Good student bad student good professor bad professor

From an essay called “Why Your Professors Suck”:

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!”

The author presents this as a special delivery of some much-needed real-world wisdom to the boringly conformist “good student.”  But I think it comes off as free-floating nastiness directed at a kid asking a perfectly reasonable question.  Discuss.

Update:  Actually, I think what follows this exchange makes it even a little worse:

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.

So yeah — it’s not just pure nastiness, it’s served with a charming helping of “humiliate the disfavored student in public while the favored students look on and enjoy.”


12 thoughts on “Good student bad student good professor bad professor

  1. Max Lieblich says:

    There are ways of encouraging students to think for themselves that don’t involve planning a midterm and then refusing to acknowledge it. A truly nonconformist professor *might not have a midterm at all*. What a prick!

  2. xl says:

    Nastiness directed at a kid asking a perfectly reasonable question. If I expect students to hand in homework on time, to do their reading, to generally take the class seriously, but even more importantly to respect my time, the least I can do is take the class seriously myself and respect their time as I wish they would respect mine. I think it’s a bit soul crushing that some professors are actively mocking students who are just trying to do well and to generally be good citizens of the class.

    But then again, I did get all As in college, so what do I know…

  3. Zajj says:

    While reasonably well-written, the whole post communicates to me the impression that the author has just been through or is going through a particularly exhausting tenure process. The sentiment in this excerpt especially carries a tone of the low self-confidence that many of us go through in this job from time to time. From where I stand, I’ve heard it most out of 2nd or 4th year grad students at moments when they’re having trouble imagining they’ll ever pass quals or finish their thesis. “Why are you demanding this menial nonsense out of me, undergrad student of mine, and why do you trust me to be able to teach you anyway?” (Usually in the form of telling their peers what they wanted to say to their students without actually doing so.) Sometimes it’s hard to keep perspective, to feel like you’re qualified for all aspects of this job, and at those moments it seems so silly to be answering questions about midterms. But yes–the students have a lot on their plate too, and need help navigating the rapidly changing expectations of college. Simple things, like providing a clear syllabus, remove unnecessary uncertainly and clear the way for spending energy on more important matters. I heard somewhere that President Obama cut way back on variety in his suit collection when he entered office, to limit the mental energy going into decision-making wherever he could. If you don’t tell students what you expect of them and when, they might fret about it, distracting them from thinking about the stuff that “matters”.

  4. Mark Meckes says:

    Definitely nastiness. It may pretend to deliver much-needed real-world wisdom, but doing so would require the professor to engage with the questions somehow, not deflect or mock them. When a student asks me what an exam covers, the answer is that it covers all the course material up to that point, and being “more specific” consists of reviewing what all the course material up to that point was. I always schedule my exams before the beginning of the course, but if I didn’t, my answer to the timing question would be that they should be prepared for it at any time. These may or may not be the best answers to the questions, but they attempt to impart something to the student.

    The author of the essay would probably counter that I’m trying to impart attitudes and skills which are necessary to succeed in academia but not in the real world. But the only lesson (true or not) that his dialogue imparts to the Good Student is that the professor has no interest in helping the student succeed in any context; it does nothing to help the student succeed on his or her own. It may be that the real world is full of people who have no interest in helping you succeed, but I don’t see it as a professor’s proper role to serve as an example of one.

  5. Bradford Chase says:

    This is kind of my entire teaching philosophy.

  6. Kevin says:

    The author was a philosophy professor, what do you expect? :)

  7. davidmfisher says:

    So it is clear that that exchange is a combination of nastiness and laziness. And if you read more of the fellow’s blog, it is clear that he is an amazingly arrogant man with complete contempt for the academy, students and well, most anyone who isn’t himself. Luckily for students he has left his tenured job and moved on to working in a small start up. Leaving himself many fewer people to sneer at. I don’t envy those few people.

  8. Frank says:

    I think that one way in which we are fortunate as mathematicians is that we are obliged to prove our claims. Roughly speaking, the very worst you can possibly claim about someone else’s mathematical work is that it is worthless — which provides an upper bound on how nasty disputes can get.

    It’s too bad that philosophy has (apparently?) a reputation for incivility. It is certainly not true across the board: I took an upper-level philosophy class as an undergrad from an extraordinarily brilliant, dedicated, and kind professor. It was probably the best undergraduate course I ever took.

  9. Jason Starr says:

    Here is my interpretation of the conversation: the instructor believes the student is focusing on the wrong aspect of the learning process (i.e., testing and grades). The instructor gives the student deliberately obtuse answers trying to cause the student to recognize the absurdity of his / her learning priorities. Actually, read as comedy, it reminds me a bit of Douglas Adams — Slartibartfast or Zaphod being genuinely perplexed by Arthur’s priorities. Regardless of the author’s claim, I doubt this is how he / she talks with “good” students. I think the instructor is trying to appear funny and cool.

  10. Max Lieblich says:

    I know this is a little late, but I’m surprised no one has made any Stoner references wrt this guy (especially given the recent Stoner obsession).

  11. Beraki Asgedom says:

    the professor’s answer was a little odd but there is some truth in it . the students who succeed in life are not those who score good grades but those who are fit in communication, in manners, some times lucky and those who are patient and perseverant. In addition, those who study to know are better than those who study to get good scores. To study the subject as a hobby without worrying about exam and what grade you are about to get facilitates better in terms of scientific or mathematical discovery. Those individuals who study to understand and know deeper aspects of their fields may not score well example Albert Einstein, Hardy’s student from India who was well known in theory of numbers. a French mathematician who invented group theory who died in duel at age 21. Pythagoras was more interested in his research than grades. Archimedes was more absorbed in his hobby than being worried about war and death etc.

    On Tue, Feb 4, 2014 at 11:00 PM, Quomodocumque

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