Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Seeing professors clearly

[Advice for students]

As a college freshman in 1975, I took up the now-vanished practice of turning in postcards with final exams so that my professors could send me my course grades before university grade-reports were compiled and mailed. One postcard came back with a semester grade (A) and the words “With a little help from my inability to do higher mathematics!”

That postcard confirmed my sense that my professor was a nasty, sarcastic man. He was after all the same professor who had criticized my writing all semester, pointing out my dangling participles, my pointless rhetorical questions, and my constant use of the word this to begin sentences. And now he was intent on somehow souring my A for the semester.

But I couldn’t have been more wrong in my thinking. As a junior, I took two more courses with Jim Doyle, James P. Doyle, and began to realize that he was the most generous, most inspiring teacher I would ever know. When I was a freshman though, hugely insecure about my ability to negotiate academic life — and hugely insecure about everything else — I couldn’t see what now seems plain: my professor was making a joke when he wrote that postcard. He was an English teacher, joking about his own inadequacies, and trusting that I was smart enough to get the joke. I wasn’t.

Now that I get to think about these matters from the front of the classroom, I count five misconceptions that often make it difficult, even impossible, for college students to see their professors clearly:

1. “Professors have you figured out from your first grade.”

Most professors are happy to recognize improvement in a student’s work. I sometimes see students go from Fs and Ds to Bs and As in the work of a semester. Seeing a student begin to take interest in a class and improve her or his work makes almost any professor feel a bit happier and a bit more successful. The student who feels categorized by a first grade might be the victim of a self-fulfilling prophecy: if you feel that you’re never going to do better than, say, a C+, there might be little reason to try to do better.

2. “Professors give grades based on whether they agree with you.”

Most professors are more than willing to acknowledge that multiple interpretations or points of view are possible and plausible. Professors are much more interested in your ability to develop and support an argument than in agreeing with that argument. They are likely to admire an effort to develop a position that gives them something to think about and, perhaps, argue with. And by the way, professors don’t “give” grades. Your work is what earns them.

3. “Every professor wants something different.”

Most professors value clear, cogent, well-informed reasoning and writing. Different expectations are often a matter of different disciplines, not different professors. The wordplay that wins respect in Creative Non-Fiction might not go over well in Business Communication. The single-sentence paragraphs appropriate in Intro to Journalism won’t work in Intro to Literary Criticism. But that’s because different standards apply in each field, not because professors are insisting on their own idiosyncratic recipes for good writing. And while different professors might place more or less emphasis on various writing errors, that doesn’t mean that comma splices are sometimes okay and sometimes not, only that some professors might be paying more attention to your writing than others.

When professors do want things their way, it’s likely to be about relatively modest matters — paper clips rather than staples, serif rather than sans serif fonts. If you were reading hundreds of essays, you’d probably get a little particular too.

4. “Professors don’t care whether you come to class.”

Some don’t. Most do. But professors recognize that it’s a student’s choice to show up or not, to take notes or not, to follow a discussion or lecture or drift away in inner space. It’s unlikely that a professor will extend a favor to a student who has frequent unexplained absences or whose presence in class does nothing to help the cause of learning.

5. “Professors are obstacles on the way to a diploma.”

This misconception, unlike the first four, is rarely articulated. It’s pervasive nonetheless among students who practice various forms of educational gamesmanship — reading plot summaries instead of novels, plagiarizing essays, cheating on exams, concocting phony excuses for late work and absences. Students who see their professors as obstacles would do well to consider that their own attitudes are the real obstacles to graduation, impeding any possibility of genuine learning.

You may encounter a professor who will confirm every misconception I’ve described: someone who does decide semester grades early on, who allows no disagreement, who is arbitrary and idiosyncratic and oblivious, and who really does make life miserable. When you encounter such a professor, run — if that’s possible. Such professors betray not only their students but the very idea of learning. Most professors are better than that though — if your eyes are open enough to see them.

[I wrote “Seeing professors clearly” in January 2008 for Tim Milburn’s College Students Rule. The site appears to have folded, so I’ve made a home for this piece here.]

comments: 4

tim said...

So glad to see you repost this article on your site. I discontinued my subscription with Typepad and it took the CSR site off the web.

I loved re-reading this post again and it's still as pertinent today as it was when you first wrote.


Michael Leddy said...

Thank you, Tim, and the same to you.

Rachel said...

Excellent post and great advice to all students.

Michael Leddy said...

Thank you, Rachel. It means a lot to me to have your approval. :)