Wednesday, January 16, 2008

The Cowardly Professor

Last semester, my daughter participated in an event that took place at the university, and I ended up spending most of the day at the campus center. Parents weren't involved in the event, but we had to be nearby for an undetermined amount of time. Some parents dealt with being in all-day limbo by making tag-team arrangements with other parents. I brought work with me, so I camped out in a lounge at the campus center (for 7 hours) with my laptop.

Spending 7 hours at the campus center was kind of interesting. I wouldn't want to do it every Saturday, but it was actually a pretty good place to work. I had a comfortable chair near a power outlet and I could acquire stimulating beverages from a nearby purveyor of caffeine. I was quite content.

The strangest part of the experience was when a group of students sat near me and studied together for a test in my general subject area of Science. These students were very confused about some very basic concepts. This ignited a raging debate in my head, as I argued with myself about whether to help them.

My first thought was: I'll offer to help them. They might be freaked out that a professor overheard them being clueless, but they clearly need help.

Then I heard them talking about how much they hated the class.

So I thought: Well, I'll help them anyway. It doesn't matter if they love or hate the class, they need help.

Then I heard them talk about how they never went to class and were going to do the absolute minimum to pass. They made crude remarks about students who like the class and who ask questions in class. Then they said rude and rather cruel things about the professor.

So I thought: I will challenge them to a duel.

No, so then what I really thought was: That's still OK.. I guess. When I was a student, my friends and I sometimes had unkind thoughts about some professors, and we expressed these thoughts aloud to each other when we were alone (or thought we were). Besides, if these were my own students, I would help them no matter how reprehensible their attitude or language.

But then I thought: When I was a student, it would have destroyed me if a professor had heard me say even a much tamer version of what they just said about their professor and the class. If I reveal that I am an eavesdropping stealth professor, these students will be horrified. They will worry that I will tell their professor what they said. They will be so distraught that they will develop anxiety disorders and binge drinking habits and then they will fail their classes and their lives will be ruined and it will be my fault.

So then I had the admittedly cowardly thought: I'll just tell their professor that some students in the class are having particular trouble with concepts X and Y, and my colleague, if so inclined, can send out a mass email or deal with the issue in some other neutral and anonymous way before the exam.

Then I moved to the other side of the room, away from the unhappy and confused students.

I felt guilty about not helping them. A braver professor would have cast aside all qualms and just barged in and helped the students, or at least tried to. A braver professor would have cheerfully helped the slacker students and given them the gift of knowledge, instilling in them a love of science and respect and affection for the professoriate. I am not that braver professor. [undergrad readers: What do you think I should have done?]

If I ever have to spend a weekend day hanging out in the campus center again, I think I will wear my special Science Professor hat (and socks) so that it will be obvious who/what I am. Then I would be happy to answer questions from random students studying for an exam in my field, and students sitting near me would know that they can make rude and salacious comments about their English professor, but not about their Science professor.


Anonymous said...

An undergrad's thoughts: at the times when I'm frustrated about a course to the point where I make disparaging comments about the professor, I'm not really looking for help. My school has virtually endless resources for out of class help in my subject (professor office hours, TA office hours, departmental tutoring center, university tutoring center, older students, etc, etc) and if I'm whining about the professor instead of getting the help I need, it's more likely that I need to be reminded to take a nap or eat a snack than academic support. I wouldn't think you'd tell my professor what I'd said, but I would be mortified anyway if I knew another professor had heard me.

Silk Stocking said...

I am in the sixth year of my Ph.D. program and into my fourth year as adjunct faculty at a university. I'm also only six years out of my undergraduate degree. As a result, this kind of thing actually happens to me a lot and I pretty much handle it the way you did. As an undergrad, I would have been horribly embarrassed if a professor overheard me being totally clueless - especially if I mentioned that I never went to class. That being said, if the information being imparted was extremely valuable to me I might have been able to get over the embarrassment. Hard to say.

Anonymous said...

Just a note on the working arrangement in the Campus Center: My son took a course every week for two years, and TaxiMommy had to drive.

The place he went had a cafe with tables and fresh coffee and cake being sold. I had my laptop along, used one of the power outlets, had a coffee and a little cake and some more coffee, and worked in blessed silence for two hours.

No phones rang. No students came by needing signatures RIGHT THIS SECOND because they "have to work" when I have office hours. No colleagues came by to chat.

I, too, overheard the occasional discussion (it was a foreign language class and I do speak the foreign language, as did the other TaxiMommies). But I elected to keep my Invisible Cloak on and just work.

I got a ton of stuff done on those afternoons, and really missed it when my son decided to quit.

Mister Troll said...

Well, I think you should have challenged them to a duel. :-)

Cherish said...

A braver professor doesn't exist. Once students admit to not attending class, most people I know (myself included) would probably say all bets are off...especially if these students are being horribly negative about a colleague.

I even know a professor would probably would have gone over there and chewed them out and then called them stupid to boot. (Not that I agree with this sort of behavior, but I've seen him do it.)

You didn't do anything wrong by not helping them unless they're correct and the professor teaching it really is a jerk and makes the material unbearable. If they aren't going to put in the effort to attend class and get at least a semblance of what's going on, then they don't deserve a lot of sympathy. Learning is a two-way street.

Anonymous said...

I’m an undergrad at a fairly large research university and, in all honesty, I don’t think that there’s much you could have done for those students. They had plenty of opportunities to fill in their knowledge gaps – going to class, talking to students who do go to class, keeping up with the reading and work even if they didn’t go to class, talking to an upperclassman or grad student in the subject area, going to their professor’s office hours – and, if they willingly shunned all of these in a subject they knew they were struggling in, there’s a relatively large chance that they would have politely listened to your suggestions, perhaps even made a token effort to engage in a question and answer session, and then gone back to complaining and slacking as soon as you left. Even besides that, if there was a test in the next few days and they’d been avoiding class and studying regularly, even an intense and enthusiastic study session with a kind, itinerant professor probably wouldn’t have saved them.

Still, from the undergraduate side of things, it’s nice to know that there are professors willing to consider voluntarily wading in amongst the students, even when we’re not putting our best feet forward.

Liberal Arts Chemist said...

Wow, this has happened to me a number of times. The whole "wow, a full service, social/learning environment for students is also good for me" and the stealth professor thing too. The real problem is that the half life of a student is 2 +/- 2 years while the average fellow professor has a half life of 20 +/- 20 years. If you get the rep of "helping" other professors students it will be interpreted as undermining them and the extenuating circumstances make no difference. The nightmare occurs when the students go back to the prof and say "But Cool Prof said ...".

As for wardrobe that establishes professorial identity you have previously outlined it: synthetic fibers (preferably polyester, "graphpaper" shirt and the ultra cool socks-and-sandals combo). You know I still don't get the whole anti socks and sandals crowd ... the combination provides ventilation so your feet don't sweat and coverage for modesty. I mean they have gotta be better than those pointy cockroach killers with heels that the stylish women (and admittedly some confused male) professors wear.

Anonymous said...

The fantasy version of me that exists only in my head would have thought this: knowing that they had been overheard by a professor, especially one with ties to the prof they were trashing, is EXACTLY the most important lesson these students could have learned that day. Students need to watch their mouths--they never know who could be listening. Fantasy-me would have walked over to their table, pulled up a chair without asking, and said, VERY cheerfully, "Y'know, I couldn't help overhearing that you guys are missing some of the main points of this subject in a pretty big way. If you can get over how much you hate the instructor and just go spend an hour in class trying to learn something anyway, it might help with that. For now, maybe I could help?"

Real me would have done exactly what you did. Real me is a big wimp.

I was walking back to my office after class one day behind a student who was talking LOUDLY on her cell phone about what a bitch I was for expecting her to be in class EVERY DAY. I debated whether to say anything to her, but didn't. Although it would have been a good lesson for her, and might have caused her to either (a) shape up to try and make it up to me or (b) drop my class. If (a), we both win, if (b), I win, so I should have said something to her.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, it sounds like this was more of a bitch session than a study session, so they may not have been in a state of mind to benefit from your help, even if they weren't embarrassed by being overheard. I think you did the right thing.

Could you post a picture of your special Science Professor hat?

lkhoyt said...

Oh yeah...if you sort of hint to the prof, and s/he, say, sends out a mass email addressing the problem, then that reinforces the behavior of these students--they will (1) have no consequences for skipping class ("look--we really didn't need to be there!") and (2) think that *lots* of people didn't understand this particular concept, rather than realizing it's just them. If students who go to class get this concept, it's better if the prof doesn't address it in some other, anonymous way.

Anonymous said...

I don't understand why you should feel bad about not helping students who clearly don't want or need help. They have chosen not to learn the material. Forcing them to learn it will just upset them and be a waste of your time, as is worrying about them.

Anonymous said...

Another undergrad's thoughts:

That really does sound more like a venting session than a study session, and they clearly thought that they were alone. I think it would've been awkward and mortifying if you had stepped in. If I had been one of those students, I'd have been too horrified that another All Powerful Professor had heard to concentrate on any sort of studying, probably for the next month.

But it is nice to know that profs feel an urge to help. It's always us students that go chasing after the professors, and we're always worried about wasting your time and intruding in your busy schedules. It'd be nice if profs just... well, mingled... more.

So if that group of students had been earnestly making an effort in the class, I think it would've been delightful if you had stepped in to help.

Anonymous said...

I have to wonder if students like that would really be embarrassed if they knew you heard them. I am a TA lab instructor, and my students always bitch openly, without shame, to me about the professor. Maybe it's different, because technically I'm a student, too, so they think I'm on 'their side,' but obviously they want their complaints (unfounded or not) to be known.

That said, I wouldn't have helped them and I definitely wouldn't have felt guilty about it. Let them suffer.

Anonymous said...

I think I would have butted in, told the students who I am, and asked if they wanted help. They would be shocked, sure, and perhaps experience a moment of cognitive dissonance, but that's good for people occasionally.

Also, FSP, from now on you should wear your graph paper shirt when you work at the student union!

Anonymous said...

THIS is something I'm all too familiar with...

It have this tendency to help those struggling with science or math.

What I have learned is rather simple... Those who really want to learn, will find a way...They will at least seek out help...

Those not willing to look for help ussually don't want the information or knowledge enough to work for it.

You did the right thing... Although, the duel was not a bad idea except that you were outnumbered.

Female Science Professor said...

Graph paper shirts are so 2007. I have moved on to graph paper hats and socks, but I'm not going to throw out my graph paper shirts because I think they will be back in style again soon, maybe even by the next big conference.

Kim said...

You know, I bet there's a way to sell graph-paper hats on the internet somewhere.

Anonymous said...

(I'm an undergrad)

I think you definitely should have helped them! After all, we're in college to learn, and your job as a professor is to share your knowledge. Who cares if they were bad-mouthing their professor? They were probably doing it just because they're mad at themselves for slacking off. When slackers get into groups they tend to feed off each other anyway to make themselves feel better about doing poorly.

Next time I would help them. As a student (and a slacker, I admit), I would really appreciate a random professor making such a bold move to help me out when I'm not even her student. I think that would be really cool.

Amanda said...

I'm an undergrad and my first reaction to this was to say "don't help them." I'm still in that camp...

If those students you overheard were struggling because they had done the minimum amount of work, then they should suffer the consequences of their actions.

I was once the "do the minimum" kind of student and I got pulled out of school. I learned a lot from it...I eventually went back with a very different attitude. Maybe those students aren't ready to learn science. Maybe they're just ready to learn about responsibility and hard work. math professor wore a graph paper shirt on the first day of class. I wouldn't have noticed if it weren't for your blog :)

Anonymous said...

I can probably guess which science class the students were carping about. For me, it's rather disappointing (but all too common) that a student would (a) enroll in a class they have no interest in, and (b) do not set their professional standards higher than "doing the minimum" to get by, if that. (Especially if someone is paying up to $50,000 a year for the opportunity.) Hating the classes you selected and taking no pride in your work are a recipe for failure both in school and in life. Very few challenges in life can be overcome by disinterest and minimum effort. Unless mummy, daddy or spouse are willing to support them into adulthood, they might start practicing saying "Want fries with that?"

Anonymous said...

I'm sure I'd be different now, but here is how undergraduate me would have thought about it (in real time!):

Wow, I'm mortified that FSP just overheard me mocking another professor. She's going to think that this accurately represents my feelings about my other professor. But its not true, I really like most of my professors, including this one. I just think he/she is funny, and sometimes I say harsh things about him/her to mask the fact that I feel like a slacker (as haley already said). I feel like a slacker because I want to *really* understand this stuff but I don't always put in enough time to *really* understand it, and I'm frustrated with myself because of that.

But I guess since FSP still came over, she must not think I'm a complete waste of education. Actually, she just heard me at my stupidest - completely not understanding the concepts. Wow, now I have no pretense of intelligence in front of her. This is great! I can ask her my most ridiculous and stupid questions now. And she can steer me around these ridiculous and stupid roadblocks in my mind. This is great!...but I can never take a class with FSP in the future.

Now, here is how cynical grad student me thinks about it: I doubt that anyone who can legitimately answer this question from the "average undergrad" point of view is reading FSP's blog. Also, those kids needed to struggle if they ever hope to learn anything.

Anonymous said...

I must say the 'nerdy-est' thing I have EVER seen someone wear was a Micrograph TIE from AMS. How fantastic is that!?!?!?

Info on the tie: (Is it nerdy I am including this? Don't answer that! LOL)
The ASM Micrograph tie! A unique combination of Art and Science!
This micrograph won second place in the artistic microscopy class in the 2003 International Metallographic Contest. It was submitted by Brian Rose, ArvinMeritor Columbus Technical Center. The image shows an as-cast weld deposit of a 409 stainless steel joint, exhibiting large columnar ferrite grains with martensite occurring at the grain boundaries. The original photograph was at a 100x magnification with bright-field illumination. The sample was etched with potassium disulfite, sodium thiosulfate, and hydrochloric acid in water.
100% silk"

Check it out here:

PhD Mom said...

I'm probably an idealist, but I would have talked to them (I'm also not a coward, but perhaps to the point of where maybe I should be.)

This is a fantastic opportunity to try to encourage students to display more interest in science. I frequently have students in my classes who don't care and are thinking about dropping the major or how to just get by in the class. Those are some of the students that I direct the most energy at. People skip class for many reasons, Sometimes it is a drunken binge, but sometimes they don't get it or don't feel like they belong and reaching out can really help them find the resources they need to succeed or direct them to a major/class that might be more fitting of their interests.

Also, I second the comment about telling them if for no other reason than to realize that comments can be overheard and get back to the individual they were directed at. That is a crucial life lesson better learned here than on the job.

Female Science Professor said...

I am all for micrographs on articles of clothing, but I just can't get too excited about it until micrographs are incorporated into more feminine attire. I would love a micrograph twin set, for example, or perhaps a silk scarf that would go well with my graph paper hat.

Schlupp said...

Graph paper SOCKS? Oh my, and I thought you had to wear one orange and one gray sock. With sandals. Just goes to show how abysmal my fashion sense is. Thanks, FSP!

Alyvia Plummer said...

<---Undergrad here. I think you should have said something. The look on their faces would have been great. Plus, as undergrads we often feel we are just a number and a paycheck, and we are always worried about bothering you guys. So to know that outside of office hours, on your own free time, you were willing to help out probably would have meant a lot :)


Zinjanthropus said...

I'm an undergrad, and I probably would love if some random professor came up and started talking to me about their area of expertise. I've also given up studying in groups because I'm always the one saying "can we get back to actually studying instead of bitching about everything already?!"

With that in mind, I think had you gone up to that group of students, they probably would've let you talk for a bit, feigned interest until you left, and then they'd say "that was weird. Were you listening? No, me either." Just like they do on the few occasions that they go to class. Some people just don't care.

sandy shoes said...

I liked the duel option.


Unbalanced Reaction said...

...or wear your iPod headphones. ;)

I do find it hard to ignore confused students (and there are so very many here at LargeU...even on my bus!), but I try to resist interrupting, for the very reasons you outlined.

Anonymous said...

I could use some graph paper socks.

Anonymous said...

You might appreciate this.

I used to work at a university, but not as a professor.

I was in lab one day, and some students came to see me (having got my location from the School Office) to find out what was on the exam.

I was working in Engineering, they wanted to know about Geology.

I gave a wise-arse answer about rocks that sparkle being my favourites, and then I put it to them they did not go to class. They promised faithfully they had been to every single class, they just wanted to know what would be in the exam.

I put it to them that they were fibbing. They denied all.

I put it to them they had not gone to even one class. You see, I shared a surname with a professor (different spelling). I said I suspected their fibs as Dr My-last-Name in Geology, was 4 inches shorter than me, had a far better beard, and was a man. I am taller, have no beard and am a woman.

They did have the good grace to blush. And then said, "Oh, so we don't have to study gemstones". I don't know! I have nothing to do with it.

Ashok said...

I agree entirely with the comments that say don't help. I'm a grad student who has dealt with numerous undergrads who show newer ways, it seems, of hating learning in any form.

That having been said, it might have been useful for you to give help just to talk to them and find out more about them. They weren't exactly spending their time productively anyway. Anything that helps professors deal with the attitude these students expressed, I think, is a good thing - you wouldn't have had to confront the students, even if you found yourself ultimately disgusted by them.

Ms.PhD said...

Don't feel bad. They don't go to class. They deserve the bad grades they're going to get.

I tend to be overly enthusiastic and interrupt confused people by offering help. I tend to do this so early in overhearing the conversation that I would have jumped in at 'clueless', before they got to (ungrateful lazy whiny bastards from the sound of it!).

I've done this on more than one occasion. Sometimes I get a sincere thank-you, and sometimes I sense that they think I'm a freaky geek and would I please just go away and shut up.

When it's the former, it makes my day; when it's the latter, I always regret having bothered because it takes more than a day to shake off that yucky feeling.

You can't help everyone all the time, and you need to let go of the guilt. I know it's easier said than done, but I don't think this is a case of brave vs. cowardly. I think this has to do with extraordinary, inhuman generosity of spirit.

There are only a handful of people who would ever go out of their way to help students despite hearing what you heard, and they have names like Gandhi, Mother Teresa...

Anonymous said...

Perhaps y'all are looking at this the wrong way. Perhaps - this is an opportunity for enhancing student-professor action. It doesn't need to be publicized as a new service ... but what if on some sort of rotating basis professors JUST HAPPENED to be hanging out in the various lounges and cafes around campus. The stigma of going to the professors office is lessened, and information can actually be shared ... and people may actually realize that learning the information in and of its self is a cool thing ...

KCProgramr said...

I teach C++ programming at an urban university. I point out to the students in my introductory course that there's nothing I'm teaching that isn't in the book, or available online, or in one of any number of introductory C++ books available in any number of fine bookstores. (My explanations may be a little different, I use different examples, but all the material's there.) So why are they paying for the course?

They're paying for the right to ask me questions. To come by during office hours (or pretty much any other time, I try to keep an open door) and get the best explanation I can give them. To have me go over something again in class. For help troubleshooting their programs when it's not going right. To attend the weekly outside-of-class review sessions I hold. And to get their work evaluated, with feedback, and a summary evaluation (in the form of a grade) as to the overall quality of that work at the end of the semester.

If they choose not to take advantage of all that--it's probably going to be reflected in the quality of their work. There's not a lot I can do about that. Other than saying "Horse, here's some water" several times.

If they'd recognized you and asked for help--that's a different question. If they all had their notes with them and were comparing with the text, trying to work something out, I may have been more willing to step up.

But at some point, students have to learn to take advantage of the resources they have. If they're not going to class or asking questions, then they're making a decision to teach themselves. By all means, let them. Shielding them from the natural consequences of their own decisions isn't doing them any favors.

If a student is putting forth an effort, I'll do whatever I can to help them understand. But when I'm working harder at it than the student, I'm not being helpful.

Gah, I sound like a grumpy old man. I'm not always like this, honest... ;)

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