Thursday, November 20, 2008

An Anecdotal Account of An Alarming Absence of Awareness

For those keeping count: that's seven (7) A words in the title. I think I will stop there.

A friend of mine is team-teaching a class with another professor this term. I have written before about the benefits and perils of team-teaching. In fact, there are many different ways to organize a team-taught class. For example, team-teaching faculty in my department are encouraged to attend all classes of a team-taught course. In real life, however, faculty use at least some of the time when their fellow-teacher is teaching to get other things done (e.g. research, travel).

In the case of my friend, he and his team-teacher decided to organize the course in such a way that they mostly only go to the classes they themselves are teaching. Most recently, the other professor has been teaching for the past 2 weeks, but my friend returned to teaching the course this week.

As he was setting up his teaching materials at the front of the classroom, a student sitting near the front said:

Did you have fun on your vacation?

My friend, a very good-natured person except when insufficiently caffeinated, laughed in a considerable way at this question, and explained to the student that he had not been on vacation.

The student wanted to know what he was doing, then, if not teaching. There were still a few minutes before class, so my friend briefly explained about the research component of a professor's job at a university such as this one and mentioned he was writing a proposal to obtain research funding, and that proposal-writing was a very time-consuming activity. A proposal to do what? the student wanted to know, so my friend dove into an explanation of the proposed research.

I am glad they had this conversation. Perhaps there is now one less student at this university who is unaware that most professors here teach and do research*. Perhaps now there is one less student who thinks that when professors are not teaching, if only for a day or week or two, they must be on vacation or, at the very least, in a state of suspended animation in their professor pod, waiting to be re-activated just in time to put on their professor suit and head to class via the secret professor tunnels.

* In fact, I found this question surprising. I thought most students thought that we professors mostly did research and only occasionally emerged, with great reluctance, from our labs to mutter a few incomprehensible words to a class. It is quite possible, however, that I do not know what most students think. Another hypothesis is that many students think professors primarily do research, many students think professors primarily teach, and there are 7 (± 1.5)
students who know that professors' jobs are divided among research and teaching and service in various proportions.

24 comments:

Anonymous said...

Same in my university. Boggles my mind everytime I hear it from a student.

And we have the same crazy team teaching model (occasionally interspersed with a co-teaching model).

-fellow woman physical scientist in research university.

Anonymous said...

I had a undergrad friend who "worked out" the number of hours a professor puts in based on the activities of a particular prof he was fairly close to. My friend concluded that profs work no more than 20 hours a week. This was one of the top profs in the department; he was surely working 60+ hours a week in reality. Lots of undergrads just don't know what research/scholarly activity involves, even undergrads who are kind-of friends with professors. And they have no idea about service requirements.

Not Just Academic said...

An alarming but very common absence of awareness... Not only do many students I've encountered think academics exist only to teach, but also seem to think that we also take the whole summer off just because classes stop. I've lost count of the number of times a student has emailed me in July or August only to express surprise that I respond before mid September.

Actually, it's not just students. My extended family also regularly asks "when do you finish up?" or "when are you off?" as summer approaches, convinced (despite my explanations) that my workload disappears as soon as the undergrads are out the door.

Goofus said...

I just graduated from college but I will say - I didn't really realize research EXISTED until I got involved in a lab during my freshmen year. I was a first-generation college student. I think for a lot of people that don't have knowledge of the university system, scientific reports seem to appear out of the ether.

quietandsmalladventures said...

during my master's work, i was a graduate TA for several labs in which i actually had to teach (my current ph.d program uses grad TA's mostly to proctor exams). the undergrads were always amazed to hear that i had exams, that i couldn't meet with them any old time because i would be in class, and finally until i started talking about my research, they had no idea.

also, i want to weigh in as a grad student: i HATE the team teaching method. i find that it encourages redundancy, either overlap in teaching or complete skipping of important subjects, and figuring out what is going to be important to learn for your benefit is easy but what the professors think should be tested is completely different.

my student $0.02

Anonymous said...

I did my undergraduate studies at a research university and understood from day one what my professors were doing because they talked about it and students got involved in it... now i am a year in as an assistant professor at a research university and i realized that almost none of the students in my chem for non-majors class understood that we did research primarily. This came up when we were talking about solar energy and i said that i work on that... by the end of the day, they thought it was pretty cool that they had a prof working in that area. Maybe just talking about our research to undergrads is the way to go.

migratingfishswim said...

people can hardly be expected to know what they don't know anonymous. perhaps lecturers and professors aren't communicating with students as effectively as possible?

just a thought.

Anonymous said...

If students aren't aware of what their professors actually do, maybe we're not doing a good enough job of making it known. A great way to do this is to try and incorporate a little bit of your own and your colleagues research into the courses you teach. Or trying to make them realize that what you are teaching them was brought about by research done at academic institutions.

lost academic said...

It is very dependent on what sort of university you have. At my Undergraduate University, I would say that many students didn't fully understand that some of their professors were very busy (this lack of understanding tended to center around the liberal arts professors, which probably has more to do with them not having labs) though probably the ignorant and knowledgeable were 1:1. At my Graduate University, every undergraduate I spoke with (I advised a group) was firmly convinced none of their professors would teach without being required to and it was the lowest priority imaginable for them.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

Just wanted to register how impressed I am with all those A's.

I'm always glad to hear when professors find ways to gently introduce students to the idea that teaching is only part of their job. I deal with this carefully (so that means "rarely"), because I know that 90% of the things one can say along the lines of "teaching is only part of my job -- I was hired to do research, too" gets heard (and repeated!) by students as "Prof. X says that she doesn't care about teaching; she just does it so she can do her research."

Neuropharma said...

Same thing here. I know that professors do research because my dad is one. But my friends in undergrad never knew. I remember I similar incident. I can't recall the whole conversation but my friend told the professor that she wants to be like him because she thought that professors lead very easy lives. I clearly remember him exclaiming: "What? Do you think we have nothing to do in life but teach you and then go home?" Then he started explaining that when professors are not in the classroom they are working on their research, attending conferences and meetings... and all other sorts of things professors do. We did not become aware that professors actually do research until we became involved in some of the research projects in our senior year.

Anonymous said...

I realize that 70%+/- 5% of the title is there to add more As, but it's certainly not alarming. Do you know what kinds of hours plumbers work? Or middle managers at chemical companies? Or how much a CEO really works? I don't know about plumber hours, but I know about management hours and journalist hours simply because of my parents, like everyone else.

Frankly, I don't think it's other people's responsibility to feel for your hard workdays, including your students, when you meet them professionally. Especially if you don't communicate to them what it is that you do and only assume that everyone in the world knows what you do for a living in detail. (No idea whether FSP does or not in general, just a note along the lines of others'.)

I can see how the general assumption of laziness could be a little insulting. However, locating yourself in the universe in a little more specific way than saying "I am a professor" when you introduce yourself gives the people you are introducing yourself to free reign to make whatever assumptions they like. Specifying what you DO rather than your job title, given how little obvious correlation there is between the two, helps tell people both who your are and what professors do. ("Senior Design Engineer" tells you more about what such a person might do than "Professor" does. Even many other job titles are obscure - what does a "Human Resources Coordinator" do? Who knows? We expect Human Resource Coordinators to tell us these things.)

Dorfie said...

After going through a school system for 13+ years being taught by teachers whose sole function is teaching, it shouldn't be surprising that undergrads would expect the same of their professors.

There is a lot of adjusting that must be done going into higher education - and understanding the role of a professor is part of that. I can remember many classes I took as a freshman when classmates accidentally addressed a professor as Mr. or Mrs. so-and-so instead of "professor"...

Anonymous said...

At my University which has a heavy focus on research, many undergrad students are under the illusion that they pay our meal ticket and hence we are accountable solely to them.

In reality tuition fees amount for something like 35% of the budget, with the rest being paid for from endowments and research funds.

female Science Professor said...

It is quite true that the absence of awareness in this case was not actually Alarming. Perhaps I should have stopped at 6 A's.

Anonymous said...

Last time a team-taught an undergraduate course I started getting e-mails from students wishing me a good trip to Bahamas, and telling me how nice Bahamas was at that time of the year.
After a few e-mails I realized the other professor was playing a prank on me and told students to do that.

EliRabett said...

Well, this is why in the first meeting of every class, after I give my students my Email address, I carefully describe my average work week and say that there will be times that I will not be available to them, and I might have to miss a class or two each semester (there will be a substitute).

One point I always make is that my research grants support a number of undergraduate and graduate students that work in my lab, and that overhead costs account for more than a few more.

flit said...

I had a conversation about the fact that graduate students also take classes just this week in my seminar.

Who knew that this would be news... apparently the prevailing notion was that I taught my 3 hours/week and otherwise was free to work on my thesis. I wish.

Michael Mitzenmacher said...

I've had similar experiences. I wrote about it a while back.

http://mybiasedcoin.blogspot.com/2007/09/what-do-professors-do.html

One thing I proposed at the end of the blog entry was to actually keep track of how I spent my time. I ended up quickly finding I didn't have the time or energy to keep such a log. And context switches happen so often it's hard to actually do. It would make an interesting experiment, though.

amy said...

I'm glad to know scientists have trouble with this, too. I thought it was just those of us in the humanities. When I tell students that I do research, they look completely flabbergasted. What could there possibly be to research in the humanities? How can you do research without a lab? Where are the Bunsen burners?

Peggy said...

In fact, a lack of understanding of what professors do can be alarming if that lack of understanding is on the part of taxpayers and state legislators who provide some (although less and less these days) of the funding for higher education in the U.S. The perception that academics have easy lives can be dangerous if the people with that perception are providing (at least some of) your funding.

That said, I also see academics who think that people who work in industry only work 9 to 5 and never on weekends. Having worked in both environments, I think the misunderstanding goes both ways.

DanM said...

Belittling the bothersome banalities of beer-soaked bookworms is beneath you.

Ok, I don't really concur with the sentiment of that sentence, but you must admit that all the B's are nice.

female Science Professor said...

Certainly can commiserate, considering the considerable consequences.

Sonnabend said...

There's no reason anyone would know what we do with our time, especially if they've never worked in a lab.

I learned this in my first year teaching a big intro biology class, when the students seemed to assume I was off playing Guitar Hero when I wasn't teaching or holding office hours. I realized I had no idea what my professors in college did all day, either.

Since then, in the first lecture for every class I give a five-minute blurb about my research. I tell them that I enjoy teaching, and take it very seriously, but that if I devoted all of my time to teaching, the University would fire me. This helps them understand why if they drop by outside office hours, I sometimes look frantic and ask them to come back later. As an added bonus, every year we pick up a sharp undergraduate volunteer or two who learned about our research from my first-day-of-school pitch.

This one change converted my classroom criticisms from caustic to constructive and complimentary.

Argh.