Sunday, June 23, 2013

Why Your Professors Suck

Part of the reason that I'm uncomfortable as a university professor is that I usually like my "bad" students more than my "good" students. "Good" students are easy to teach -- they show up every day on time. They follow directions, complete all the reading assignments, and so on. The "good" students end up with excellent grades at the end of the semester. My "bad" students, on the other hand, are a pain in the neck. They skip class. They screw up the assignments (or don't hand them in at all). Sometimes, they're openly disrespectful.

There are two different varieties of "bad" student, and they're not created equal. The first kind is the "goof-off bad student". They miss class because they overslept, and don't hand in the assignment because they forgot. The "goof-off bad student" usually drinks too much. This kind of bad student needs to take a few years off from college, get an unpleasant job somewhere, and figure out whether they really want to be in college.

The second kind of "bad" student is the "cynical bad student". This is the kind of bad student I like. The "cynical bad student" thinks their professors are pretentious, out-of-touch, narrow-minded, tweed-jacket-wearing dweebs. They think that their coursework is a bunch of busywork for the most part, and that their education is almost worthless. They're not impressed by anything, and their presumption at the beginning of every semester is that they're about to have a lot of their time and money wasted. They couldn't be any more different from the "good" students. The "good" students are genuinely invested in succeeding in college, and they have a very specific idea of what "succeeding" means. It means completing their education in a reasonable length of time, getting excellent grades, and meeting whatever criteria their professors set before them. I often have very disorienting conversations with my "good" students. Here's a sample (students of mine can attest that I really do have these conversations):
Good student: "When will the midterm be?"
Me: "Why do you care?"
Good student: "Um... I'd like to be able to plan when I should study for it."
Me: "Oh, okay. I don't know when it's going to be."
Good student: "Um... Okay. What's it going to cover?"
Me: "I'm not sure, but it'll be really great!"
Good student: "That's good, I guess. Can you be more specific?"
Me: "Not really. But why do you care?"
Good student: "Well, you're the professor!"
Me: "I am? That's odd. You know, I got mostly Cs and Ds in college. Maybe you shouldn't be listening to me."
Good student: "But you do have a PhD, right?"
Me: "Sure, but any jerk can get a PhD. Just think about all your professors. It can't be that hard!"
This sends my "good" students into conniption fits. My cynical students enjoy watching these interactions.

Basically, I think I like my cynical bad students more than my good students because the good students are wrong and the cynical bad students are right. However, because these students are only about twenty years old and very inexperienced, they don't usually know why they're right. It's just a vague feeling that their university is failing them, but they don't understand exactly how. They often believe, for example, that their professors are malevolent jerks. This is rarely true, and doesn't come close to explaining the full range of reasons why their college experience is so awful. The real reasons are a little more subtle. Basically, it all comes down to understanding why the faculty are such dweebs.

We are all used to hearing about how the economy is changing and that people will change careers many times. In order to succeed in the new economy, everyone will have to be able to learn new skills rapidly, adapt to changing realities, cope with disruptive technologies, and live in a world where there is no economic security. This is the exact opposite of the life of a tenured faculty member. Professors succeed by specializing, and gradually building a reputation among a small number of other specialists. Their major career goal is tenure, which gives them the privilege of enjoying a level of career security that's almost unheard of. Furthermore, the vast majority of faculty have never had a career outside of academia, and so that's all they know.

Quite understandably, faculty try to instill in their students the same attitudes that enabled them to succeed. Unfortunately, those qualities are often counterproductive for any life outside of academia. But in order to fully grasp why this fact is so important, you have to understand a little bit about how careers are made and lost in academia.

Success as a faculty member requires one thing above all else: a good reputation in your field. During the tenure and promotion process, perhaps the most crucial step will be when your department solicits letters of reference from well-known senior faculty in your chosen specialty. They will review your research output and write a candid assessment of your work. Bad letters from these faculty will destroy your chances of being awarded tenure. And because tenure is an "up-or-out" system, failing to receive tenure means that you're fired. Furthermore, in this economy, it usually means that your career is over, too.

The very worst thing that can happen is for your letter-writers to be unfamiliar with your work. Accordingly, savvy junior faculty members will direct their research to a very specific sub-specialty so that they increase their chances of becoming known within a particular group of senior researchers. That way, even though the junior faculty member won't know who's being solicited for letters during their tenure review, they can be reasonably certain that their work will be known to the right people. Because it's so time-consuming to conduct research and submit papers and books for publication (it often takes well over a year for a paper to be published in a good journal, for example), a junior faculty member can't afford to waste any time or effort. It's almost suicidal to write a series of papers on different topics, even if those papers are very high-quality. Instead, it's a far better strategy to try to achieve a "critical mass" of research output in a small, narrowly-focused area. Research areas, types of output (papers, presentations, books, grant proposals, etc), venues, and everything else are selected to maximize the probability that the right people will learn about one's work. The math is terrible -- rejection rates for top journals in my field, for example, are way above 90%, and this is quite typical. With a six-year window between being hired and beginning the tenure process, it can easily take a year to get one's research off the ground. Between the end of any particular research work and publication (assuming it's accepted for publication), there can easily be a year or more. This is why it's so important to relentlessly focus on a narrow specialty; there is no time to waste.

Of course, it's possible that after being awarded tenure, a faculty member might broaden her horizons and pursue a variety of different intellectual pursuits. This would be in keeping with one major purpose of tenure -- to enable an established researcher to set her own research agenda without fear of losing her job. To be sure, this does happen. But in my experience at least, it's very rare. The reason why it's so rare is pretty simple: the tenure process filters out the people who would be most likely to pursue diverse intellectual interests. Having survived college, graduate school, and the tenure track, it's very likely that whoever is left standing is the sort of person who fits comfortably into the existing structure. Someone who is prone to pursuing a diverse set of interests or (worse yet) interdisciplinary research will run a much larger risk of losing her job during the tenure review process. And of course, even if you started out with a lot of intellectual interests, the sheer habit of limiting yourself to the narrow range of acceptable work can change you over the course of a decade.

In this way, faculty are like columnists for major newspapers. Columnists for, say, the New York Times are perfectly free to write whatever they like (within appropriate professional guidelines, of course). But the range of opinion expressed in those columns is terribly narrow. The problem is not that the Times is exerting pressure on its columnists. The problem is that in order to be a columnist for the New York Times to begin with, you have to be the kind of person whose opinions already fall within a specific range. The same goes for faculty. Universities are generally pretty good about not exerting overt pressure on faculty and their research. Intellectual freedom is generally respected. But the university doesn't need to exert any pressure, because it's already filtered out the people who would need to be pressured. Those who survive are, for the most part, narrow specialists who care little about what's happening outside their own area of specialization.

The same is true of faculty opinions about the university itself. With a six year pre-tenure filtering process, those who are granted the freedom to change the way their courses are run, try something new, or (gasp!) criticize the university have largely been eliminated. Those who remain are perfectly free to teach, conduct research, or express themselves however they like. But the people who would actually take advantage of that privilege are gone.

Here's what the cynical student sees: out of touch faculty who teach the same way everyone else has taught for decades and seem to be sleepwalking through their work. Surprisingly, it's not because these faculty don't care. In my experience, the overwhelming majority of faculty do care about their students and want to do the best possible job of educating them. Unfortunately, we've done a really good job retaining only faculty who fit into the existing structure.

So the cynical students are right, but not for the right reasons. If the problem were just that a few professors happened to be jerks, that would be relatively easy to fix. But the real problem is institutional and structural. That's a much tougher problem.