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.