not as an assistant, but as a flying-solo fake professor – my third semester of grad school. The department's position was essentially, "You're tall and have a loud voice. Go do it. Good luck." The "training" consisted of a blow-off seminar taught by the tenured pariah of the department during the first year. This experience is not unique or exceptional; the next person I meet who says that they were well prepared for teaching will be the first. So yes, it might help if grad programs did something other than say, "There's the water, jump in and thrash around until you figure it out." But of course that won't happen, because…

2. There is almost no incentive whatsoever in the profession to maximize one's skills and performance as a teacher. Hiring is based on research, grant money, and publications. Promotion, tenure, and raises are based on research, grant money, and publications. Teaching, especially at research intensive universities, is essentially a giant distraction. The dominant strategy for anyone attempting to get tenure or move up in the profession is…well, to do what many of our students do: put in C+ effort and hopefully get B results. This conversation can't take place without admitting that the entire profession is set up to encourage us to do everything but spend more time on teaching.

3. Professors with tenure who consistently get awful evaluations from students should face some kind of consequences. Pile on the committee work until their jobs become miserable enough that they'll retire. God knows we have enough 70 year old deadwood preventing younger, better faculty from entering the profession.

4. A lot of us try. We really do. Some of us don't. It is problematic to proceed from the assumption that the students are all trying. Some of them are, some of them aren't. In the college setting, the students are adults and the onus is on them to be motivated and take initiative. If they want the professor's help, they need to ask the professor for help. If they ignore the professor's advice because it is not what they want to hear or it involves doing work, that is not our problem. Believe me, a lot of them don't get this no matter how obvious it seems to you.

5. If a professor is so personality deficient that he or she is unable to, and does not already, make simple calming small talk like "Oh I remember finals, they were the worst!" then I really do not think there is any hope for that person. They should be declared legally dead and transferred immediately to an administrative post. Something in the Provost's or Registrar's office would be ideal for their skill set.

In short, while personality is not overflowing in academia there is a danger in infantilizing our students even more than they already are. They are adults and they need to learn how to deal with, among other things, people in positions of authority who have shitty personalities. That's one skill they need to master before they start their first full time job.

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44 Responses to “BEDSIDE MANNERS”

  1. Rich Says:

    If it's in Slate you know it's going to be crap, perhaps even cringe worthy.

    Teaching really has no reward unless you're at Yale, Stanford or a decent four year school. and the lack of time to do it well was one reason I left academia. Sadly, I enjoyed it but needed time to actually prepare in order to meet my own standard.

    In many places, the grad students often are the best instructors–they're enthusiastic, they're knowledge may not be broad but it's up to date and more than the undergrads know. The senior faculty who don't teach often shouldn't. The deadwood who don't get committee work or undergraduate advising wind up teaching the survey courses. Some are good instructors but as deadwood their knowledge and presentation are dated. Some people who don't teach undergrads bizarrely write texts for them–I taught from a text like this (new faculty, no time to choose a text) and later met two of the authors–the sections they wrote were terrible. One wrote over the student's heads, so I skipped half the material because it was too convoluted to teach and was in a subfield that all the other subfields mocked anyway. The other guy wrote about practical stuff that he obviously had never practiced. It was my area and writing my own lectures was easier than using his drivel, plus it meant students had to come to class if they wanted an "A". I never bothered with attendance or "class participation" (who wants to hear from brown noses), so I included enough stuff not in the book to make an "A" contingent on showing up.

    I taught part time a few years ago. It was energizing even though the students were there to get a card punched–passive, whiny. They complained about the amount of reading I assigned (which was less than the amount that regular faculty required). They didn't like doing a paper (a college degree level job usually involves some writing). The second year there were new ADA requirements no one had bothered to mention. I didn't mind doing the alternate testing,I just didn't appreciate getting no upfront info.

    In the end these things mostly work out. Awful professors become known and departments tend to avoid having the absolute worst teach important classes. The worst professors I had in undergrad were a foreign math teacher (totally unintelligable–thank God it was math), a sociology professor who spent three lectures on the transition from "no people" to "people" and an elderly English lit prof who seemed to chose the worst novels by great authors. The math guy probably could have gotten speech lessons but the other two seemed pretty untrainable.

  2. Middle Seaman Says:

    I accept the spirit of the post and agree to most of the arguments. There are just a few points I feel like adding.

    My student enjoy a lot of flexibility. You need another week for your cat died, fine with me. In 30 years less than a handful of students abused the flexibility. No pain on my side. You have 3 midterms when my assignments are due; have one more week to submit. It works fine, they appreciate it, everyone is happier.

    Can't say that my students are dumb. It might be the school of engineering.

    Better monitoring, attention and teaching should be in place to improve our teaching skill. It's doable.

  3. Monica Says:

    Not all post-secondary instructors are thrown blind to the wolves. I teach part time at a local tech/community college, and the system requires training and certification. It's great. I'd like to think I had some chops going in (as much thanks to my mom being a former teacher as having TA-d in grad school) but learning more about teaching has been actually helpful.

    Even with the training we all (full and part timers) are required to have at a teacher-supportive/teaching-oriented college, I'm amazed what I hear from students about other instructors. Taking weeks and weeks to grade and give feedback on assignments isn't a good way to help them learn what to do on newer assignments… that's poor planning and making it harder for students. And I know from experience that some students expect email replies right now! immediately! but I've heard often enough from reliable students that they have instructors who don't email back ever. WTH? way to model professional behavior, way to alienate students and contribute to attrition.

    So yeah, I think there are jerk professors.

    (maybe mostly out of laziness? like how is it that at the end of every semester some profs. get rushed to cram in 2-3 weeks of material and assignments into one week because they spent too much time on an earlier topic? that's being a jerk to students too, and the profs. /should/ be able to learn and adapt their teaching style to avoid that.)

  4. grumpygradstudent Says:

    I always get comments on evaluations about being stand offish or condescending, despite very consciously trying to never belittle a student's comment (other than a polite "I'm not sure that's exactly right in this case" sort of thing).

    I've come to believe that they basically want you to be some combination of Mr. Rogers, Richard Simmons, and a stand up comedian. They want you to be bubbly, hilarious, and nurturing like their mommies. Most normal people are not naturally this way (I am not). I'm nice! My friends all think I'm nice. But apparently just being polite is tantamount to being an asshole in their eyes. Oh, and I have deadlines that I stick to. That might be part of it too.

  5. wetcasements Says:

    There are good plumbers and some shitty plumbers and a whole lot of perfectly average plumbers. There are good oncoogists and shitty oncologists and a whole lot of average ones as well..

    But for some reason when it comes to teaching, especially at the college level, we totally romantacize the profession. (I blame movies like Stand and Deliver and Dead Poets Society. No, seriously. Think about the magical transformations that occur to the students in those movies.)

    So yeah, academics could definitely do a better job at not being anti-social robots but to succeed at getting a Ph.D., let alone landing a halfway decent gig, guess what? For at least four years you need to turn yourself into an anti-social robot. You have to become smarter and more driven than your peers. To make it through that gauntlet and then go back and be fully supportive of some sophomore frat boy's essay on _Jane Eyre_ is pretty much impossible.

    I had some great college professors who were generous with their time and wrote letters for me to get into a top tier PhD program in English.

    But one professor, another very nice 'well adjusted" guy, told me straight up that getting a PhD would be a huge mistake and in particular, a waste of productive years that would be better spent establishing myself in a professional career outside the academy.

    This is the late 1990's and he was absolutely correct.

  6. Nunya Says:

    I am not in academia but I was a student at a large flagship public university you may have heard of. I went into my freshman year without pretense or expectations having come from LA public schools, my expectations were quite low. What I didn't expect was that my first two years of college would be taught almost entirely by grad students that had just learned what they were teaching a few years before and often to very large lecture halls.

    My impression was that professors gave not one fuck about undergrads other than topoach the best to work as slaves for their research. If you can't be bothered to show up to teach the course that proudly lists you as the professor, fuck you, I will neither respect you or do your work for free.

    I have been out of college for twenty years but from what I gather, it's only gotten worse. I don't blame the professors but the system you work under is fucked in every sense of the word. Are you a teacher or a researcher or an author? Fucking pick one. Have people who specialize in actually teaching, especially for undergrads.

    Kids are stupid and shortsighted. We all were. What they don't need is a wet behind the ear grad student with no training or experience defining new students' academic careers. I can scarecely think of a profession in more dire need of a kick in the ass. My adjunct friends tend to agree with me.

  7. Alan C Says:

    I'm glad I went to a smallish university that was pretty teaching-oriented and had no grad students teaching. (It had no grad program in my field.) Classes were mostly small, too. Some profs were absolutely boring in the classroom, but I don't remember many jerks and I developed personal relationships with a number of faculty who were great teachers.

    OTOH when I went to grad school and got a chance to teach it was much as you describe. Thrown in the water. Being painfully shy didn't help; it took years to grow out of that, but by then (for various reasons) I'd given up on the idea of an academic career. It was torture to get through an hour 3 times a week talking to a class of mostly barely motivated freshmen.

  8. c u n d gulag Says:

    When I was an Adjunct Professor for 6 years, in my late 30's and early 40's, one of the things I tried to tell students was to enjoy the rest of their time in college – because after that, the fun ends, and REAL responsibilities begin.
    Most told they wanted OUT as soon as possible.
    Then, when I saw them later, they told me that I was right.

    Another thing I told them was that very few employers, if any, really cared about your GPA.
    They wanted to see your diploma, because that told them that you know how the system works – you attend, you get assignments, and you complete them within the time allotted, with a modicum of success.

  9. democommie Says:

    "Kids are stupid and shortsighted. We all were. What they don't need is a wet behind the ear grad student with no training or experience defining new students' academic careers."

    Most military organizations figured this out a while back. They don't have guys who have never been on the sharp end of the spear (newly stamped butterbars) or people who never used the current batch of killing tools (older, field grade officers). They utilize the talents of non-coms who were once shit-scared recruits and made it through the grinder.

    I went to a cath-o-lick school for 13 years and having MORE disconnected (although often well-intentioned) teachers in college helped to drive me into the AF at the age of 19.

    I live in a college town (SUNY Oswego) and know about 30-40 faculty well enough to shoot the breeze and have some cocktails. One or two of them are douchebags, the rest are people who do like (LOVE is the wrong word) their work and enjoy dealing with engaged, appreciative students (there are some) and slogging through a semester with the rest of them. I would say that many of them feel a special sort of warm feeling when the particularly churlish student tells them that they're going to become King/Queen of the World and they don't need this shit.

    Hey, that's a course I could teach:"The Positive Effects of Academic Schadenfreude as it Relates to Former Students".

  10. c u n d gulag Says:

    Oh, and my favorite, was this one kid who came up to me after the first class, and said, "I need an A."

    I said that if he showed up for every class, participated, and turned in A papers and tests, that he'd surely get it.

    He said, "No, I NEED an A!"

    And I told him, "Regardless of what you feel you may or may not need, you EARN an A!"

  11. DH Says:

    Re: point #2: You'd be surprised at how many job interview processes now stress teaching more and more, at least at the smaller mediocre schools that I interviewed at. I found the whole thing ridiculous, though, considering the truth of your first point, that zero fucks are given by graduate programs in training you to teach. So you go into these interviews and the hiring committee wants you to have a well-thought out teaching philosophy, which you basically have to figure out on your own and try not to look like your completely full of shit because what the hell do you really know about pedagogy. I always found it so galling how much emphasis they put on teaching after graduate school had done absolutely nothing to prepare you for it.

  12. Safety Man! Says:

    I had the experience of working as staff in a health and safety department at the engineering school where I received my undergrad. Once every semester, the PI had to reconcile the entire chemical inventory using a barcode scanner. Very easy, maybe a few seconds per barcode. Without fail, the same hardass PI's that once lectured us students about deadlines and "the real world" would wait until the day before the inventory was due and then whine to me about their scanner not being charged. After that they would whine to their superiors about grant money until the VP over our section would force us to call the software company running the tracking system to grant them an extension. No sympathy from me.

  13. negative 1 Says:

    I work for the teachers' union, and we have higher ed faculty of our members, so I'm putting my biases forward. However, the problem with any proposals that put forward 'teaching quality' is that there needs to be a way to judge that. So far even the public schools, whose teachers are educated in method and effectiveness, hasn't come up with a (sane) way to do it yet. This is why the spirit of the post seems unassailable, but the reality is something else entirely.
    That said, one way to do it is to remove anyone who brags about the amount of students that will fail the class on day one. For some reason every math professor I had in college was so excited about how hard their class was, something tells me that didn't exactly scream out "wants me to learn something" to anyone else, either.

  14. RosiesDad Says:

    Ed: I've pulled this out and will do so again. From ratemyprofessor.com:

    "Attendance is not mandatory but there are pop quizzes. He was a funny guy and I enjoyed the entertaining lecture every day. His tests are long and almost all free-form. He puts most of the emphasis on the term paper and basically what you make on that you'll make in the class. If you show him that you work hard he will reward you. Be a good writer."

    "Very funny, and really good teacher ! I hate the subject but he made it enjoyable !!"

    "Take this professor. He is my favorite professor at UGA. His humor is not for the easily offended, but if you get it you won't want to miss class. You must go to lecture to do well. The research paper is graded hard, but tests are easy if you read the readings and your notes. Put in work and talk with him about your paper and you'll get an A easily."

    "… is actually a great professor. He has a strange sense of humor, but if you took any type of civics class in high school the class is a joke. I didn't use the book and scored a 95+ on almost every test. He does a quiz once a week but it's basically common knowledge."

    "Do not take him! 9 AM he tried making jokes to the class! As if we actually cared! Mandatory to read the textbook because he gives you pop quizzes! Current event every Thursday! He was a nice teacher, but very off! I don't recommend him at all!"

    These are YOUR reviews from your student. The last one is from a kid who is too stupid and immature to be wasting his/her parents' money on college tuition and the rest reflect appreciation of a professor who brings something extra to the classroom. So YOU, Ed, are not the problem.

    OTOH, my daughter has suffered through a Statistical Methods course in her poli sci curriculum this semester, taught by the dept. chair and she never misses class, never turns in a late assignment but will probably get her worst grade since beginning college directly as a function of poor instruction, unclear directions on assignments, prof ignoring repeated requests for office appointments.

    I tell my daughter that it happens. She is a 3.7 student doing a double major and frets over everything. But in 4 years of college, you will have a couple of profs who really aren't up to it and don't care. Nothing to do but get through and move on.

  15. Graham Says:

    What I recall most about university were the number of dumb fuck students who turned up. Most said nothing is class and seemed unenthused about what they were studying, obviously looking to get a Pass and that was all. Looking back, I pity the academics who really did want to try.

    It certainly is poor that there is no training on how to teach, or any process to weed out those who simply cannot teach, before academics are let loose on students.

    The best academic I had was a man with a colourful past who had actually been a school teacher until he was 40 or so. That guy knew how to teach. He was a TEACHER first, an academic second, and had something of the leader in him. Research and teaching are two distinct professions. Students need teachers, not researchers.

    The grad student teachers we got in first year were pretty poor and unformed. Most of my tenured teachers were pretty good, but then my attitude was pretty good and they gave to me what I asked of them. I wasn't there to muck around.

    There were a couple of anal retentives, and one Associate Professor who was so utterly lazy and uninspiring that one could only gape in wonder at how he held his job.

    In the job I do now I deal with a lot of young people in late teens and twenties. The one thing you cannot do without is humour. The humour of the young does not change much, and it isn't hard to cotton onto. If you can't do humour, then have nothing to do with the young: humour makes you and them human and is a great tool for getting the real arseholes offside with the rest of the class.

  16. Graham Says:

    What I recall most about university were the number of dumb fuck students who turned up. Most said nothing is class and seemed unenthused about what they were studying, obviously looking to get a Pass and that was all. Looking back, I pity the academics who really did want to try.

    It certainly is poor that there is no training on how to teach, or any process to weed out those who simply cannot teach, before academics are let loose on students.

    The best academic I had was a man with a colourful past who had actually been a school teacher until he was 40 or so. That guy knew how to teach. He was a TEACHER first, an academic second, and had something of the leader in him. Research and teaching are two distinct professions. Students need teachers, not researchers.

    The grad student teachers we got in first year were pretty poor and unformed. Most of my tenured teachers were pretty good, but then my attitude was pretty good and they gave to me what I asked of them. I wasn't there to muck around.

    There were a couple of anal retentives, and one Associate Professor who was so utterly lazy and uninspiring that one could only gape in wonder at how he held his job.

    In the job I do now I deal with a lot of young people in late teens and twenties. The one thing you cannot do without is humour. The humour of the young does not change much, and it isn't hard to cotton onto. If you can't do humour, then have nothing to do with the young: humour makes you and them human and is a great tool for getting the real arseholes offside with the rest of the group.

  17. Chase Says:

    Don't forget that adjuncts are already battling against a tide of unrealistic expectations. If a school wants their professors to seem less "mean" or "standoffish" or whatever, try treating them with some respect: Compensate them. Pay them a living wage and give them some benefits and job security. Expecting them to get by on passion isn't going to work. A lack of material support has consequences; it will affect their performace, perhaps not in every case but in the main and in the long run. How could it be otherwise? In just about every other area of life, we recognize that you get what you pay for. Why would anyone think that teaching is different?

    Note also that what counts as "meanness" to some students may have more to do with not responding to complaints and excuses and bad behavior like a good, obliging customer service agent or waiter. The classroom is a workspace where professors have supervisory responsibilities that may occasionally annoy students who don't want to work. Tough. It's not a fucking dinner party.

  18. sluggo Says:

    @grumpygradstudent

    'I always get comments on evaluations about being stand offish or condescending' / 'They want you to be bubbly, hilarious, and nurturing like their mommies'

    Your handle is "Grumpy Grad Student" and and you make a comment about students "mommies" in the next paragraph and you wonder why you are perceived as stand offish and condescending?

    Self awareness is not your strongest attribute, is it?

  19. Khaled Says:

    @RosiesDad- I read the same things on "ratemyprofessor.com". The website is hilarious in so many ways- the whiny, spoiled rich kids annoyed at the professors having the nerve to actually want them to show up and do the readings- the horror! Of course parents, helicopter or not, are the ones who encourage this behavior. In work settings, I've had parents call me and tell me that Suzie or Johnny can't possibly come into work tonight because of some school function- nevermind that the schedule was posted 2 to 3 weeks before, and the school function was sent down weeks ahead of time as well. This usually occurred in rich & upper middle class neighborhood, almost never in working class or poor neighborhoods. People with money tend to view the rest of the world as "the help" and act accordingly. Don't like your child's grade? Call and complain to the principal and shout a lot about how much money you have and how much influence you have with the pols on the school board. Don't like your child's grade in college? Call the Dean or someone in the Administration and bitch about you being a donor, potential donor or whatever. All of this means that the children don't grow up and learn that actions have consequences. When they get into a job because of some family connection, they'll be ill prepared and those around them will end up covering for their incompetence. And they'll make six figures and vote Republican and complain about how the poor are lazy and stupid.

  20. Two Below Says:

    College was my introduction to part of the real world, the part that doesn’t care how well or poorly I do. A bit ironic, since the academic setting is criticized as having so little in common with reality. A good number of my professors could have used a course or two in teaching, but what they didn’t need was a course on how to have a treacly bedside manner. Slate’s chirpy piece deserves to be ignored.

    It’s interesting that while we are discussing the need for college professors to have teacher training, some states are trying to lower the qualifications for teachers at the elementary and secondary levels, requiring only a college degree in something, no doubt part of the effort to privatize schools.

  21. grumpygradstudent Says:

    @Sluggo

    Because people in anonymous online comments forums are always identical to their real life professional personas. Jesus, why am I even bothering to respond to that dipshittedness?

  22. Number Three Says:

    I have been teaching college courses, off-and-on, mostly part-time but sometimes full-time, since 1995. I have always tended to get good teaching evaluations and, for a while when I was full-time, I would get nominated for a teaching award every now and then. (There are no teaching awards for part-timers!) I think that teaching well takes three things:
    (1) If you show the students you don't want to be there by your behavior, they won't want to be there either. At least look enthusiastic about the material (faking it is fine).
    (2) You don't have to be a stand-up, but tell a joke now and then. After you teach a course for a few years, you should have a few reliable jokes about the material. Students can deal with dry material, but inject some levity into the proceedings.
    (3) Argue with the materials. Seriously. No matter what I teach, and I have taught an extremely diverse set of courses (!), I always try to find a book or at least some readings that I have differences with. Not necessarily partisan or ideological differences. Sometimes it works to have contrasting readings and approaches. Why does this work? You're telling the students that just reading the book and knowing what the book says is not doing it right.
    Maybe (3) wouldn't work in some fields, but in political science/public policy, I think it's very important.

  23. mothra Says:

    I guess I was an unusual student: I never expected empathy from my professors or even entertainment. Yeah, it was nice if the professor was more interesting, but their job was to deliver the course content. My job was to absorb it. Yeah, there were some boring, BORING professors and some jerks, but that's life. No guarantee you are going to get a mind-blowing experience in every class at university.

    But here is one thing I always wonder about and seems to be a perpetual problem, judging from comments I hear from engineering/chemistry/math students: the incomprehensible adjunct or grad student from a foreign country who expects their students to ask no questions–like students do in their home country. Why do universities keep hiring these people and keep frustrating students with them? My niece right now is struggling mightily with a chemistry prof (who she oddly also had as an algebra prof) who no one can understand. How is it okay to charge students money for a class taught in such a manner?

  24. Elle Says:

    who expects their students to ask no questions–like students do in their home country

    This is one thing about American university teaching I don't understand. I can still remember the low-level gasp that ran around the lecture theatre in one of my first year classes when an American student interrupted a lecturer mid-flow to make a point of their own. This happened over and over again throughout the rest of my time at university with successive cohorts of exchange students, and I could never quite fathom why they never noticed the chill in the room. Our lectures were never given by graduate students, and there was no such thing as a teaching assistant. There was no parity between lecturer and student. They were expert at us for an hour and we took notes.

    Lectures were jumping off points, and even if you went to all of them and wrote everything down there was no way that regurgitating it would enable you to pass an exam. Tutorials were where we discussed the reading around that we had done, and refined what we thought with our lecturers.

  25. Waspuppet Says:

    "Note also that what counts as "meanness" to some students may have more to do with not responding to complaints and excuses and bad behavior like a good, obliging customer service agent or waiter."

    There are many issues at work here, but they all circle back round to this.

    They are paying; you are getting paid. So they don't think of them selves as students; they think if themselves as customers. So they should get what they want. The antidote would be parents who say "Actually, Biff, you're not paying; we are, and it sounds to us like your professor is doing a perfectly fine job, so sit down and shut the fk up."

    But of course that doesn't happen anymore, because we've had 30-plus years of hearing that teachers and professors are actually quite stupid. Which makes perfect sense, in the sense that it makes none at all.

  26. quixote Says:

    There is actually a way to measure teacher performance. It's been used at many levels and in many countries. It requires class visits by two independent current or recently retired working teachers (not administrators) at the level they're evaluating. It's very important that theyhave no relationship to the school district or university where the evaluation is happening.

    That requires considerable national-level organization and some money, so I doubt the US will ever be interested no matter how much they talk talk talk about the quality importance of quality education with quality teachers. The site visit system is not perfect, but it tends to do an adequate and consistent job of weeding out the total losers and noting the outstanding teachers.

    As for the Slate piece, give me a bleeding break. I've taught college for a million years (three decades. same thing) and my job is to give the students the best guidance through complex material that I can manage. It's not to be their friend, counselor, buddy, entertainer, confidant, caretaker, parent, keeper, or sibling. It's to be a *teacher* fergawdsake.

    I can understand that the distinctions are less and less stark the younger the students are. In kindergarten, being a surrogate aunt or uncle is probably very important. But then I suspect actual kindergarten teachers know all about that and a lot more that the Slate piece doesn't have a clue about.

  27. sluggo Says:

    @grumpygradstudent
    The reason you respond is that I have Sherlock like powers of observation and you don't know yourself well enough to accept what others see in you.

  28. grumpygradstudent Says:

    Uh huh

  29. Nunya Says:

    Sluggo, trolling and personal attacks don't fly here. Keep it above board, please.

  30. Captain Blicero Says:

    Sluggo you're a pathetic shell of a human being

  31. Robert Says:

    My eldest brother teaches college English. I've looked at his ratemyprofessor page, and the students appear to be describing several different people, few of whom I've ever met. It's an interesting experience.

    I had a generally good experience with the teachers at university, except for one curious pattern. In the cases where I was completely at sea (the one upper division English class I took, and a music class come to mind), my being articulate and having a good vocabulary made it difficult for the instructor to credit my claims of not understanding the subject matter. The first big exam usually disabused them, but by then it was too late to drop the class.

  32. Alan C Says:

    I was just looking at comments on a longtime friend of mine on ratemyprofessors. Some of the bad comments about him actually rang pretty true to my experience of him.

  33. John Doheny Says:

    I was genuinely shocked by my experiences as an academic. A disturbing number of my "colleagues" (particularly senior faculty) viewed the students as pests that interferred with their real mission at the university, which they saw as generating research and scholarship (read: "empire building and petty slapfights with other tenured faculty"). The tenure system, allegedly in place to encourage freedom to express unpopular views, also is great for enabling bullies. In any dispute with a student, legitimate or not, the faculty ALWAYS close ranks; to not do so is to risk pariah status and, for the non-tenured, unemployment.

    Not everyone was like this of course, but those that were caused an enormous amount of damage. Ultimately after 6 years I was pushed out in a most unceremonious manner. This despite the fact that I was an experienced teacher (3 years in public high school) before I ever got to grad school, as well as a professional musician of 30 years standing (I was teaching in a music dept.)

    The most blaringly clueless example of bad teaching, and one that I encountered from undergrad years on, was "brilliant" scholars who can't understand why YOU don't get what they're saying. Even a rookie teacher quickly comes to understand that not everyone is going to get a particular approach, and you'd damn well better have more than one way of explaining a concept. Repeating the same thing the student didn't get on the first pass, only louder, just doesn't get it.

  34. DM Says:

    I'd like to address the assumption that college students "need" to be lectured to effectively by professors who put teaching before research. The thought is that students are spending a lot of money to attend college and therefore the quality of the in-classroom education should be top notch. I am just not positive this is what students are or should be paying for. Rather, it is the more hands-off system of learning in higher education is different than grade school that should be beneficial to students and is an important element of the transition period that is college.

    After all, college students are (young) adults who attended school already for twelve years, having been taught the entire time by teachers whose job was only to teach to them — 8 hours a day and 5 days a week. Ideally, then, students who make it to college are adept students by virtue of already having spent thousands of hours in a classroom, and are motivated enough to do some or most of the work independently, if needed. There is a benefit to forming relationships with professors outside of the classroom. After putting in the effort, if students are still struggling with the material, they should meet with the professor during office hours or after class. Personally, where I've made the effort to introduce myself to professors, addressed them maturely and directed to them particular questions, I was never rebuffed — no matter how lousy the professor was in the classroom. Students should be making the effort to engage with professors outside the classroom. Also, there are usually opportunities for students to receive academic assistance through other means including study centers, peers, library resources, etc.

    College's value is not as an extension of high school, but rather as a professional and social transition to the workplace and, further, as a way of providing the opportunity for academic growth and independent thought not possible in the more linear high school setting. The problem is most students, especially at non-elite schools, are not mature enough to take advantage of the resources a university has to offer and, in turn, blame professors for their lack of teaching skills ("I excelled in high school but not college, so what's the difference?"). However, I’m not certain students' missed opportunities are the faculty's problem as much as they are the problems of students and the parents who ultimately spend as much as hundreds of thousands of dollars for a product the students aren't willing to utilize to its full potential. Empathy, as the Slate article calls for, is not something students should go to college expecting and certainly not something they should expect post-grad, either.

  35. Two Below Says:

    DM: "The problem is most students, [especially at non-elite schools] , are not mature enough to take advantage of the resources a university has to offer and, in turn, blame professors for their lack of teaching skills…."

    Care to expand on that?

  36. anothergrumpygradstudent Says:

    Just a few thoughts from my ivory tower:

    My program "emphasizes" teaching insofar as I'm required to give at least one lecture each term, grade papers, and hold weekly office hours. How to actually do the first two of those things effectively was never explained, and in some cases, even when I explicitly asked for guidance, was told it was better that I "figure it out myself." I'm expected to maintain a full course-load on top of these responsibilities, as well as submit to conferences, produce significant research documents, and apply for funding.

    I find that students have no idea who or what the fuck a grad student is, except for the few whose parents are academics. Usually I get treated as though I were another professor, until it becomes pretty obvious that I don't have that kind of knowledge or experience, at which point I'm then perceived as utterly incompetent. My own status as "student" doesn't factor into their assessment. Of course I'm not going to be great — I'm still learning. I want to be great. I'm trying. But right now I kind of suck, and it's too bad that their education has been entrusted to someone who, by definition, is not great at what they do yet.

    Sometimes I'm told that teaching is the most important thing, that it's good teachers who get the jobs. Other days, it's publications, that the more articles you can publish in prestigious journals, the better your chances are of getting hired. Sometimes I'm told I should take advantage of the education programs my university offers in order to rack up teaching certifications. Others, that everything I do should be directed towards getting my dissertation finished as quickly as possible. From what I hear, once you land that coveted tenure-track job, it doesn't get much better. When I'm feeling cynical (or I've just finished a G&T post), I think this is all an elaborate ruse to distract us from how much bigger administrators' salaries are than ours, that if they keep us chasing after endless hoops we won't notice our course loads bloat while our paychecks waste away.

    I just gave myself a sad.

  37. democommie Says:

    "I've taught college for a million years (three decades. same thing)"

    Ahhhh, you're teaching "Statistical Factishness for the Post-cognizant Republican". {;>)

  38. Two Below Says:

    democommie: "Statistical Factishness for the Post-cognizant Republican"

    Outstanding! democommie, is that yours? If not, someone please tell me the origin of that phrase.

  39. quixote Says:

    Bwahahahaha.

    (I wish. That'd be an even better guarantee of permanent employment than tenure.)

  40. moderateindy Says:

    I went to a directional state school in IL in the 80's. Except for Bio and Chem Labs, I did not have a single grad student teach an actual class. My friends that went to U of I were taught by grad students all the time. I wonder who received the better educational experience?
    The Slate article does make a valid point. My profs that I perceived to care about their students, were more approachable, hence I was more likely to go to them if I needed help on subject matter. The result was a better over all academic experience for both people, as I got guidance and clarification, and the professor knew that their efforts were not going to waste.

    Grumpy Grad Student I had to laugh at your defense when you said, "I'm a nice person, my friends think I'm nice" If your friends thought you were an a–hole then they probably wouldn't be your friends. I'm sure your mommy thinks you're attractive as well. Not, perhaps the most objective judge.
    You don't meet a whole lot of people on this planet that think that they are stupid, or that think they are crappy at their job.
    If a lot of the students view you as being cold, condescending, or less than approachable, chances are that it's you that is doing something wrong.

  41. DM Says:

    Two Below, I mean simply that students don't take advantage of the ACADEMIC resources that large research institutions — or smaller ones even — allow to their students. The point is merely observational and I have no statistical or non-anecdotal evidence to back it up, but I don't think it's particularly controversial. Compare the lengths that the average professional school student or graduate student goes in their pursuit of knowledge/academic success compared to the average undergrad. The latter is usually too socializing and drinking, though the same opportunities are available to both groups. This isn't a problem in and of itself — college is a great time to live large — but when these same students accuse professors of not teaching the material well enough, much of the blame should fall on them for not being more proactive.

  42. Two Below Says:

    DM, I was asking why you think students at non-elite schools are especially lacking in maturity.

  43. DM Says:

    It's not that students at non-elite schools are especially lacking in it, it's that students at the best schools tend not to be lacking in it, or lacking in it less. I would consider things like getting a near perfect SAT, getting straight As in high school, becoming involved in impressive extracurricular activities and putting together timely and effective admissions packages to be signs of maturity. Beyond that, I went to a public school for undergrad and an ivy for graduate school — I can tell you that the undergrads tended to be more motivated and mature at the latter. Not always, but in general.

  44. Ariana Says:

    When I was in college, the teachers never introduced themselves on the first day of class, or any day of class. We knew their last names from the sign-up paperwork, but the culture was not one where you could refer to someone as "Professor lastname" or any variation thereof.

    The older I get, the more this phenomenon worries and offends me as a human being and a person who believes in both higher education and people having a basic level of fucking manners.