A few years ago, a certain blogger referred to me as a curmudgeon. This is a great word, but I am not sure it applies to me all that well, at least not most of the time, but today I have decided to try to live up to the word.
I was an undergraduate at a school that had a reputation for educational excellence, and I had an overall excellent experience. Even so, I took classes from some professors who were great teachers, some who were mediocre teachers, and a couple who were truly awful teachers (and tenured).
My tuition, room-and-board, textbooks etc. were paid for by a combination of family contributions, student loans, and my salary from part-time jobs. At no point did it occur to me, even in the worst of classes, to be angry that my time and money, or my family's money, were being wasted. I assumed that a range of educational experiences was to be expected even at the best of schools. Although my friends and I agreed to some extent on which professors were great and which were not, we didn't agree completely. In fact, one of the professors I thought was particularly ineffectual and boring was a favorite professor of some of my friends, and there were other examples of disagreement. This, too, seemed normal to me.
It's true that I didn't pay my own way through college, and so my perspective is likely affected by that circumstance, but my parents are not wealthy, and I was very aware of how fortunate I was to be at that college.
My own experience as an undergraduate and my later experiences as a professor make it difficult for me to understand the point of view of students who are angered by any example of less-than-awesome teaching in one or more classes during their undergraduate years.
Of course it would be great if every class were excellent and every teacher dedicated and talented. I don't think we should just sit back and accept mediocrity or lame efforts at teaching -- I've written before about how there should be programs and encouragement etc. to promote teaching excellence -- but neither should we toss out university faculty who are OK (but not great) teachers because these professors do not meet the high and variable standards of their students for teaching ability.
I am not talking here about the evil, erratic, truly bad professors. Following on yesterday's (and many other previous) posts, I am talking here of good-but-not-great professors. Whenever I write about this, there are always comments from students who will not accept professors who are less than excellent. They are paying a lot of money in tuition etc. and do not want their time or money wasted.
There are many explanations for why a course might not be totally excellent, even when taught by someone who wants to be a good teacher. Consider a new professor who has never taught a class before. Some new professors are amazing teachers from the very beginning, but many more of us make beginner mistakes. It can take a long time to get a PhD, and many PhD students do get some teaching training, but even a better system of teacher training before a new professor stands in front of his/her very first class does not ensure a 100% excellent experience for all students in that class. It's just not possible.
Experienced professors who are generally very good teachers might not be great in every class. Sometimes we create a new class; there might be some rough spots the first time it is taught. There might be one or more difficult students who consume a lot of the professor's time and energy. Some professors are given an extremely heavy teaching load in a particular term, and this might affect quality of teaching; not to the extent of making the course a waste of time, but perhaps to the extent of making it less of an inspiring experience than it could be. Are the students being cheated of their tuition $ if some courses are like that?
That is the question of the day. Where do you fall in the range of opinion on this topic?:
- Universities are like that. Life is like that. We should not be satisfied with mediocrity, but if it happens from time to time, we are not enraged by it and do not feel cheated by it and decide that the education system is broken and all professors are getting paid too much to do too little. We understand that teaching is only one part of the job of a professor at a research university, and many (most?) universities actually do value both teaching and research. Students benefit from an environment of research and discovery and intellectual challenge, even if it doesn't trickle down to every class taught by every professor. Furthermore, it is unrealistic to expect every single professor to be an outstanding teacher at all times, especially if the evaluation method is teaching evaluations by students just before they take the final exam or turn in the final paper/project for a course.
- Mediocrity is totally unacceptable in any course by any professor at any university or college. A university professor's #1 job is teaching undergrads, even if the university defines it otherwise, and therefore professors should devote most/all of their time to their undergraduate students. Did I mention that undergrads pay tuition? This is more important than research grants, publications, patents, other discoveries, grad/postdoc advising, and other service to the university and beyond. Professors can do those things on nights and weekends, when not grading exams or papers or getting ready for their classes. FSP is a curmudgeon.
10 months ago