Ten Things Your University Professors Wish You Knew

 

shutterstock_194874566In keeping with the theme this week, and because I’m an apparent sucker for anything Claire asks, I thought I’d add

1.) Grading is for your benefit, not mine. A six-page essay takes about five minutes to read, at the end of which I could simply slap a grade on the paper and move on; that’s all I’m being paid to do. The other 15 minutes I spend on the paper — correcting your grammar and spelling, pointing out poor word choices, making style suggestions, and fixing your logical argument — is all for your benefit. And also because I have Academic OCD and can’t stand the sight of a poorly reasoned argument. Which leads to:

2.) Length and Quality are not synonyms. I would rather read a single-page essay that was wrong, but competently written and argued, than a three-page essay that was right, but poorly written and argued. While it’s true that academics sometimes make too much of “elegance” as a criteria of evaluation, we do it because we’ve read so many ham-handedly written, excessively padded, and gaping-holed argued papers that we just kinda twitch in the presence of bad writing. And that’s just when we’re reading the peer-reviewed literature.

3.) Teaching is only one-third to one-half of my job. It depends on the university, of course, and some schools are actually headed towards tracking faculty. However, the traditional university professor has a ⅓ teaching load, ⅓ research load, and ⅓ service load. I teach at a regional comprehensive school, so mine is half teaching and a quarter each of research and service. Regardless, I’m only doing teaching 20 hours a week. The rest of the week I’m in committee meetings, maintaining the department’s website, overseeing student groups, and — of course — reading and writing on my area of expertise.

4.) Teaching is the least paid part of my job. The highest-paid people who are still in a classroom are researchers. The highest paid people in academia — after football coaches — are administrators. This is partly because those skills are rarer, but also because professors get into the business because they like working with students, and anything that takes you away from the classroom makes your job more like a job. There are professors who love research and so love to have fewer classes, but they aren’t common, and they tend to find their way to research centers and think tanks.

5.) I have a life outside the university. Professors are semi-on-call all the time. Even when I’m not at the office, I may be thinking about a project I’m working on, trading e-mails about certain things going on at the office, lesson planning, and grading papers. We also have “service to the community” so I’m expected to be a member of local boards if I’m qualified, or to serve local charities, and to otherwise be active in the community as a representative of the institution. As a result, if you e-mail me at 11:00 PM, there is a non-trivial chance you’ll hear from me at 11:15. However, I am not actually at your beck and call outside my office hours. Especially on weekends, I often have other things to do.

6.) Come to my office hours. The best part of my job is when a student comes to my office to talk. Doesn’t even matter about what. Want to talk about class? Great! Want to talk about a party? Great! I’m even happy to give relationship advice but — given my history — caveat emptor. During a lecture, or even a class discussion, I have to keep things on track, but the best stuff happens during a free-wheeling conversation. That’s w my office hours are there for.

7.) University administration is a necessary, if troublesome, thing. Universities are actually complicated organizations. There are cross-subsidies across the university, and — contrary to what you may believe — it isn’t STEM supporting Humanities: it’s Business and Education supporting Arts and Sciences. Business and Education are high demand, but cheap to teach; Arts and Science are expensive, requiring computers, datasets, stats software (which is much more expensive than office software), lots of other specialized software, studios, and much more. On top of that, we have the community of learning to support. The guest speakers, programs and events, even basic stuff like food and housing for students, all of this requires dozens of people to coordinate. We are running a small city. This could be a post of its own.

The great issue of university admin is that if you hire professional administrators, the cost of administration goes down, but the administrators tend to focus on the administrative things, i.e., building procedures and offices. Net effect: expensive and excessive administration, but very competently run. If you use professors to administer, the cost goes up because you have to lure professors out of their classes, but they tend to keep the administrative empires small because they have other priorities. Net effect: expensive and minimal administration that is barely functional but can be ignored. No one has figured out a solution to this.

8.) The university isn’t actually a thing; it’s a bunch of things working together. The faculty senate and the university president are appropriately named. The university really does maintain a fragmented and decentralized (arguably feudal) system. The departments and colleges make decisions on their own, and the president exists only to preside over — and sometimes settle disputes between — the disparate factions. All that administration and procedure exists to help students move between departments and colleges without noticing all the moving parts going on in the background. And this is a good thing: we’re all experts in our fields, and we don’t want dilettantes from outside trying to tell us how to do our jobs. We also don’t want to have complicated pricing mechanisms for students to navigate regarding the costs of the classes they take.

9.) Go to the events and programs. As higher education has become more and more popular, we attract more and more students who commute to campus and don’t stay around. This is unfortunate. Every week someone on the university will do a talk on some issue, or a panel discussion, or a art show. You like to watch the AEI events or the Heritage events? That’s going on every day at the university, free and open to the public. Some of them are deeply serious, and some of them are frivolous, but they are all being done by smart people who enjoy thinking about strange things in different ways. And we really like it when you come and ask questions, or argue with us. That’s really interesting. And you’ll learn more when you do that. Come to think of it, that applies to class, too. Answering questions is much more interesting than repeating the same lecture for the nth time.

Outside the events, there are student organizations for everything. If you ever wanted to learn to dance, to fence, to argue about politics, to meet elected officials, there is a group for you on campus. You’re paying for it anyway. And no, unbundling college is no more practical than unbundling cable. You want to see universities become football programs with attached academics? Unbundle the fees.

10.) The important skill in a class is not the subject matter, but the learning. A lot of American Government is, fundamentally, cocktail trivia. This is true of every class, from Archeology to Zoology. Even if you use the material in your career, you will forget stuff and have to look it up. That’s the skill we’re teaching you in the classes. We give you a book with information in it, we expect you to read it. Then, we talk about how the information in that book connects to other things in the book and outside the class. We then ask you questions that require you to pull information from the book and connect it to some other thing. Do this dozens of times, learning how different subjects hook material together, and you have learned a valuable skill: how to go from nothing to passable expert in the space of a couple of weeks.

Turns out, that skill is pretty useful in upper management, where new and unforeseen problems crop up all the time. And in decentralized offices where you can’t consult the managers and the handbook can’t cover everything, it’s also a useful skill. This is, incidentally, why — though moderately supportive — I don’t find the signalling literature to be very convincing, because it’s still focused on the cocktail trivia part of the education, not the modes of thinking, which is what we actually think we’re doing.

And, if you are taking a class, this means that behind every question we ask is the real question: demonstrate that you can use the material you’ve learned in this new situation. I’m not asking for a recitation, I’m asking for a solution or an argument.

There are 30 comments.

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  1. Charlotte Member
    Charlotte
    @Charlotte

    #9 – YES.

    I had a pleasant and academically successful, if largely unremarkable, undergraduate career (mid-’90s). Literally my only regret about college was not taking full advantage of the dozens of campus events that took place every month. I could have skipped taking classes and received an above-average education just by going to all the free stuff.

    • #1
  2. TKC1101 Inactive
    TKC1101
    @TKC1101

    I entered college knowing I was not artistically gifted.

    After following a dream to become a scientist I found I was not scientifically gifted either.

    I found the business school and found out I loved making things happen.

    Then I found out the quickest way to get out with a credential and start doing stuff.

    I never stopped to wonder what my professors wished I knew.

    Thank you for letting me know what I missed in my hurry.

    • #2
  3. Blondie Thatcher
    Blondie
    @Blondie

    Regarding #1&2, do you have a BS stamp? My favorite professor in college was the greatest government/history professor ever. He had a huge BS stamp he would put on your test in a heartbeat, in red. I never got one, thank goodness. And this was at a Southern Baptist college! I loved his class so much I almost changed majors.

    • #3
  4. Sabrdance Member
    Sabrdance
    @Sabrdance

    I would really like to have a stamp that has Samuel L. Jackson’s face on it and says “English!  Do!  You!  Speak it!”

    But it’d probably offend some student…

    • #4
  5. Z in MT Member
    Z in MT
    @ZinMT

    I can argue about #7 all day.

    Where university administration has gotten out of hand is not the administration of faculty. Faculty get riled up about all sorts of things but are easily mollified if you make it appear as if they have a say (i.e. Faculty Senate).

    Where university administration has gotten out of hand is in student services and federal compliance (particularly if the university is research intensive).

    I agree the cross-subsidization on campuses is rampant, but the direction of subsidization depends on the research intensiveness of the university. At research intensive universities the graduate student population outnumbers the undergraduates and research funds everything else (at Stanford this is literally true as most of their endowment is stock in spin-off companies). At my university the research budget is about as large as the academic budget so the cross-subsidization is pretty neutral. (Arts will always have to be subsidized.)

    • #5
  6. Knotwise the Poet Member
    Knotwise the Poet
    @KnotwisethePoet

    I’m a high school/middle school teacher, so our experiences and jobs are not the exact same, but of course there’s some overlap.  #2 is an important truth that is lost on many students.  I’ve been amazed at how much a student can write without ever answering the question they’re supposed to be responding to.

    • #6
  7. Steve C. Member
    Steve C.
    @user_531302

    RE #10, I agree completely. Sadly, many of the professors I had failed to make use of the expensive text books.

    • #7
  8. Larry3435 Member
    Larry3435
    @Larry3435

    I’ve read half a dozen of these “10 Things” posts so far, and my reaction to each of them has largely been, “Yeah, I knew that.  The question is, who do I talk to about how screwed up that is and why hasn’t it been changed?”

    • #8
  9. lesserson Member
    lesserson
    @LesserSonofBarsham

    Larry3435:I’ve read half a dozen of these “10 Things” posts so far, and my reaction to each of them has largely been, “Yeah, I knew that. The question is, who do I talk to about how screwed up that is and why hasn’t it been changed?”

    I can only say for mine, but in my case I expect it in the next update release.

    • #9
  10. Gödel's Ghost Inactive
    Gödel's Ghost
    @GreatGhostofGodel

    Blondie:Regarding #1&2, do you have a BS stamp? My favorite professor in college was the greatest government/history professor ever. He had a huge BS stamp he would put on your test in a heartbeat, in red. I never got one, thank goodness. And this was at a Southern Baptist college! I loved his class so much I almost changed majors.

    One of my most cherished gifts, ever, was a rubber stamp from my wife, “MEGO,” for “Mine Eyes Glazeth Over,” which I put to good use as a middle manager on various papers and reports, both up and down, during my dot-com bubble 1.0 career.

    • #10
  11. King Banaian Contributor
    King Banaian
    @KingBanaian

    This is really fantastic, thanks.  Only one correction:  Much of economics is cocktail trivia for which nobody ever stay to hear the end.  Look for the guy who’s standing alone talking to himself.  That’s the economics prof.

    What makes it a great job?  The random person in their mid-40s who you see in the local grocery store or at the theater who says “I had you as a professor many years ago.”  Given we normally teach 100-125 students each semester and I’ve been doing this more than 30 years in the same university, there’s a fair chance I won’t remember him or her but they remember me, and I left something behind there.  (Often examples involving beer, it turns out.)  That encounter is what I tell at the dinner table when I’m asked “how was your day?” and it’s always an excellent day.

    • #11
  12. Ricochet Inactive
    Ricochet
    @SoDakBoy

    Knotwise the Poet:I’m a high school/middle school teacher, so our experiences and jobs are not the exact same, but of course there’s some overlap. #2 is an important truth that is lost on many students. I’ve been amazed at how much a student can write without ever answering the question they’re supposed to be responding to.

    I have kids in high school and college and it is interesting how the high school requires a paper of at least a minimum number of pages.  Then in college, they have to unlearn to write for volume and begin to write for quality.

    Why do you think high/middle school teachers often make the paper’s length one of the criteria for grading?

    • #12
  13. Son of Spengler Contributor
    Son of Spengler
    @SonofSpengler

    One of the best courses I took in college was an elective on “Science and Public Policy”, taught by a member of the physics faculty who had served in the cabinet of a former POTUS. The final assignment was to write a policy paper on the subject of our choosing. He told us that doing it right would take about 50 pages, but if we could do it in less, that was certainly welcome. He noted approvingly that his department had awarded a PhD to the person with the world’s shortest PhD thesis on record; it clocked in at 8 pages.

    • #13
  14. Howellis Inactive
    Howellis
    @ManWiththeAxe

    Very good list. Some additional thoughts:

    #11:  Some professors love students and some professors hate students. Try to identify those that love students and take their courses.

    #12: Always sit in the front of the class. No one who sits in front fails the class.

    #13: Take really good notes. It will help you stay awake. Then, at the end of each week, make a concise and orderly outline of your notes and the relevant class readings. When it’s test time, study only from this outline. Maybe you’ll be able to memorize it.

    #14: Many, maybe most, university faculty have difficult personalities. Stay away from those who are the most difficult.

    • #14
  15. lesserson Member
    lesserson
    @LesserSonofBarsham

    What would you say is the best way to figure out what professors to avoid and which ones to take as many classes as possible from them?

    • #15
  16. Sandy Member
    Sandy
    @Sandy

    SoDakBoy:

    Knotwise the Poet:I’m a high school/middle school teacher, so our experiences and jobs are not the exact same, but of course there’s some overlap. #2 is an important truth that is lost on many students. I’ve been amazed at how much a student can write without ever answering the question they’re supposed to be responding to.

    I have kids in high school and college and it is interesting how the high school requires a paper of at least a minimum number of pages. Then in college, they have to unlearn to write for volume and begin to write for quality.

    Why do you think high/middle school teachers often make the paper’s length one of the criteria for grading?

    I had an eighth-grade teacher who, I swear, weighed students’ papers to make her decisions on grades (she graded them during class time).   You will not be shocked to learn that she had an education degree.

    • #16
  17. Aaron Miller Member
    Aaron Miller
    @AaronMiller

    I reviewed a friend’s college paper once. It was nonsense, but it got an A. Perhaps that’s Axe’s rule #11 in operation: some teachers just expect students to go through the motions, because they don’t want to be there either.

    Extra-curricular events aren’t all created equal. Most universities invite groups like CAIR or GLAAD to feed the echo chamber.

    • #17
  18. Mike H Coolidge
    Mike H
    @MikeH

    Sabrdance: Length and Quality are not synonyms.

    Then tell teachers to stop assigning length requirements. I’ve always struggled with this because of my natural tendency to brevity. I can’t make each point 3 times in a row with different wording like it adds something to the argument.

    • #18
  19. Mike H Coolidge
    Mike H
    @MikeH

    Man With the Axe: #13: Take really good notes. It will help you stay awake. Then, at the end of each week, make a concise and orderly outline of your notes and the relevant class readings. When it’s test time, study only from this outline. Maybe you’ll be able to memorize it.

    You mean, on a Friday?!

    • #19
  20. Sabrdance Member
    Sabrdance
    @Sabrdance

    Mike H:

    Sabrdance: Length and Quality are not synonyms.

    Then tell teachers to stop assigning length requirements. I’ve always struggled with this because of my natural tendency to brevity. I can’t make each point 3 times in a row with different wording like it adds something to the argument.

    Those teachers are doing it wrong -though among the people I work with, most of us have either recommended lengths or maximum lengths, and that’s been true since I was in college.  Length isn’t the issue, though.  Long isn’t good, neither is short.  The question is whether the question is answered and whether the answer wastes my time.  Making the same point 3 times in a row with different wording annoys me.  Making the point once without any explanation or support is equally obnoxious.

    • #20
  21. user_605844 Inactive
    user_605844
    @KiminWI

    Sabrdance:

    Mike H:

    Sabrdance: Length and Quality are not synonyms.

    Then tell teachers to stop assigning length requirements. I’ve always struggled with this because of my natural tendency to brevity. I can’t make each point 3 times in a row with different wording like it adds something to the argument.

    Those teachers are doing it wrong -though among the people I work with, most of us have either recommended lengths or maximum lengths, and that’s been true since I was in college. Length isn’t the issue, though. Long isn’t good, neither is short. The question is whether the question is answered and whether the answer wastes my time. Making the same point 3 times in a row with different wording annoys me. Making the point once without any explanation or support is equally obnoxious.

    The reason high school teachers assign papers of a certain length is that it’s HARD to teach them to make a logical case.  Repeating your points in different words is a legitimate thing to do, if you are about 13. If no one models rigor, teaches the tools to produce it or expects it, then the 17 year old high school senior and maybe even 20 year old college junior will still just repeat themselves.

    • #21
  22. TheRoyalFamily Member
    TheRoyalFamily
    @TheRoyalFamily

    SoDakBoy:Why do you think high/middle school teachers often make the paper’s length one of the criteria for grading?

    Because they were required to do so in college, and therefore believe (somewhat rightly) that it is an important skill to have, since all good children of course go to college. There are some professors that still believe that if one can have an idea, they can expound on it for X pages; the length requirement encourages one to expand their thinking, to be able to expound for that length. Also, remember that many professors write lengthy articles on a somewhat regular basis, if not whole books, so a few pages doesn’t seem like much at all to them. The secondary education teachers then get the idea that this is what is needed, and so “prepare” their students for the future.

    Of course, most students just learn BS skills, and how to pad. In college a professor might have hundreds of pages to read between all their students, and that’s before whatever else they have going on and so grading well might not be top priority; or TA’s might be the graders, and they not only have less experience, but also their own papers to worry about. Some future teachers might not even learn what good writing really is.

    • #22
  23. Ricochet Moderator
    Ricochet
    @OmegaPaladin

    I am a former adjunct professor and TA.

    For the love of all that is holy, I want to emphasize #1.  I hate lab report grading on the molecular level.   I prefer to the point writing over long padded essays, but most of what I got was a slog through the morass of bad writing.

    • #23
  24. Howellis Inactive
    Howellis
    @ManWiththeAxe

    Mike H:

    Man With the Axe: #13: Take really good notes. It will help you stay awake. Then, at the end of each week, make a concise and orderly outline of your notes and the relevant class readings. When it’s test time, study only from this outline. Maybe you’ll be able to memorize it.

    You mean, on a Friday?!

    Heavens, no.

    On Sunday, after football.

    • #24
  25. J. D. Fitzpatrick Inactive
    J. D. Fitzpatrick
    @JDFitzpatrick

    On papers of required length:

    I’m a private English tutor. I tell my students that they need to learn how to write a five paragraph persuasive essay. Each paragraph should have 5-8 sentences, with sentences of reasonable length. I give them models to follow, some worked out to the sentence, for intro, conclusion, and body paragraphs.

    One of the first things I notice about poorly argued paragraphs is that they are too short; that is, they simply lack the space in which to develop an argument. When my students do this, it is invariably out of laziness. Now, I do go into details about how they failed to support their argument. But, bottom line, when they are at home, they need some clear external standard that will force them to rack their brains for material that I can actually evaluate. (And I need a standard that every parent can enforce, regardless of writing ability.)

    A natural writer who spends a great deal of time reading and thinking can break this length rule, of course. The rest of the students, however, need it.

    • #25
  26. Augustine Member
    Augustine
    @SaintAugustine

    #11: We don’t have a summer or Christmas vacation.  We have sabbaticals instead–used to catch up on grading, finish the prep work for the next semester’s classes, cope with slews of emails from complainy students, and try to do some of the research we couldn’t do during the regular semester because of the teaching, the office hours, and the meetings.

    • #26
  27. user_605844 Inactive
    user_605844
    @KiminWI

    J. D. Fitzpatrick:

    I give them models to follow, some worked out to the sentence, for intro, conclusion, and body paragraphs.

    One of the first things I notice about poorly argued paragraphs is that they are too short; that is, they simply lack the space in which to develop an argument. When my students do this, it is invariably out of laziness. Now, I do go into details about how they failed to support their argument. But, bottom line, when they are at home, they need some clear external standard that will force them to rack their brains for material that I can actually evaluate. (And I need a standard that every parent can enforce, regardless of writing ability.)

    Exactly.  I get to witness this as my rising 9th grader’s school teaches writing in this way. She’s learning to edit her own work, according to this rubric, and we can just sit back and watch the magic happen.  This craft takes time and practice and really can be thought of independently from learning the beauty of precise language and deeper content and analysis. Of course the learning all comes together, but the disciplines cannot all be learned simultaneously. Learning to write well is like scaling a wall, reaching out for the grips and footholds to boost or pull you onward.

    • #27
  28. AIG Inactive
    AIG
    @AIG

    A few points:

    1) Administrators are by far not the highest paid people in academia. Unless you mean Dead, Assistant Deans and heads of departments. But they are hardly “administrators”. Heads of departments are professors too, so the official title of someone doesn’t immediately imply that they are not also professors who teach or do research. Their salaries are high because they are also typically the most senior people in their departments/schools. And they represent a handful of people (there’s only so many deans and assistant deans)

    2) The highest paid people are medicine, law and business profs. Followed by engineering. The bulk of administrators are paid pretty “standard” industry wages for the type of work they do.

    Nonetheless,  your post is good if for no reason that it highlights the flaw in the argument that has gripped much of the criticism of higher ed: “administrators are the problem!”. As you point, out, no they’re not.

    • #28
  29. Sabrdance Member
    Sabrdance
    @Sabrdance

    AIG:A few points:

    1) Administrators are by far not the highest paid people in academia. Unless you mean Dead, Assistant Deans and heads of departments. But they are hardly “administrators”.

    Deans, Presidents, University Counsels -that is what I had in mind.  Not the registrar.  But this is what I mean in part 7, to the extent that deans are good at being non-administrative administrators, they are expensive administrators.  They teach only one class per year (maybe per semester) and do a job a non-professor would do for much less -but the non-professor would not have the academic loyalties to the mission of the institution.

    • #29
  30. AIG Inactive
    AIG
    @AIG

    Having just finished grading about 160 essay exams, I’d have to say that length of essay is positively correlated with quality of answers.

    But, only if we have an upper limit on the number of pages. I.e., if we say “4 pages max”, it’s probably for a good reason. And it’s probably a good idea to use up all the 4 pages. Almost never are you going to get good answers in 1.5 pages, if we say 4 page max. But almost always all the good answers will be 4 pages long.

    Even if by accident, one is likely to hit the “right” answer, or at least an answer that is argued well enough even if “wrong”.

    • #30

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