Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Dear Student(s): A Professor "Tells All"

Dear Student(s):

I will begin with a question that I leave for you to mull over: why have you decided to go to college/grad school?  Was it just always assumed you would? Is there parental and family pressure to do so?  Did you ever consider taking a year or two off after high school (or college)  to work and fall in love and begin to figure out some of the things we all had to figure out at your age?  Do you have any idea what you're interested in, or what areas of study you might like to explore?  Are you excited about the next step? Do you expect this to be different from high school? Do you view your professors as resources, and do you view your education as a dialogue with books you read, professors who teach, and classmates who participate?  Are you looking to be "disrupted," in the best sense?  Are you wanting to have your world view challenged, and your knowledge expanded? Are you more interested in learning, and discovering the strengths and weaknesses in your abilities (weaknesses that you can then strengthen), than focusing on your final grade?  Does it matter more to you that a course changed your life than it landed you another A+ for that 4.5 inflated g.p.a.?

If you have answered yes, then you are one of the students I would like to clone.  But fewer and fewer students are like you and, to be honest, I'm hardly the only talking about this.  Even among colleagues across the nation, and those who work closely with students (advisors, staff, etc.), there is one word that pops up over and over to describe many of the interactions with students: "ENTITLEMENT." 

So what has gone so wrong? 

We could talk about a shift within higher ed institutions themselves so that they more closely resemble corporations: branding, education as a commodity, students as consumers, etc. Institutions are spending money refurbishing dorms to include saunas, swimming pools, and other amenities that many students have come to expect.  An atmosphere has developed that sends the message that if students pay tuition they deserve to get good grades, regardless of performance or progress.  Professors, once respected as educators, are now simply instruments to good grades. 

So, before I go on, let me tell  you why I'm here.  I love to teach. Or at least I used to.  I'm not so sure any more. Each semester, though,  I begin with a fresh and optimistic outlook, having spent a great deal of time and thought in planning for each of you.  Over the years I've had some amazing students, students who make me want to work hard for them, students who engage with the material and their peers, and me, and from whom I also learn.

Like many of my colleagues, I get excited about the different courses I teach, and imagine sharing my passion for the material with you in a journey we take together as fellow travelers, adding to one another's experience.  In the best situation, we are all learning---me, included. I develop syllabi that explain the course goals and list the materials you will need and the books and readings we will be discussing, and I lay out the schedule for the semester so that you can plan ahead, and know what to expect.  I also schedule office hours each week to make myself available personally to teach of you for anything you need over the course of the semester.  I also offer alternate times by appointment for those of you who work or have class conflicts.  My email address and office location are prominently displayed on the syllabus, so that you know how to find me.

So how do you think it makes your professor feel when we all show up the first day and you haven't bothered to read the syllabus, which I've sent you weeks in advance, as a courtesy,  and since you haven't bothered to buy (or borrow from the library) the course text,  you haven't read the assignment, and you express annoyance that I would actually expect you to be prepared? The first week turns into the second week, and some of you still don't have books, and you're irritated with me for inquiring (you say I'm picking on you), and you cop an attitude---yes, sometimes professors get idiomatic, too, and that's not a synonym for idiotic, though occasionally we can get that way, as well, when our students are showing up unprepared---- and then things only get worse.  You're not only showing up without your book and your assignments (and you've got excuses galore: the bookstore doesn't have the book, you lost the syllabus, you didn't know there would actually be assignments at the beginning of the semester, etc.) but you are arriving late to class with some regularity, by as much as 20 minutes after the class has started, disrupting everyone else in the room. 

And, no, it is not mean when the professor asks you to please arrive on time, prepared, and, no, the professor isn't playing favorites when she calls on the prepared student over the unprepared student, and, no, the professor isn't being condescending when she suggests that Google makes it so easy to look up allusions and references that you're unfamiliar with. She's being serious. And she's taking you seriously. It's a lot more work to have expectations, and I still believe my students deserve that.

Typically, a student should expect to spend 2-3 hours outside of class on reading and writing assignments, for every hour spent in class.  So if you're asked to read 50 pages, and you skim it in 10 minutes, you're unlikely to be getting much out of the exercise. 

And for those classmates who are prepared, your lack of preparation becomes a real drag on their energies, as well.

When your professor takes time to read your writing closely and offer suggestions to help you become a more literate person, the professor is not picking on you. The professor is taking time to help you become more proficient in your thinking and written expression, skills that transfer to almost any profession.  While it's true faculty may have slight variations in expectations, the principles of organized thinking, grammatical sentences, and clear ideas hold up in any class. Just because your high school teacher liked all that free writing you did, and gave you check-pluses, does not mean that the same "off the top of your head" approach works at the university.

Here are a few things I'd like you to consider:

1. Professors are people, too, with lives and families, and lots of work pressures, and most of them teach because they love teaching and enjoy being around university-age students.

2. Office hours should be used throughout the semester for an extra opportunity to learn more by having one-on-one, face time with your professor. If you would like to know more about how you could improve a paper, for example, be sure to bring the paper. Office hours do not exist just for you to show up and brown-nose in the hopes that your professor will like you more and raise your grade (I actually have had students say to me, "I come to office hours with my professors because I heard it helps you get better grades").   

3.  Don't waste time trying to B.S. your professor.  While all professors are grateful for positive feedback, so they know what's working in the class, simply using all your charms to try to stroke your professor's ego doesn't serve your education.  If you really like what the professor has done, be sure to write that on the course evaluation. 

4.  Take responsibility for your education.  Getting an education is not like buying clothes or a car. 

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