Monday, February 07, 2011

Challenging Professors

Friday's post about students "challenging" professors about ideas reminded me of an incident from my academic youth.

When I was an undergraduate on a study-abroad program, I took a class that was supposed to be at the intersection of science and social science. I was well aware that I was a mere undergrad with very incomplete knowledge of my chosen field of science, but I felt that the balance between science and non-science in this course was disturbingly skewed towards the non-science part. I felt that this undermined the professor's main themes. The one book we read for the class was written by the professor, so there was no escaping his ideas.

I thought the professor was pompous and boring, but mostly I was too shy to ask him any questions, challenging or otherwise. I did, however, have some interesting arguments and discussions with some of my fellow students outside of class, and I enjoyed that very much.

One day, near the end of the term, professor said he wanted to talk to the American students in the class as a group after class; there were just a few of us. We met him after class and he told us that we, as American students, were likely to fail his final exam, so, out of the kindness of his heart, he wanted us to write papers instead. He told each of us to pick a relevant topic and then come to his office at an appointed time and inform him of our topic.

I was very happy to write a paper instead of taking an exam, even if it was odd to single out the American students for this option, and I thought long and hard about a topic. I selected something, and went to the professor's office at the specified time. I knew from talking to another American student that the topic-approval conversation was likely to be very brief: 1 minute max, maybe even less. Yet when I showed up, the professor seemed in no rush. He offered me a glass of wine, sat back, and asked me about my topic. I told him my idea for a topic, and he said "No."

I had some back-up topics, so I presented those. He said "No" to all of them. I quickly thought of some others. Again: no, no, no. Then he said "I have chosen your topic for you." He sipped his wine and said "I want you to critique my book. Your paper will be a discussion of my book. That is all. You may go now. Send the next student in."

I went, but I was stunned. Why did he want me to do this? Why did he want me to do this? Had he somehow heard that I thought his class (and book) were stupid? Did I somehow betray this opinion by my expression during class, despite the fact that it was a large class in a big room? I had never spoken to him before. It's possible he knew that I was a Science student, but was that sufficient reason to compel me to critique his book?

And I wondered: What should I do? Commit academic suicide and criticize his ideas and his ghastly book? Or write an obsequious essay about his brilliant ideas? Or something in between, just to attempt to get a passing grade? This paper was the only graded work for the entire term; my entire grade rested on this one assignment. I definitely experienced a decline in my well-being at the thought of challenging this professor's ideas.

I decided to write an honest essay, with my real opinions. I did not attack his ideas in an aggressive way, but I marshaled my arguments, presented my evidence, and explained my opinions in what I hoped was a convincing but polite way. When I wasn't freaking out about the consequences, I enjoyed writing the essay, which I felt accurately expressed my objections to the professor's ideas. I was pleased with what I wrote, even as I doubted my decision to be so critical. It was a very tense few weeks between terms, after I turned in the paper and waited to find out the result.

I got an A-.

The professor said he liked some of my ideas, but not others; fair enough. He said he was going to incorporate some of these ideas (about how science was important) in his new book, but that he had already been thinking of doing this anyway.

He never explained why he asked me to critique his book, and, even though he clearly was able to handle criticism, I still think it was a very strange and not very fair thing to ask of an undergraduate, especially for an assignment that was the sole basis for the grade in the class.

Only in retrospect was it a positive experience for me.

Years later, I met a professor in the same field as that of the professor described in my anecdote. She had read his books and had met him at conferences. I told her my story, and she was shocked that I had survived the experience with a good grade, based on what she knew of him and his lack of interest in other people's ideas. She wondered if he had been drinking heavily during the time I was his student, and that could account for his bizarre behavior.

Although this incident did not make me more confident about communicating with (certain) professors and it did not make me more likely to challenge a professor's ideas in class, I think it did have a positive effect because I learned a lot while writing the essay. In writing, I focused intensely on making my arguments as clear as possible and backing them up with evidence -- something I had little experience with at the time. I don't think I could have made the same arguments well in a conversation with the professor -- I remained as quiet and inarticulate as ever in speaking with professors -- but I learned something about challenging a professor's ideas (in writing).


Gears said...

Arg! You left the 800 pound gorilla in the room. Why were you likely to fail the exam because you're american?

(Since I am currently abroad, I often get the "you're an american so you wouldn't understand")

Anonymous said...

This reminds me of an experience I had as an undergrad with a prof who did not have a good reputation for supervising students, especially not female students. He would also set reading lists made up of 20 of his own papers and no-one else's. When I wrote essays for him, I would deliberately refuse to cite his work and would look-up alternative (better) theories. I guess this could have back-fired massively, but it was actually quite a good strategy because it meant we spent our meetings talking science rather than having nothing to say. I think he almost liked being challenged because people rarely did that.

new female STEM professor said...

The first thought that jumped into my mind while reading this post was that perhaps the professor wanted to use some of your thoughts in his own book update? Have you looked through the newer addition (if it was written)? Have you followed up with this professor about the experience?

Eilat said...

Your story reminds me of an experience I had as an undergraduate physics major. I was a sophomore and had just transfered from one University to another institution. At my first university I was a Physics major and an art minor. Even thought I never wanted to be a professional artist, I enjoyed painting and drawing my entire life and was very talented (so said everyone who saw my art).
When I transferred to the second institution, there was no minor offered in art. So I decided to simply take courses in the art school -- for fun -- without worrying about the minor degree. I took a class called "Drawing 1."
The class was full of art majors (about 8 students). I was the only non major, let alone scientist (!) and the professor was a pompous boring bully who had total contempt for the sciences. There was no drawing in this class. There were no easels, pencils, charcoal, crayons, anything! The professor spent the 3 hour "studio" time lecturing us on numerology and colors and moods and various other superstitious nonsense. He spent a lot of time complaining that the sciences got more money than the arts, and it seemed that he directed many of these rants at me. (I also learned from his rantings that his "art" was smashing pianos on stage).

After about a month in this course walked out mid-rant. He had gone too far. And I dropped the course. I never took another art course and over the years have stopped painting entirely. A real shame.

You definitely handled things better than I did!

Pagan Topologist said...

This is interesting. I never had any problem challenging professors ideas in class or out of class. I probably erred on the side of making arguments too soon, that were not well thought out. I remember once aa an undergrad telling a physics professor that it should be possible to calculate the energy to which a linear accelerator could accelerate an electron should be computable by using an approximation of constant acceleration. He showed me that my approach led to a number that was too high by a factor of about two, and showed me why (the electrons are not accelerating while in the drift tubes!) Students should always challenge us when they have ideas to express, and should expect to be challenged in turn to defend their ideas or to acknowledge their mistakes.

Anonymous said...

Oh, Gears. Don't you know that all Americans are stupid, fat, and lazy?

And all Europeans are highly educated, skinny, and ...whatever. Fill in the blank with something lofty.

I am amazed at how often these stereotypes (in all directions) persist, and are invoked by people who really should know better. (I'm just guessing that's what was going on with FSP. It was when I was abroad).

a physicist said...

could it be you were asked to critique the book because he thought you hadn't read it? The assignment seems like one way to make sure you read the book, or determine if you hadn't read it. Although of course the assignment is bad in other respects, for all the reasons clear in the post.

inBetween said...

I had to take a postmodernist class in archaeology once. I found that I was the only student who did the readings each week, for which I was ridiculed by the other students and the professor. It became clear that I would do better watching the Simpsons the night before and bring this up as a relevant point to the topic at hand. I adapted. It was definitely easier and more enjoyable to watch the Simpsons than to slog through 75 pages of some diatribe against science. But then came the term paper. I started out with a poem... and got an A.

Anonymous said...

Maybe he's got the hots for you?

Anonymous said...

"I found that I was the only student who did the readings each week, for which I was ridiculed by the other students and the professor."

....why did the prof assign readings if s/he didn't wish the students to read them? Is this some kind of post-modernism litmus test? so confused...

Oh FSP did you see this?

Funny Researcher said...

Aren't professor suppose to be the guardians of knowledge, seeking the greater truth(I know in real life this may not be always true for all professors, but you get the idea); and how does one excel intellectually if one is not criticized?

Victoria the lady said...

I really read you post till the end. Well you know why you got a passing grade?because through that challenged, it gives you more strength to mold what you have learned. You have to thank her.

Anonymous said...

Sounds as if Professor was on an ego trip to me. I wonder if he asked all the American students to critique his book?