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Really? Is it that different? May 11, 2015

Posted by gordonwatts in life, university.

An article from the New York Times is making its rounds on various social media circles I’m a member of, “What is the Point of a Professor?” It has lots of sucker-punch quotes, like

But as this unique chapter of life closes and they reflect on campus events, one primary part of higher education will fall low on the ladder of meaningful contacts: the professors.

Or this one:

In one national survey, 61 percent of students said that professors frequently treated them “like a colleague/peer,” while only 8 percent heard frequent “negative feedback about their academic work.” More than half leave the graduation ceremony believing that they are “well prepared” in speaking, writing, critical thinking and decision-making.

Obviously implicit is that they aren’t well prepared! This is from an op-ed bit written by Mark Bauerlein, a professor at Emory. He also authored a book titled (which I have not read):

“The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (or, Don’t Trust Anyone Under 30).”

You can probably already tell this has pissed me off. Smile

This sort of hatchet job of a critique of university students gets it part-right, but, I think, really misses the point. Sorting through the article and trying to pull out a central idea that he wants all professors to adopt, I came away with this quote:

Since the early 2000s, I have made students visit my office every other week with a rough draft of an essay. We appraise and revise the prose, sentence by sentence. I ask for a clearer idea or a better verb; I circle a misplaced modifier and wait as they make the fix.

This one-on-one interaction he stresses as the cure for all the ills he has outlined. Let me just say that if I were devote this much time to each of my students I’d still be single. In the modern day and age of universities and professor’s lives (and jobs), there just isn’t time! Too many people want a university education, and there just isn’t enough money in the education system to fun this sort of interaction (and it is getting worse in many of the national largest publics).


But, frankly, if I look at my life and my work, it doesn’t seem that bad. I’m constantly mentoring undergraduates and graduate students. He claims that professors who do research don’t want interaction with their students because it detracts from their research… I doubt it is any different in English than it is in Physics – but that interaction is pretty much the only way I can get good undergraduates to start working with me! And I’m far from alone at the University of Washington.

The two views (I’m doing plenty of mentoring and his that there isn’t enough contact) are compatible: student/professor ratios are an easy explanation. But that isn’t everything – my students are not the same sort of student I was. This quote really irked me as being rather arrogant:

Naturally, students looked to professors for moral and worldly understanding.

Wow. I don’t think he has met most of my students! By the time they get to me they have a pretty good understanding of how the world works. I can help guide them though quantum mechanics and the philosophical questions that raises, but the internet and their friend groups are much stronger influences than I am for everything else!

His book title also makes me think he has missed everything that the new digital age has to offer. It feels like the constant discussion I have when organizing a conference: should we turn off wifi in the conference room and force everyone to listen to the talks, or leave it on? I see benefits and detriments to both – but you can’t hold back progress. Especially as the younger generations grow up and start attending conferences this will not be an option. And they and forward conference organizers will find ways to use it to the attendee’s benefit – the same way I hope it will happen in classrooms. I should say as a caveat, I don’t know anyone has universally cracked that nut yet!

In short:

  • He is right, in large classes can undermine the interaction between students and professors. Blame lies not just with the professors as his article implies here.
  • There is a lot of interaction going on none-the-less. Taking advantage of electronic communication, not just in-person.
  • Undergraduates learn at a university from many sources (e.g. the internet, social groups/media, etc.) in a way they didn’t a generation ago. This is good, not bad.
  • The kids are better than he seems to be giving them credit for. Smile

Edit: I originally saw this post in my fb feed, and my friend Salvatore Rappoccio had a fantastic response. It was private at the time, but now that he has made his reply to the article public”":

What? I can’t hear you over the four undergrad students I’m sending to Fermilab for the summer or the two undergrads per semester I’ve mentored for three years. If you want to chat you’ll have to take a number behind the 20-ish students per semester I sit down with for philosophical discussions or career advice outside of my office hours. I have, in the last semester, discussed physics, career choices, fatherhood, kerbal space program, and drywalling with a 3-tour vet, a guy working full time as a contractor to put himself through school, an electrician going back to school for engineering, and a student practically in tears that I bothered to tell her that she improved a lot over the semester, just to name the most memorable ones.

So What’s the point of a professor, you ask?

To educate, obviously. And not just in the classroom. Maybe it’s just you who falls into the “useless” category.