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).