What’s the Point of a Professor?

May 10, 2015

Image credit: Tim Enthoven

By Mark Bauerlein

In the coming weeks, two million Americans will earn a bachelor’s degree and either join the work force or head to graduate school. They will be joyous that day, and they will remember fondly the schools they attended. But as this unique chapter of life closes and they reflect on campus events, one primary part of higher education will fall low on the ladder of meaningful contacts: the professors.

That’s what students say. Oh, they’re quite content with their teachers; after all, most students receive sure approval. In 1960, only 15 percent of grades were in the “A” range, but now the rate is 43 percent, making “A” the most common grade by far.

Faculty members’ attitudes are kindly, too. In one national survey, 61 percent of students said that professors frequently treated them “like a colleague/peer,” while only 8 percent heard frequent “negative feedback about their academic work.” More than half leave the graduation ceremony believing that they are “well prepared” in speaking, writing, critical thinking and decision-making.

But while they’re content with teachers, students aren’t much interested in them as thinkers and mentors. They enroll in courses and complete assignments, but further engagement is minimal.

One measure of interest in what professors believe, what wisdom they possess apart from the content of the course, is interaction outside of class. It’s often during incidental conversations held after the bell rings and away from the demands of the syllabus that the transfer of insight begins and a student’s emulation grows. Students email teachers all the time — why walk across campus when you can fire a note from your room? — but those queries are too curt for genuine mentoring. We need face time.

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14 comments on “What’s the Point of a Professor?

  • When I went to university, even when there were only 8 students in the class, the prof acted as if lecturing to 1000s. It might as well have been a video. There was no interaction.

    The problem was profs who liked teaching had low status. The profs who liked research were forced to do teaching, and did a terrible job. We would be better off having profs who like teaching making videos you can access on the internet.

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  • Are we talking about university academics, aka professors in the USA but lecturers in the rest of the English-speaking world, or professors, university academics of the highest rank?

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  • I went to a small liberal arts college where everyone knew my name and where I never learned my student number because I only used it the first week of class and for graduation. I got face time with professors every day and I definitely wouldn’t be where I am today if it weren’t for the conversations I had with them. If schools were smaller or if the ration from professors to students was less, then I think it would help deter students from the money-making mentality and help them gain more wisdom from their professors. Sadly though, this would decrease profits for schools.

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  • Everyone in secondary and tertiary education needs the opportunity to spend time with exceptional minds as well as their competent tutors. I was very lucky to meet two in my time. The second of these two was our quantum mechanics prof at university who gave us personal and inspirational chats. These were often about the delightfulness of knowledge rather than the specific at hand. The most he would do for those (same as the first, my physics teacher at grammar school) is give you a genius sequence of questions to ask yourself in turn.

    I met the chap decades later, when he had become the chief scientist of a fair sized technology conglomerate (£15bn-ish). I was underwhelmed. He was rich and dull as ditchwater.

    Which reminds me of the best gag about professors ever (round about the two minute mark, but watch from the start.)

    Don’t let professors get comfy…

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  • All this really depends on how your tertiary education system is funded. In Australia it is almost all public. Funded partly by a deferred fee system for students and partly by tax revenue. With the current funding levels we cannot afford the kind of staff student ratio the writer of this piece would like. I typically teach classes of around 300 in first year, 100 in second year, 20 in third year. Of course that doesn’t really stop me spending all the rest of my time chatting to whoever wants to drop into my office. I could do that. It would be fun. But the government and my university masters would have to decide that I don’t need to do research and administration anymore.

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  • Hi Daniela,

    I think you hit the nail on the head.

    When the OP mentions grade inflation (A is the most common grade) it is trying to tell us something about higher education – that it is being devalued.

    In line with the student mentality that they are ‘investing’ in their futures and governments both pushing colleges to attract brainpower and to offer students ‘bang for buck’ that stokes economic growth (in the religion-of-education dogma), the value of simply being in the same room as a true thought leader is lost.

    But, as any Economist knows, the drive to the bottom devalues the goods so much that the Manufacturer loses caché. If you try to sell Fords at Ferrari prices people just buy Toyottas.

    This is leading higher education into a tiered structure. At the top are Colleges that are rich, they try to maximise income – like any good business – but are constrained by the need to preserve caché. They are finding that cream skimming has value. Only the best-connected can afford to enter, therefore the best connected graduate from the best colleges (on average). They then go on to endow their former colleges, and to encourage (and angle for) entry for those who are well connected. This is a leading cause of the emergence of a U.S. aristocracy.

    At the other end of the income / caché spectrum are colleges dependent on students who must work their way through college, who receive local government or small business bursaries, who are not well connected.

    Low-income end colleges are, if anything, even more pressurised to pass students with good grades. Livelihoods depend on it.

    I would welcome input from anyone who sees a way out. It seems to me that it is in the hands of professors themselves to push for change. Their social contribution is dependent on the quality of professors in general. If their students graduate and tell the World about their mentors (as you failed to do, you named no-one) then the World beats a path to their doors. If, as is currently the case according to the OP, students graduate and then merely trumpet their own, almost-valueless, BScs and BAs then the professors are mere shadows.

    Professors are countering this trend by publishing. Indeed, it has become a professorial prerequisite.

    Will future generations thank us more for books, or for properly trained, properly incentivised, properly graded, properly inspired new generations?

    Call me arrogant if you will, I think I know.


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  • I completely agree, and I cannot see a way out because it has become the culture. Students receive pressure from all sides to be an A student and if they don’t make it, they can get depressed. We would either have to change our whole culture or our whole education system and follow the model from Finland or other countries. Like my favorite professor said, “I teach for free; I get payed to grade.”

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  • Stephen of Wimbledon
    May 12, 2015 at 5:06 pm

    When the OP mentions grade inflation (A is the most common grade) it is trying to tell us something about higher education – that it is being devalued.

    I sometimes wonder about the enthusiastic uneducated politicians and media assertions about this.

    It is possible, that with modern communications technologies facilitating research and learning, that standards in general could be rising, compared to one or two decades ago.

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  • I still remember several of my professors. I was reading a book about The Great Gatsby yesterday when I remembered something my one “hippy” philosophy professor said about art. He had the weirdest classes, about existentialism but we really talked about literature, art, and of course philosophy. I wouldn’t recommend his style for most classes but I think it says something that some of his words and the things I thought about in that class still stick with me.

    On the more traditional side, and I’ve probably told this story before but I like it so much I’ll tell it again. I had to take an advanced statistics class because when I was studying computer science you could only get it through the math department and there were some fundamental classes all math majors had to have. I was dreading it, the intro class had been insanely boring. And the teacher was rumored to be very tough but it was one of those cases where I wanted to graduate asap and needed the class and he was the only one teaching it. It was amazing. The guy was really tough but he clearly loved statistics and his emotions about it were contagious. In fact that class changed the way I felt about math in general and is one of the other things that stuck with me. He would write these proofs on the board speaking and writing incredibly fast and legibly. But every once in a while he would stop and step back and look whistfully at the board, smile slightly and sigh “isn’t that beautiful!” and damn, it was.

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  • I am glad to share my experience in Malaysia. Being an Industry Professor of Management, my Master degree students look up to me not only in terms of being a mentor/teacher, but also as the person who pairs/arranges suitable jobs for them in the industry when they graduate from my classes: something that I gladly do since I firmly believe in nurturing talents in our young people. Thank you

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  • Boon Tai Chen #13
    Apr 1, 2016 at 6:31 am

    I am glad to share my experience in Malaysia. Being an Industry Professor of Management, my Master degree students look up to me not only in terms of being a mentor/teacher, but also as the person who pairs/arranges suitable jobs for them in the industry when they graduate from my classes:

    My son is head of development and a director of an IT company.
    There is an arrangement with the local university to place second year undergraduate students in paid holiday jobs for work experience with the company.
    Some of them go on the join as employees after graduation.
    It is an excellent system to let everyone evaluate their options, before making longer term commitments.

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