Thursday, July 08, 2010

But We Pay a Lot of Money

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.

- Other..


Anonymous said...

I'm on the side of "universities are like that." Also, you make a great point that students' opinions of an instructor can vary quite a bit. Personally, my favourite instructor from my undergrad years was an old curmugeon. To relate one of his many eccentricities, if disturbed by students conversing during lecture he would retaliate by continuing the lecture in welsh or latin. As I recall, he was generally adored by the students in my subdiscipline, and disliked by most of the students outside my subdiscipline. So based on my experience, I would say having a variety of instructors can actually be a strength.

Anonymous said...

I would vote for "other"--I agree that there will be circumstances in which a teacher is good, but less than excellent, particularly for a teacher just starting out. What bothers me, however, is that many research universities (and the graduate programs these profs come from) don't seem to care about increasing the teaching quality from adequate to excellent. Yes, everyone will not be an A+ teacher, but if you signed up to be a professor, I think you have a responsibility (and so does the university) to work at being the best teacher you can be.

As a student at a SLAC, I had a mix of teachers--many were excellent, some were merely adequate, and one or two were mediocre. I could live with that mix, especially as the professor I least liked was new & was teaching a large GE class at 8am in the morning. I suspect, however, that that ratio may not be common at colleges that are not focused on undergraduate education, and outside of the sciences, I'm not really sure how often research actually trickles down to help students. (Certainly at my grad school, I don't see much trickle down in the courses I've TA'd for)

Anonymous said...

I personally think that undergrads are perhaps the most limited of all stakeholder groups in assessing the quality of teaching that they experience. I say this as a PhD student who found herself sitting in on some undergrad courses to fulfill interdisciplinary requirements (bio/comp sci/stat). Sitting amongst a bunch of students who are in a completely different place in life, responsibility-wise, I was amazed at how often weak grades could be attributed to social habits and/or the inability to handle life events (like a flat tire).

It was rare to come across undergrads with the ability to balance schoolwork, financial independence, spouse and/or offspring, research and miscellaneous administrative roles.

As a grad student, I know my PI is teaching 1-2 classes, has meetings that fill a min of 2 days per week, holds offices hours, actively participates in research and manages to spend time with her children and husband. This is what her job demands - the ability to perform all these roles at a high quality (not perfection).

I am not sure that undergrads have the life experiences or the role of a Professor as defined by the educational institution to be objective evaluators. At best, undergraduate evaluations should be (with a large chunk of salt) used to aid defining the roles of faculty in a university.

engineering girl said...

I think at the university level, how much a student learns is largely the responsibility of the student. Having a professor who is "good but not great" is not an excuse for the student to give up this responsibility. Students are not going to "get their money's worth" if they don't put in the effort. That being said, if a professor is "evil, erratic, truly bad," then you cannot blame the student for not learning anything. There is a minimum standard all professors need to reach.

Above this minimum standard, I agree with the first point of view. I didn't like every core class, every professor in my major, but I still got a lot out of it. In fact, I think being able to filter out what I liked and didn't like helped me figure out where I want to go in life.

Also, while my classes were an important part of undergrad, a lot of learning also took place outside the classroom. My research experience helped me see where I wanted to go in life (it convinced me I didn't want to stay in academia lol, but was a great experience nevertheless). We had outside speakers come in from industry, which was eye-opening. If professors spent too much time getting their teaching up to "excellent" standards, they might not have time to provide these experiences. If my professor planned an event where I got to meet industry representatives and it really broadened my horizons, and as a result did not have too much time to plan the next lecture and his/her slides looked a bit messy, well I suppose I'm okay with that.

Anonymous said...

I taught a physics course at a local liberal arts college for a couple quarters while I was at a nearby grad school (because said grad school had no funding for me - yay!). In my very limited experience, it seemed like the students at the liberal arts college expected better teachers. At research universities students complain about professors all the time, but have some feeling that teaching isn't all the professors do...

In any case, a handful of students in my class really thought I was inadequate. There were a few rough spots at the beginning, being my first time teaching, but they were along the lines of a test that was too hard, and things quickly evened out. The school had a teaching peer review program, where I could invite a professor trained in teaching critique to sit in on my course. I did so, and he thought I did fine, but he did overhear some students complaining that I was too young.

That's easy to fix, but it takes a while.

So despite being a man, I understand something of the authority problems some women face, with students who don't take them as seriously as they should.

Anyway. Professors are like textbooks. There are none that everyone likes, and very few that everyone hates. Yes, college is expensive, but it would be a lot more expensive if we tried to ensure uniformly great teaching by hiring a lot more teachers, running training courses for them, mentoring programs, etc.

If students liked, they could always go back to a medieval system of hiring teachers directly.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this post; it echoes perfectly most of my thoughts from reading the comments to previous posts! I think I am very close to the first option in your spectrum - although of course this is a much more moderate opinion than the second.

I think sometimes that undergrads have no idea just how much time and effort goes into preparing their coures - especially for tenure-track professors who usually have very limited experience and training. Even if they have some training in teacher (as is the case at my school), this is of limited use until practiced in a real classroom.

Personally, when I am teaching a course, I become entirely consumed by it and spend all my time planning, compiling, practicing, worrying etc. just to be a "pretty good" teacher. I am an assistant professor and I have seen an improvement in my teaching over the (few) years, but still there is a long way to go.

Tenure track professors are expected to be good at everything, and to be a truly exceptional teacher in just a few years (for most of us who are not born superteachers) could easily take all our time and more. We do try, most of us (I'm sure undergrads have plenty of examples of teachers who don't try/care - but are you sure?) but all our effort might still not be up to your standards.

We must remember that tenure track professors have been training to be good researchers since early grad school or before, while in most cases we have been training to be good teachers only a few years. It is natural to expect our research success to be a little higher than our teaching success by tenure review. This doesn't indicate teaching will not improve.

This of course doesn't say anything about senior tenured professors who are still awful - and some exist who really don't care. But as FSP mentioned there are still plenty of reasons a professor might not be exceptional at a given time. New coures are an important example - unlike high school, where most (not all) course material is fairly fundamental, university coures are changing all the time (at least in sciences). I taught a brand new advanced course a couple of years ago where I asked the student to prepare and present one of the lectures themselves. I provided the material but the rest was up to them (it was a small course so the majority of the lectures I still did myself). They were all shocked how much work it was for them to prepare just one single lecture, and all expressed greatly increased respect for their professors of past courses.

superdinosaurboy said...

We have had increasing complaints about teaching here in England since tuition fees were introduced in the late 90s - there is currently a £3000 limit, but that is sure to be lifted soon, and we are likely to edge towards a free market over the next decade or so.

Personally, I believe that undergraduate education (like healthcare) should be free at the point of service. The knock-on effects of this, such as less time/money for research have to be accepted, although of course ameliorated as much as possible. So in an important sense I do think that teaching should have priority over other aspects of academia (but I take up my first academic job this coming October, so I reserve the right to change my views...).

On the other hand, I do not think the point of university education is necessarily to accrue huge amounts of knowledge per se. But to learn how to learn, assess and think for yourself. So having even a mediocre teacher may be not be an entirely bad thing: sometimes you can't rely on others and you just have to make the effort to learn something yourself.

Anonymous said...

I've got to say, I fall on the side of University is like that, life is like that, let's just move on.

I've never experienced a course I'd call a waste of time. There have been some boring, boring lectures - but I've never felt they're a waste of my time or money. Learning that not everyone is an awe-inspiring teacher and how to get the information out of their lectures is most probably an important skill for life, where not everyone is an awesome teacher.

I do, however, feel at Universities there needs to be a support structure for lecturers, both old and new, to help them improve. I don't expect people to be natural teachers, but if you're not, it's part of your job so you should work to improve it. I think it's often an area of support lacking in many universities (from mine and other students experience, maybe it isn't?).

Anonymous said...

Just to reveal my curmudgeonliness: I think that the Venn diagram of
a) people who complain about this the loudest (i.e., "not every single one of my professors was a shining light of teacher awesomeness who inspired the same devotion in me as Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society")
b) people who had helicopter parents or who otherwise made them think that life is a musical intended just for them
c) people who have never paid for anything significant in their lives
is highly overlapping. Not every moment is worth scrapbooking, folks; get over it.

Jim said...

I can only speak from my experience in the UK, where I have had significant experience training undergraduates, but remain a research fellow rather than a teaching fellow or lecturer.

At some research driven universities, such as mine, you need to cough up a lung before they'll let you have access to undergraduate lectures. The only way of getting in front of a lecture theatre is to have come through the mill of producing award winning research and building a busy productive lab.

Of course such scientists have a lot to offer, namely the insights from their own research findings. However, my experience with a range of doctoral training schemes in the UK (some of which don't permit their students to engage in teaching training or roles as lab teaching assistants) is that we may be producing a generation of competent researchers, with absolutely no contact time/teaching experience with undergraduates.

I should contrast such research-driven universities with teaching universities, typically smaller universities, where an increasing number of my peers are already lecturers. Admittedly their (shared) lab research is severely limited, or non existent, but these guys are fantastic teachers; enthusiastic, attentive and above all they have the time to prepare quality courses. I must of course add that I don't mean to suggest that great courses aren't available at my own institution, but just that the contribution from individual professors may be cursory at best.

With the introduction of tuition fees (admittedly new-ish in the UK compared with the US) there seems to be a culture, amongst the management, of being in the hospitality industry rather than educational; in hospitality, the customer is always right. The customer must be provided with a good experience/service. How well does this balance with the historical experience of undergraduate life - the vying for the attention of professors, and the often organic hit and miss experience of quality lecturing?

From recent feedback I have seen from recent graduates, they got very vocal about not getting their first choice placements for the honours projects, despite not having the grades to justify their choice. Their response, "But we pay a lot of money for this..."

One also commented that their lecturers should wear suits or try to look more professional. I don't know how it is in the US, but in the UK some professors wear suits, but others have a relaxed attitude to dress code - personally I don't mind either way, if often shows character.

Dr. Smalls said...

Long time reader (lurker), first time poster.

Excellent post.

I would have to say that given the current academic system: i.e. teaching is in addition to research (and teaching assignments are often used as bargaining chips), that we should fully expect a bit of mediocrity now and again.

Having said that, I also think that the University has a duty to inform the incoming students of the realities of the academic process; that research is a priority for a lot of faculty.

Interestingly, I did a postdoc at a real good school that did not make any mention of teaching or education in its university mission statement. Now we all know that mission statements are a load of crap, but to not even mention teaching is a crime.

HG said...

I did have the opinion my first year or two of college that college was supposed to be a knowledge dispenser. After a couple years, when I realized I had forgotten a lot of what I learned my first year even by the best teachers, I shifted my beliefs a bit and decided that college courses are more about providing a safe environment for learning to teach yourself and rely on peers, because that's going to be a lot closer to future experiences.

I still preferred good teachers (who doesn't?), got mad about grade "injustices", and felt entitled as all get out, but it was a step.

cookingwithsolvents said...

One thing *some* students seem to forget is that "teaching" is not some magic pixie dust which will imbue them with knowledge. LEARNING is hard work, perhaps as hard as teaching is, and requires a significant commitment. Very, very few people truly learn material the first time it is presented, no matter whether that presentation is engaging or somewhat dull.

mihos said...

please also note that if you think faculty research should be secondary, then you should also be prepared for fewer research experiences and internships, particularly paid ones that might help you pay for college...

TJR said...

Grad students pay tuition (or more precisely, have it paid for them by a TA or RA) at most schools as well. For a grad student, research is the main component of the education. Maybe research shouldn't be considered separate from teaching, but simply a different form of teaching.

Anonymous said...

As much as I love your blog, I disagree that this problem can be reduced to the two opposing paradigms you describe. There are, admittedly, some students who feel that since they're paying for college, all their needs and wishes must be fulfilled. These are the ones who carp the loudest. (And, oddly, they tend to be the ones whose parents are paying for everything.) But really the issue is more nuanced than that.

When I was an undergraduate, I was terrified of debt, so I paid for tuition through scholarships and jobs. Rough but doable.

I felt I was fortunate to be at the university overall. I prefered some professors to others, and sought out mentors, but I never encountered anyone abusive or grossly incompetent. It never occured to me that I was "paying their salary;" I was paying for the university experience.

But I often felt resentment for more subtle reasons, namely, the condescending and infantilizing attitude many faculty and staff held regarding students. I still see this today. It ranges from professors who loudly complain about "these whining, clueless students," to administrative staff who roll their eyes when you dare to ask for a course schedule, to the professors who take it upon themselves to randomly bully students on the campus at large. (A few instances I recall: being accosted outside the law school by a professor who didn't think I ought to chain my bike in the bike rack, having a couple of professors notice my Walkman and loudly posit that such devices were the reason for "these kids' short attention spans." The most tiresome instances were when professors made snotty remarks about "too much partying" if I looked tired or sick. My fatigue was actually due to coming home from work at 11:00 each night, then proceding to homework till the wee hours.)

Now I see it for what it was: crap rolling downhill. If a professor's being bullied by her chair or dean, I can imagine how tempting it would be to vent her spleen on some shy, clueless student. And, really, what is the student going to do about it?

But I would like to see this phenomenon named, and addressed, without it being conflated with grade-grubbing or other precious behavior. I never thought that a professor had to do my bidding, and I never once asked for an extension or to have a grade changed. But for all the hard work and struggle I was putting into the experience, I think it was reasonable for me to expect decency and courtesy from my professors.

The Dog Zombie said...

I think education is like that. But I also think some schools could make more effort to improve matters.

I'd be curious to hear your position on the idea of schools encouraging professors to do what they're good at -- not requiring people who are excellent researchers but awful teachers to teach; letting excellent teachers teach full time, even if it means they don't publish as often or at all. I know that sort of change is pie-in-the-sky stuff that is unlikely to ever happen, but as a student I often fantasize about how nice it would be to see.

Anonymous said...

It seems to me that there is a huge over supply of post-docs chomping at the bit for TT positions, supply/demand would dictate that we wouldn't have to have just mediocre educators. Students should have a dialogue with the department powers that be (however, I've complained about a few godawful lecturers in my day and was basically brushed off), ineffectual professor is given the heave-ho and new talent is bought in and put under the same sort of scrutiny.

Anonymous said...

I fall into the first camp. I had the same experiences as you, I suppose. I funded my college experience through scholarships and later, as a grad student, through loans and a GA-ship. I did discover that the tenure system does have some flaws by leaving deadwood in place for many years (seems to be a problem primarily of the liberal arts mainly - I was a history major). But experiencing bad teaching or mediocre teaching was a learning experience for me like everything in college. You take the good with the bad.

chemdoc said...

It is unrealistic to think that even a "great professor" will be a great instructor for every class he/she teaches.

We are human after all.

We will have good weeks and bad, good years and bad. We have lives that don't always go well. We have frail bodies that sometimes fail. This can and does impact our teaching.

Also, there is a real benefit to having an excellent fit between the instructor and the student, and that fit will simply not be the same for all.

I know a physics professor who teaches, and who seems to think, nearly entirely in math-speak. This makes him a poor instructor for many students - but for those few who think the way he does, there is simply no better professor for them than him. He's a "love him or hate him" sort of professor.

We simply can't be a great match for all students.

Having said that, I do believe that students in the US, who even at public universities pay significant tutition bills, do have the right to expect to be taught in English. Instructors who have heavy accents should be sent for accent remediation before being put in the classroom. After all, the heart of teaching is communicating, and it's tough to communicate when one can't be easily understood.

grad student said...

Professors are not (solely) teachers. In my opinion, tuition pays for the opportunity to learn from and interact with experts in a variety of different fields and subfields. Students who think their tuition entitles them to excellent teachers are lazy; they want to sit passively in class and not have to read the textbook, do homework, or do extra unassigned problems/readings (gasp!). The University is and should be different from high school in that students are expected to be more independent learners. I think the exorbitantly high cost of a college education is a separate issue from the quality of teaching at a college/university, and most likely not due to the salaries of professors.

padob said...


I particularly like the statement, "Life is like that." I struggled with this, but eventually realized that you can't control other people, only yourself and your reactions toward those people. So, I had a particularly bad professor in college, and instead of flipping my shit and complaining about my wasted $25k/year tuition, I worked on my own to teach myself some of the concepts that were covered in that class.

I hate complainers. If you are serious about learning something, then you'll find a way to make it happen. FSP is correct, faculty have a lot going on, and you don't know if their cat got run over by a car an hour ago or what catastrophe in the lab they have to manage.

ScienceGirl said...

If the students want excellent teachers all the time, perhaps they should seek out institutions where the teachers are taught to teach. Professors are never actually taught to teach, and so they do the best they can, which they often do pretty well simply because they enjoy the material themselves and are pretty smart people.

At the best institutions, even if the class isn't the most thrilling, the materials are all there for the students to get the best education out of their schooling. They have access to those same professors during office hours, and perhaps a lesson not understood in class can be fleshed out one-to-one. I have never found professors to resent my asking questions outside of class if I didn't grasp all the material, and in fact I think they were tickled by my enthusiasm. Of course, I didn't just ask questions right before an exam.

As well, the course content is often contained in the textbook, and with the worst profs I usually just resorted to that, perhaps supplemented by online reading. But I took that experience as a lesson in being resourceful, something employers look for!

Anonymous said...

Occasional mediocrity, and even occasional raging incompetence, is unavoidable. A class may be new or a bad fit to the teacher, and it will take a few semesters of failure for even a really bad teacher to be declared completely incompetent.

A consistent pattern of mediocre teaching, where the expectation is that the teacher will be bland, boring, and marginally interested at best, is a different story. The (quite highly regarded) MRUs I attended did not have lots of good-to-great teachers with a few mediocre or terrible ones scattered about; they had lots of barely-interested faculty doing a the bare minimum of work necessary to keep the class moving, with a few genuinely excellent and concerned teachers sticking out above the noise.

Did this make me feel like my time and money were being wasted by excellent researchers who grudgingly acquiesced to their teaching obligations? You're goddamned right it did.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps it's as much a sign of frustration at the increasing-significantly-faster-than-inflation-every-year-for-decades tuition and fees. It's really getting absurd IMHO, and this might be one way the students are expressing their discontent.

The Lesser Half said...

A couple of comments:

1. My experience as an undergrad at a UC campus was that the teaching ranged from great to terrible. My friend who transferred to the UC from a CSU said that every prof he had at the CSU was better than any prof he had at the UC. So maybe if you want better teaching, go to a school with less research emphasis. But if you want a more prestigious degree, then (in this case) the R1 would be better for you, even if you learn less.

2. My sympathy for students is tempered by their poor attendance and study skills. I'm interested in improving my teaching, but at least I show up every day, which I cannot say about 90% of students.

3. Kids complaining about the university serves its purpose: it reminds those of us on the other side of the podium to try to improve.

4. At R1 universities our primary job is not to teach, but to balance teaching and research, a balance which is often skewed towards research. That is the definition of the job (unofficial, perhaps, but impossible to argue with at any of the schools where I have worked), and if students are too low on the priority list, thats why Carlton, Middlebury, Wellesley, etc exist. Go there.

Anonymous said...

Complaints about professors correlate so well with poor student performance that it's really not hard to justify ignoring the vast majority of them. I saw it all the time from my friends in undergrad, both from ones that were generally good students and the mediocre ones.

If you think about your own experiences, you will undoubted realize that you disliked a prof primarily because you weren't doing as well as you liked in the class. They might also have been mediocre profs, but there's a lot of bitterness going around.

At graduation, I probably would have said I had about 4 bad professors. It's only a couple years later, but I'm confident that I really only had one. And that one was a notoriously horrible instructor, vehemently confirmed by everyone I've ever met who took a class with him. Incidentally, I talked with him in a research context and think him to be a fantastic researcher and a pretty likeable guy. It's obvious that he was hired based on his research abilities, but I'm thoroughly convinced that his teaching skills are poor enough that he should be denied tenure.

Moral of the story: there are tons of a whiny undergrads, and probably a couple truly worthless instructors.

Anonymous said...

As a college professor at an R1 top notch State University, a graduate of a top 50 liberal arts college where I paid 25% of my own tuition from summer and part time jobs, and a parent of 2 grade school age daughters, I agree with your point of view.

While I had issues with the college I attended, I thought it was a privilege to be there and I loved most of my classes. I had a mix of great, good, poor and bad teachers but thought overall things were good. I also think the average quality of the instruction at my current institution is significantly better than at my liberal arts college, both because the instructors are, on average, more excited and more knowledgeable about science, and because they are, on average, simply better teachers (in my Department no classes are taught by grad students--they do teach lab and recitation sections). Of course my colleagues vary in their teaching ability, though very few if any are poor because they don't care. I do NOT think we put less effort into improving our teaching than those at SLACs. I definitely had professors at my SLAC who used 20 year old notes.

I am also, in general, quite happy with the education my daughters are getting in the public schools (they are now rising 7th and 12th graders). You could argue we don't pay tuition, but that argument would only be sensible to some one who is not yet paying taxes--more than 2/3rds of my county taxes go to the schools, as well as a big percentage of my state taxes. My daughters have also had a mix of great, good, mediocre and poor teachers, though most were OK to good. However, I would once again state categorically that my colleagues here are, ON AVERAGE, significantly better teachers than those in the public grade schools. They know their subjects inside and out, and are generally available for helping students who are bold/smart enough to come for help.

No school is perfect. I suggest we apply the same standards to each school, and not hold one to a standard not used for the others.

Mark P

Becky said...

Two thoughts.

1. As an undergrad, I think that much of my discontent stemmed from the fact that the evil, erratic, truly bad professors had (seemingly) no consequences for their lack of teaching ability. They taught the same courses every year and students failed to learn. Every. Year. I might have been more forgiving had it been acknowledged by someone at the university that they were awful or that they were trying to improve the situation.

2. I've often thought that teaching and research should be done by different people. They aren't the same skill set. It would require a major culture change as most universities, but I think that separating "teaching professorships" from "research professorships" might alleviate most of the problems. (Of course, there are the very few who are brilliant at both. For them, exceptions can be made.)

Stephanie said...

Yes, FSP, but when you went to college, I'm guessing it was a little bit cheaper. These days, as someone mentioned, tuition is going up WAY faster than inflation, especially in the cash strapped states. I paid my way (with scholarships and work and loans) through a UC (CA) school and graduated in 2003 and it was hard to make ends meet at the time, even with my scholarship covering tuition. I don't think I could go to college today, except maybe a CC. And if I were eating rice and beans at all my meals in order to pay my way through college these days, I would be even more annoyed with the profs who don't care.

I guess for me OTHER is that, profs who care about and want to teach and are either great teachers or trying to be are great. Yes, great is in the eye of the beholder, but to me, it is the effort and desire, coupled with some knowledge. (For example, don't insult your student when they ask a question in of my grad profs always did that).

I think I mostly agree with you, with your new wording, but I do not agree when you call prof #2 mediocre=Moderate to inferior in quality. If prof 2 is good and trying to improve, that is fine. Not everyone can be a superstar teacher. But I am of the opinion that there should also be solely research and solely teaching professors at MRU's, so that the people in front of the class are there because they want to be there. That is my main beef with the tenure system and MRU's.

Yes, undergrads are usually to blame for their lack of learning, because you can't force someone to learn, and, honestly, at the end of college I was able to teach myself the material when my profs were bad. But that doesn't mean we should assume they are ALL like that. But I guess that is also a test of your cynicism. If you do assume they are all like that, you probably should be teaching...

quasihumanist said...

I think it is unacceptable for a university to imply to parts of the public that teaching undergraduates is a high priority when it is not.

If your institution views undergraduate education as a secondary priority, then your institution should be clear about it to everyone that is giving money to the institution, whether it is students (and their parents) paying tuition, voters (through their representatives) providing government funding, or private donors.

If you look at a research university's admissions brochures and testimony to legislatures, you will see that it is full of code phrases which might make it clear to us that education is a secondary priority, but hide this fact from those who don't understand the code, which is most of the public.

Steveo said...

I think this is a situation where students often complain to much and feel entitled. As an undergrad I had friends who thought it should be all about undergrads....whats funny is some of those same people, when moving on to grad school changed their opinion to "it should all be about grad students". Some people are just selfish. A university education is about a lot more than learning facts. Its about learning how to learn independently from all the resources available. The instructors, the textbooks, the lab bench, your fellow students. A good teacher is great, but if you are committed to learning the material, a good teacher is only going to cut a small amount of time out of the work you need to do on your own.

With all that being said, as a student, I could tolerate poor teachers who were enthusiastic and tried. I had no patience for teachers who clearly didn't care, and were disrespectful to students.

I think from the faculty side that it needs to be reminded that they are also lucky to have their job. A job with much more security than most jobs, and one that they love. Society pays for them to do curiosity driven research.....something very nice for those lucky enough to land a faculty job. Teaching is in general a professional responsibility that comes along with the good fortune of being on the faculty at a university. Most professors I know are well aware of this, or just love sharing knowledge. But some professors have the same feeling of entitlement that is complained about in students.

Doctor Pion said...

Life is like that. (Read Dilbert or the letters Scott Adams gets that trigger some of his cartoons!) One thing you have to learn to do while in college is how to work with (learn from and/or teach yourself) people whose communication skills are less than ideal.

But you might also learn, as I did, how to find the office where you can change sections when you are in that rare instance of spectacularly (and, I later learned, deliberately) bad teaching by a full Prof who was angry at his department. I was happy to end up in the classroom of someone who was merely mediocre, although that one day did provide multiple amusing stories.

a physicist said...

Complaints about professors correlate so well with poor student performance that it's really not hard to justify ignoring the vast majority of them.

I disagree. I've seen all of the teaching evaluations for my department for years. There's a good correlation between student comments and teaching quality. Many students have legitimate complaints that they can clearly articulate (and my department does take such comments seriously, fortunately). Also, the comments correlate well with my own classroom observations, when I've had occasion to observe my peers. In general I find it's not hard to tell which students are being whiny and which students have genuine complaints. (Even the best teachers get a few whiners, but then it's really obvious that the majority of the class disagrees.)

FrauTech said...

It's funny how your opinion changes when your perspective changes. When I did College Part I I was studying liberal arts, working part time, but mostly my parents were paying. Also the skills you learn in a liberal arts discipline are more the "skills for life" rather than specific skills for a specific job. So when I had a crappy instructor who didn't teach me the topic, it wasn't any big deal. It wasn't like a bad calculus instructor who might poorly affect your performance in your next calculus class. Also I wasn't directly paying for it so didn't think in those terms either. I had a lot more time to devote to a class and a bad instructor usually meant I'd get a C instead of a B so I wasn't in danger of failing needed classes.

Now in engineering, and as someone who works full time, I take an instructor's performance a lot more seriously. If they are crappy, but otherwise seem nice and seem to care about students learning I am okay with it. I don't know how I'd be as a teacher so I won't hold them to higher standards than I'd hold myself.

The worst I've had seem to be the deadwood tenured guys who (I've verified) aren't running a lab or doing as much research as they used to. You'd think all this extra time would make them better teachers but it doesn't. Some of my best teachers have been those whose salaries are paid partially with grants they are working when they are not teaching. I respect the research and I like that I'm going to a school that has that kind of prestige. It just seems like when these guys get too old to effectively research the administration assigns them to even more classes and that's bad for the undergrads. I can think of only one "bad" instructor, he was the deadwood type and in addition seemed to have a healthy dose of bitterness and contempt for his students. You want to teach poorly, fine. You want to hate your students, fine. But you don't need to go out of your way to insult them or show that you have no respect for them. As someone paying for tuition out of pocket every single time (and it's getting more expensive than College Part I was), AND paying property taxes and income taxes that fund the public school, I do get a little irritated and feel more "ownership" about the problems at my institution than I did before. I try to accept responsibility for where I as a student fail (I honestly don't have the time a "normal" full time student has, working isn't equal to partying but it certainly affects me similarly) but I also despise how the administration handles things.

I read on these academic blogs about post docs and grad students trying to get tenured jobs, I've looked up professors and seen how poorly they are paid given their qualifications and excellent teaching skills, and seen similarly deadwood awful teachers still hanging around and making six figures. I don't think tenure should be controlled by student opinion but I do think the great teachers I've had should be rewarded and that even if you can't de-tenure the deadwood (for now) you should margianalize these people or give them the less desirable committee and service work. So one "bad" teacher out of 30 or so for engineering is no big deal, but I don't blame the teachers so much as I blame the administration and the system itself.

Anonymous said...

"Of course, there are the very few who are brilliant at both."

Really, I know a number of faculty who excel at both. I don't know many who don't care about students or teaching. I'm at an R1 public university in a science department.

Anonymous said...

I think that a certain amount of the responsibility lies with the student. By the time one is at university, it seems that active participation in learning is not too much to ask. I have seen some professors make obvious attempts to engage a classroom (playing music, anecdotes/stories to help remember information, jokes, etc) only to be met with a sea of blank faces. Said professor was then devastated when feedback was mostly negative at the end of the semester. In my own limited teaching experience, I've also noticed a big difference from year to year. Some will actively engage, ask questions, respond to questions and that really brings an lively energy to the class. Other years, same class, same professor, same material, it seems to be a dreaded "dud" year - the students just stare blankly and complain about how "boring" the material is. (Now doubt I was guilty of this during my undergrad...) Certainly teaching is give and take and students can help encourage their professors by making them feel like someone is actually listening! It's true, students are paying a lot of perhaps they should make some effort to ensure they get the most out of it!

prodigal academic said...

Most in my department take pride in their teaching and work hard at it. I know that I do. I switched back to academia after years at a National Lab because I wanted to work with students. I myself had a mix of teachers--some great, some OK, some awful. I also found that some profs I loved, my classmates hated and vice versa.

Something to keep in mind is that at a University, the majority of the learning should be going on OUTSIDE the classroom. When I was an undergrad, we were told we should be spending 3 hours at home per hour in class (i.e. 3 hours of lectures a week means 9 hours a week working at home) to master the material (but very few actually do--I know I didn't, at least not regularly). I learned a TON from my peers, working together on problem sets, discussing assigned reading, and proofing each others' papers. Access to that peer group is also part of what you are paying for.

It is unrealistic (at an MRU) to have separate teaching and research staff. As has been said in previous threads on this subject, student tuition ALREADY pays only a fraction of the cost of education. I know it is already very expensive, but without research overhead to "subsidize" the costs of keeping an MRU going, tuition would be even higher. To keep costs down, I know many people who have taken their first 2 years at a Community College and then transferred for the last 2 to an MRU to get the best of both worlds.

Anonymous said...

I've been watching this debate the past couple of days without commenting, mostly because I have pretty mixed feelings. I generally fall into the "life and universities are just like that" category. Some researchers start out mediocre teachers but get better, some stay mediocre, and some are terrific...your job as a student is to make the university life your own and take from it what you can. And many profs that are mediocre in the classroom are wonderful one-on-one, so taking advantage of office hours can be priceless.

But I know of some large universities, through conversations with friends and colleagues, where the undergraduate experience is placed well below the research portfolio: lectures are a joke, exams aren't graded for weeks, profs aren't available when they say they will be, and nobody "higher up" seems to notice. This is a mistake and, IMO, requires a university-wide rethinking of the teaching standards for being awarded tenure. As a student, if a few of your classes are mediocre, it's livable. If all or most of your classes are mediocre to miserable (which does happen at some places) there's a definite problem.

Canuck said...

I agree that "Universities are like that". Unfortunately, some people are just not the best teachers or public speakers. However, I did have a further frustration with my undergraduate university. I attended a purely undergraduate Canadian Institution that generally has great professors and is a fantastic learning environment. My issue was that because the institution could not fund more tenure track faculty positions, a few of my classes were being taught by sessional instructors which meant being staffed by individuals who had only recently completed their degree themselves. There were a few times where I felt the class was not taught by the most qualified individual.
Furthermore, at my current institution some introductory classes are taught by video lectures - no professor at all. Instead, students attend weekly labs where a graduate student is present to answer questions. This practise of charging full tuition for these types of courses makes me furious.

superdinosaurboy said...

@Anonymous 11.25:
I disagree that students' assessments of their teachers necessarily correlates with performance in their class. Not a single class, tutorial or lecture I took as an undergraduate or Master's student had a direct effect on my results because my degrees were assessed entirely on the basis of blind-marked exams or a blind-marked thesis. But I was still capable of telling if they were good teachers or not!

Anonymous said...

#1: Universities are like that.


You know why students don't spend much out-of-class time studying any more? Budget cuts. Seriously.

See, most students won't do problem sets unless they're going to be graded, and most departments don't have the money to hire graders.

Last semester I served as TA for a moderately-sized lecture class, ~100 students. I had to hand-grade a couple of multiple-choice quizzes, back before we got our Clicker system working properly. That was not too bad. I can't imagine grading weekly problem sets (non-multiple-choice) for the same number of students, though.

What I did was hold review sessions (and office hours) where anyone could come in to get help on the homework. I usually got ~20 people in the review sessions, maybe only one or two people per week in office hours.

The prof who taught the next course in the series had one TA for his lectures, 750 students total. You really think he was going to assign problem sets that would count towards a student's grades? Not possible. He'd need 20 graders to make that work, and our department can't afford that many. Heck, he can't even give non-Scantron tests any more.

Somehow we need to convey to students that assigned homework sets are necessary to success, even if they won't be collected and graded. As I've written before, learning is an internal process.

Anonymous said...

Why aren't more tuition-paying parents indignant that their children don't come to class, don't stay awake or spend lecture on facebook, don't do the minimum work, don't do the readings, don't study...? The lack of personal responsibility (not to mention laziness) among the undergraduates at my school is appalling.

Female Computer Scientist said...

Tomorrow's Professor Blog has a recent post about this topic, which cites this paper. Apparently there's a significant negative correlation between the research orientation of a university and educational outcomes, and that "Attending a college whose faculty is heavily research-oriented increases student dissatisfaction and impacts negatively on most measures of cognitive and affective development. Attending a college that is strongly oriented toward student development shows the opposite pattern of effects."

So perhaps things really were different at your undergraduate institution compared to your current R1 institution.

Yisong Yue said...

I think there is another aspect of universities that is being overlooked here: the opportunity to network and explore.

Undergrads routinely participate in a myriad of extracurricular activities, some of which can be just as instructive (if not moreso) than what's learned in the classroom.

Students will have to learn to teach themselves at some point, and attending a big state school basically forced that upon me due to the lack of resources to give undergrads a more personal mentoring experience. I didn't find that too bothersome as I found myself working on many side projects with fellow students. In fact, in my case, I think it's fair to say that I gained at least as much from my extracurricular activities as from the classroom.

As an engineering student, having exposure to the big technology companies is another major benefit of attending a R1 university. Those companies don't bother to visit every school, so the proverbial getting a foot in the door is a lot easier at a R1 university, even for undergrads.

Most students don't go into research. Even though I ended up going the Ph.D. route, I still keep in regular contact with my former fellow students, many of whom are working on interesting projects and know interesting people (that they can introduce me to in the future should a mutual interest arise).

Anonymous said...

Other. Today's undergrads are paying way more for their education than you did (even with inflation considered). I know some who are leaving with 30 years of student loans to pay off. I'd do the math...

If you're attending a state research university and are paying, say $25,000 (resident) to $50,000 (non-resident) for tuition and fees (and excluding books and room and board) for four years at a (my) state university, and you take a fairly normal course load of, say, 32 courses, and each course has 4 instruction hours per week on average for 15 weeks = 1920 instruction hours, then you're paying about $13 to $26 per instruction hour.

For what other services do we pay that amount and what do we expect? Many services. I'd say some mediocrity is allowable at those rates.

But if you're paying $150,000 to attend a private research university, then we're talking about $78 an hour, which is in line with what doctors and lawyers charge -- I would not accept mediocrity from those professions and would not accept mediocrity from professors at these rates either.

prodigal academic said...


That happened to me my first year at college--one of my science classes had "optional" ungraded problem sets. Being a clueless freshman, I didn't do them until the night before the exam. I was fortunate to squeak by with a C, but I learned my lesson about "optional" assignments.

In my 200 person class, I do not collect assigned problems. I sometimes use very close variants of assigned problems on my exams, and so I can clearly tell who actually did them. I have to grade everything myself, so I get an excellent handle on who knows what. :-)

Tony said...

Hahah - Thanks ComradePhysioProf, very entertaining.

I'm a little concerned about the term mediocrity. When I get served at the bakery, or the RTA (DMV? Car place), I expect some sort of average quality of service. When it sucks, I shrug, when it's great, I'm pleasantly surprised.

Academics who are great teachers are wonderful, but generally I expect mediocrity; utility; a prof who gets the course taught.

When I was an undergrad I used social services, and generally found that they sucked. One time though, I got a call the next day from the lady who had helped me who said "I have been thinking about your case, and I think you should apply for ...".


If I'm delighted by an experience like that with social services, why is it expected of my profs.

One final thing: In general, the profs I loved in first year, annoyed me by 4th. And vice versa. My least favourite 1st year prof became my PhD supervisor, and a friend.

It worries me that *any* undergrads would be trusted for their opinions. No matter how big their debt.

Anonymous said...


I sometimes use very close variants of assigned problems on my exams, and so I can clearly tell who actually did them.

The prof I worked for had me write half of the exam questions and I used to do that too. In fact, sometimes the prof would use assigned homework problems, word for word, on the exam...and over half the class would get them wrong! Ridiculous.

AnonProfessor said...

I've been reading through the post and the comments, and getting depressed.

At my public R1 university, what I find is that there is not much of a culture of recognition for excellence in teaching. The prevailing culture among professors is that one should do the minimum necessary for your teaching, while publicly saying the opposite. The prevailing culture among the administration is to publicly state that teaching is extremely important, but in practice teaching is valued much lower than research. For instance, to first order, salary is determined by research, and by external offers -- not by teaching. Terrible teaching might get you denied tenure, but great teaching won't get you a big raise. For this reason, I don't blame professors who treat teaching as a place to just "do the minimum" -- those professors are merely responding rationally to the incentive structure established from above.

I find it depressing to see the difference in public rhetoric and impression we give to our students, vs our private actions. I also find it depressing that, as a public institution where educating our state's students is supposed to be a major part of our mission, excellence in education nonetheless gets relegated to a low priority.

I understand that not every professor will have the capability to become a truly excellent professor, and that not every professor will want to devote their energies to being a truly excellent professor -- some will be merely acceptable but not stellar, and that's OK. However, I still lament that we don't try to provide incentives to those who do aim for excellence in teaching.

Bagelsan said...

And I really object to the notion that any student who takes issue with his educational experience is a snowflake, is stupid, etc.

This. And same for the "oh, they were partying!" if the students look tired or "they don't care!" if they miss a class. It's just as likely that you're dumping on someone who spent half the night studying or working (the tiredness) or was too depressed or homesick to get out of bed (the absence -- but I'm sure she'll say it was the flu or that she "overslept" like I always did.)

Undergrads nowadays have a *lot* on their plates, and not just financially. College degrees are more vital to a decent career than ever, sometimes they are a student's only hope for a better life, and yet you act like it's some huge offense that the students are willing to judge the quality of the teaching they receive, and are vocal about their educational needs. It's unpleasant seeing the people who are supposed to be teaching and guiding them (and providing a good example) act like gossipy, disrespectful jerks and call them "lazy" when they have no idea what is going on with the vast majority of their students.

Anonymous said...

"...It needs to be reminded that [faculty] are also lucky to have their job. A job with much more security than most jobs, and one that they love. Society pays for them to do curiosity driven research.....something very nice for those lucky enough to land a faculty job."

As a faculty member I can honestly say it certainly isn't what I was expecting based on my undergrad/grad experiences. I do very little curiosity-driven research because I can't get funding for it - the agencies want applied research that can be patented or used to define policy.

As for being 'lucky' - well I'm lucky I've got a job, yes, but as one of the other posters mentioned we're paid fairly poorly given the amount of training/education we have and the hours are ridiculous (if you want to do good research AND be a good to excellent teacher you're up to ~70h/wk). And contrary to popular opinion - no we don't get summers off.