The Changing Role Of The College Professor

by Denver Dad

What’s the Point of a Professor?



62 thoughts on “The Changing Role Of The College Professor

  1. 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.

    Interesting. However, I get the impression that most here feel that an A should be a possibility for any student who applies themselves and masters the material.

  2. Read this the other day. I attended a large state university in the early 80’s. It was easy to see a TA, but difficult to get in to see professors until at least Junior year. As the article notes, even then, they didn’t really want to see you as they were trying to spend their time on research. Their grad research assistants had the most access to professors followed by their teaching assistants followed by grad students on down the line.

    At the beginning of the semester, you were told If you had a question about the course work, you should contact the TA, which made it very hard to forge any type of relationship with a professor. I can only recall two undergraduate interactions with the professor – (1) Intro to Engineering Class – Professor (no TA) trying to get tenure basically quit teaching class during the last 6 weeks as 90% of the students in the class already knew how to program in that language. He told those of us who had not already learned this to work with our classmates or come see him during office hours to complete the programming assignments. I was in his office every week, but I would get about 5 minutes of his time before he would tell me he had to go, even though it was during his posted office hours. Not a good experience. (2) Business Programming Course – I had writen a program that kept crashing, but the TA could find no problem in the code. We went to the professor together. Our class was piloting the Commodore computers, so he had me switch to a Texas Instruments as the code was correct and it ran fine. He used my program as documentation of a bug Commodore.

  3. ” I get the impression that most here feel that an A should be a possibility for any student who applies themselves and masters the material.”

    I would expect the students would apply themselves and master the material. In my book, that’s a C or maybe a B. I think schools get caught up in the “Oh, our students are so smart (because they got here)!” that the starting point is a B+ and it goes up from there

  4. Reading that article makes me extremely grateful for my college experience. I really hope my kids want to go to a SLAC. The only TAs I ever had were for extra language practice. Largest class I ever had was about 45 – several with under 10. I went to office hours and knew my professors but I probably did less than my peers.

    I’m at the opposite end of the spectrum from a lot of posters as I would gladly pay for a $60K/year education for my kids without concern for employment prospects, especially if they could have a similar experience that I did. And when I look at my peers from college the vast majority of them spent a few years trying different things out but now in their mid-thirties are in successful careers.

  5. The grading has to do with do you believe that students should be graded against a standard or relative to each other.

    Grading against a standard, then any student that meets that standard should receive that grade. The question then becomes is the standard for receiving an A, B, C, etc. set appropriately.

    Grading relative to each other basically requires having their numeric grades being irrelevant and aligning the grades on a bell shaped curve giving (in theory) the bulk of the students Cs, as many Bs as Ds and as many As as Fs. My experience with this approach in college was that usually results in test and assignment grades are very low so that no one receives a raw score in the 80s or 90s. This allows the professor to “curve” the scores into some sembalance of the bell shaped curve.

    You can justify or crucify either approach. Some argue that grading against a standard is more fair, others argue that grading relative to each other can result in no students meeting the standard of “A” work.

  6. I went to a SLAC so I had quite a bit of interaction with professors, no TAs. I remember e-mailing with one after I graduated because I was thinking about going to grad school. I loved that, not that I always took advantage, but it was nice to know that they were there if needed.

    Ada/Dagny: I’m on Day 8 of the Whole 30. Yesterday I just wanted to nap, but today I woke up after 7 straight hours of sleep before my alarm clock and felt great. I have a lot more energy today and feel really good. My skin looks really good and my clothes feel better. I deliberately didn’t plan anything social this past weekend so we weren’t tempted to fold so early on. DH is bitter about no beer/wine and he is sick of eggs and salads. We have three get togethers planned for this weekend so it will be tough, but I feel pretty committed since at that point I’ll be almost half way through.

  7. Hum….When college is more about career than ideas, when paycheck matters more than wisdom, the role of professors changes….Years ago at Emory University, where I work, a campus-life dean addressed new students with a terrible message: Don’t go too far into coursework — there’s so much more to do here!

    I hope his students are bright enough to realize that he’s just a silly old fool.

    His book, “The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future” Seriously? I can’t wait for his next book, “The Sanctity of my Lawn: How Young American’s Lack of Respect for Property Rights Will Spell the Ruin of This Great Nation”

  8. In my major, my experience was like Austin Mom’s. But I also took a lot of classes in languages where the largest class was something like 30 and a few were between 5 and 10. I got to know the professors in those.

  9. His rebuttal to the pushback in the Salon link above includes the suggestion “let’s close down graduate programs that don’t place 80 percent of their Ph.D.s.” He is referring to Humanities programs with that comment, but that seems to support comments that have been made here in the past. Even after reading his rebuttal, I still don’t get his need to be a moral authority to college students. Outside of military-type organizations, I am not a big supporter of positional authority, and that extends to college. Someone can have spent many years studying something, but if it’s something subjective like the humanities, I reserve the right to disagree with their position. (My daughter had a Geology prof who told the class he did not believe in evolution, so I guess it’s not limited to humanities)

  10. OK, I guess I am stuck kind of HAVING to comment on this. I saw the original oped, and the myriad responses, back when it first came out. A few things…
    I went to college at a large private R1, the kind of school that is very research intensive. Yet, I got to know quite a few of my professors and I felt like they knew me too. It is harder with the freshman survey courses that enroll 300 kids, of course, but I quickly learned to avoid those. One of my fond memories – my mathematical logic professor, who was from Russia, always served tea and treated students like guests when we came to his office hours. Later I found out that he was considered one of the seminal greats in that field. And one of my CS professors, who I had for CS2 and later for artificial intelligence, who was evidently a friend of Marvin Minsky (and looked a bit like him too), who would state absently into space every so often, saying “It’s a thing”. We all called him Uncle WIllie. He often told me that I used the most interesting test data when we did the big word processor project in CS2.

    When I taught at Directional State U, we were very involved with the students. The student lab was across from our offices so students were always in and out of our offices. We had picnics together, we did research projects with them, we went to the cafeteria together. I still have contact with quite a few of those students. I still think that directional state U’s are your best value if you want a close, interactive faculty.

    However, at my current university, I do not see much interaction at all. It seems like the students don’t want to interact. I think email and text messaging are big reasons. It is so much easier to fling a “Hey prof why is my grade bad?” at a professor via email than to come to our offices. Sadly, I typically see only 1 or 2 students in office hours ALL SEMESTER!!!!! But I answer hundreds of emails.

    It is really a problem if you never get to know any professors. Why? Because you are going to need recommendation letters!!!! You will need them for grad school of course, but I also serve as a reference for students going right into industr – and I often get contacted by potential employers. Also, sometimes employers contact us with an internship opportunity or even a job, and ask us to contact “our best students”. I will not write recommendations letters or be a reference for a student I barely know – I tell them upfront that I can verify they took the class and the grade, but I won’t be able to say the kinds of things they need in a letter.

  11. “Also, sometimes employers contact us with an internship opportunity or even a job, and ask us to contact “our best students”.”

    This is how I got my internship which lead to a good job immediately out of college. My adviser recommended me after I had been in a number of his special subject classes with a handful of other students.

  12. Since I went to college back in the dark ages and didn’t have email, I had no choice but to show up at office hours if I needed help. But it sure would have been nice to have for scheduling appointments or asking simple questions. I felt that once I got past the big freshman survey courses, most of my classes were small enough that I got to know the professors. And even the big classes had lab sections where you had the opportunity to work directly with a TA. My university has changed a lot over the last 20 years, and I’m sure the increased emphasis on research has probably hurt the undergrads. However, I think it is also bringing in higher caliber students who might be more likely to have the drive it takes to be persistent. At least, that’s what I’ve seen in the programs I have been involved with. What I worry about, though, is that the school loses, or misses opportunities to recruit, some very good teachers with the focus on research ranking. I believe there should be room in academia for both – not all great researchers are great teachers and vice versa.

  13. OK, I am on such a different wavelength from this guy — I read the title, and instantly thought, “to teach!” And yet he discards that notion by the second paragraph, choosing instead to whine about how students don’t really get to know (subtext: idolize) their professors any more.

    Dude. I went to a SLAC in the ’80s. I had every opportunity to hang out with my profs, and I still didn’t (much). But, WOW did I learn in their classes. They challenged me to think differently or more deeply; they called me on my bullshit and preconceived notions; they tore down my periodically delusional view of my own talents and taught me how to really do it right; they inspired me to learn subjects I hadn’t even known I was interested in. They helped me figure out who I was — not because we were all holding hands and singing kumbayah after class, but because of how well they taught what we were studying *in* class.

    It seems to me that, if you’re a prof, you have a minimum of 3 hrs a week with each and every student, not counting office hours or study sessions or whatever. This guy needs to focus his efforts on the best possible use of that time, and worry less about whether they’re lining up at his door the rest of the time. Although IME, knocking it out of the park on the first part tends to grow the latter as well.

  14. I was thinking the same thing as LfB; if a student attends classes, participates in the discussions, reviews the required reading in advance and earns a good test grade where is the need for much interaction with their professors outside of all that ? I think it depends a lot on the student and the major. There may be much more interaction with professors in some majors vs. others. (As a business major – I was interested in using my college degree to earn a paycheck :-).

  15. I wish I had gotten to know my professors because I think it would have liked to have some bonds with a few of them. I had all profs, no TAs. I was shy, and sort of in the mode that Louise describes in her post. I did have one prof that really influenced me, and I did get to know her outside of class.

  16. Atlanta – congratulations! You are inspiring me to clean up my eating. I really benefited (and still benefit) from the Whole 30 I did last September, and I should probably do it again to reset some behaviors (i.e. ice cream for breakfast). Navigating social stuff (and restaurants) is really hard, and one of the reasons I did not continue eating such a restrictive diet (though I felt great while I was doing it).

  17. On topic – during one of my interviews for medical school, the Dean of Admissions said to me, “You know, some students get A’s in courses and then we get letters of recommendations from their professors that state they were perfectly adequate and average students and they have nothing to report. From your school, student’s get B-‘s and we get letter describing how the student was a joy to teach, really inquisitive and remarkable. We really like to get students from your school.”

    I had a B- in Intro Physics but asked the prof to write a reference. As a non-science major applying to medical school (side note – almost no SLACs have “pre-med” majors), I had a limited pool to ask for letters of recommendation in the sciences. However, the prof knew me from not only his course, but his lab (which was led by a full prof, no TAs there), my secretarial work around the department (work-study), my research I had done over the summer (with another prof, but he had seen the poster, etc), and a lunch time seminar/journal club that I often attended. In that environment, I was able to get a very strong letter regarding my science abilities.

  18. ACK! Students not Student’s. I learned to write real well at my SLAC, too.

  19. Louise said “I was thinking the same thing as LfB; if a student attends classes, participates in the discussions, reviews the required reading in advance and earns a good test grade where is the need for much interaction with their professors outside of all that ?”
    Well, again, you are going to have a tough time getting stellar recommendation letters, and you aren’t as likely to be recommended for internships or undergrad research programs. For example, I had grant money a couple of summers ago to fund some undergrads for a project, and while I sent out email to all the majors invitiing them to apply, I pretty much knew who I wanted from the get-go – and they were students who had made the effort to get to know me, who asked questions in class and talked with me about their career directions. They were great students, but I also knew them well enough to know they would succeed. I just finished sending off a proposal for money for another similar project – and in this case, the students had to be pre-identified. I chose two who had A’s in my class, but who I also knew well enough to see their potential.

    When we talk with employers, they often mention that they look for students who have participated in these kinds of extra projects (not just research things, but also things like programming contests) because they like to see extra initiative. I think employers would rather have employees who had already learned to schmooze with the professor rather than just silently go to class and get an A, because after all, schmoozing with the superiors is a good business skill.

  20. I remember getting letters of recommendation from a professor who was also tangentially involved with choir, and from a visiting professor who was like the comic Hilary Mantel. In his history everyone was bobbing around drinking and throwing parties, before they all got their heads chopped off! :) So fabulous. Our class (of around 15) nominated him for a teaching award and I think the ‘regular’ non-visiting faculty were a little put out.

    In my undergrad major most of us were looking for internships someplace that would pay – those tended not to be the academic ones. :)

  21. The internship programs that employers contact us about always pay. In my field, it is unusual to see an unpaid intership

  22. MooshiMooshi, would you consider writing up a post with your thoughts on directional state Us and how they differ from state flagship? I’d be interested to read it if you do.

  23. OT – have a question for the lawyers – I am involved in a civil lawsuit as a witness. I have a professional relationship with the defendant. I also perform the same job as the defendant, so I think defendant’s lawyer is leaning on me for an expert opinion. I have had to meet with the defendant’s lawyer more than once to go through my testimony (and schedule time away from work and/or childcare for those meetings). The case is going through arbitration and I was told that if I did not commit to attending, the plaintiff would subpoena me. I have also dedicated more time than I like responding to counsel’s emails regarding my position on certain parts of the case. Not surprisingly, I think the lawsuit is frivolous.

    Can I bill anyone for my time or ask even ask to be compensated for parking?

  24. I just wanted to thank everyone for the condolences two weeks ago when I posted about my kids’ classmates dying in the accident. We have gotten through the funerals and prom, and are getting back into the business of living. It is still sad to think about the girls who died, and little details are jarring, but it was incredibly comforting to come here for support and to receive. Thank you.

  25. 3:09 — I haven’t litigated in years, but based on my past experience, generally speaking, if you’re not actually required to be there by a subpoena (in which case there are low set rates that apply for your expenses) you don’t owe anything for free. So you could certainly ask for compensation for parking or travel expenses, and you can ask for compensation for your time (especially to the extent that you’re acting as an expert witness rather than a factual witness) but you might not get it. For both sides, it would ultimately come down to the benefit of having a non-hostile witness, which weighs in favor of paying something, versus the ultimate ability to subpoena you to testify regarding your factual knowledge of the situation, which wouldn’t cost them much. So negotiate.

    As an illustration of the difference between your ability to get paid for your time as a factual witness versus an expert witness: a doctor’s office in FL was being sticky about handing over medical records relevant to litigation in HI. We warned his staff that if the records weren’t forthcoming we’d need to subpoena him as a witness. Staff reply was, “That will be fine, and doctor’s standard expert witness rate is $hundreds/hour plus travel, hotel, expenses, etc.” Our reply was, “We’re not asking him to be an expert witness, and standard charges for a subpoena’ed witness are [piss-all].” Suddenly the records were available.

  26. From the link:

    “IN the coming weeks, two million Americans will earn a bachelor’s degree…”

    Really? A singular bachelor’s degree?

    “…and either join the work force or head to graduate school.”

    Hmm… Will none of them move back in with parents and engage in a futile job search?

    I haven’t for a while, but I used to enjoy reading the NY Times’ “After Deadline” page for their grammar critiques. I’m wondering if the singular bachelor’s degree will show up there.

  27. Oh, and remember that a subpoena would potentially require your testimony under oath at the hearing and/or a deposition, not your attendance at a meeting with the lawyer for one side or another.

  28. 3:17, that was such a sad situation. How are the girls’ parents doing?

  29. One of the girls’ parents died with them, the other is a wreck.

  30. It has been hard, and if no one want to hear, just ignore me. There were three caskets at the funeral, and the church didn’t have enough shrouds for the coffins. Two of the shrouds were ill fitting and makeshift. There weren’t enough hearses, so one needed to come from another town. The pallbearers were not old enough to drive. The entire high school was at the funeral, kids dressed up, unclear how to act, but hurting. It has been hard to be an adult. One of my daughters wants to talk, the other not so much. And prom….one of the kids who died was one of the kids putting together the prom. When do you erase a contact, when the person it belonged to is dead?

  31. Please continue to share here if it helps. I think it’s not that no one wants to hear, so much as that we don’t know what to say beyond expressing sympathy.

  32. Ada,
    You can negotiate with the lawyer for the defendant to compensate you for your time. I am not sure of the rates. You cannot be subpoenaed just to talk with the defendant’s lawyer. You can be compelled to attend and then testify at a hearing or arbitration by subpoena. You could also give that testimony by videotape (probably).

  33. “I was thinking the same thing as LfB; if a student attends classes, participates in the discussions, reviews the required reading in advance and earns a good test grade where is the need for much interaction with their professors outside of all that ?”

    Mooshi, if the student participates in class discussions, wouldn’t that give you significant basis for LOR or internship recommendations?

  34. HM and A Parent – thank you for the advice. It was mostly what I guessed. Due to the professional relationship involved, I can’t be too difficult with the defense.

  35. Anon – I agree w/ HM. I’m clueless about what to say here, but I am happy to listen (read) to as much as you want to say about it. The funeral sounds very painful and sad. And FWIW, a friend of mine died a few years ago and I haven’t been able to delete her contact info still.

  36. Heck. I still have my wife’s contact info on my cell phone and all her personal data on my computer. Anyone want some credit card or bank account numbers?

  37. When do you erase a contact, when the person it belonged to is dead?

    I wouldn’t ever erase them.

  38. WCE, apparently we are not the only people expecting great things from your kids.

  39. I think keeping the contact information past its useful life is clutter. Useful, however, is in the eye of the beholder. I purge businesses/professionals I no longer buy goods or services from. For example, I deleted the day care we used once our kids aged out of all their programs. Personal contacts, I am less likely to delete. RE: PTM – I wouldn’t delete information about my deceased spouse. One part is emotional, the other part is in this world creeps will try to take her identity. Retaining that information may allow you to protect her name and possibly you and Junior if someone did steal it.

  40. Anon – that sounds heartbreakingly sad. I keep my deceased friends’ contact info (and it has been years for both). Not sure why. It doesn’t seem right to erase it.

  41. Anon – My deepest sympathies. The situation is heartbreaking. Please continue to talk if need be. And I wouldn’t delete the contact until the holder is OK. I’ve known people to keep their deceased loved one’s facebook pages live for a long while. It’s really when the person is willing to let go. I had my grandmother’s contact information in my phone for years.

    On Topic – I had the small school experience others described. My stint as a TA at Big State U made me realize how students are not used to seeking help, or wanting to talk to their profs. I had very few people come to me. In one small class (15 students), I had to bribe them with pizza and soda to come to review sessions. Those that came did very well on the exams (I always threw them a bone – since I made the exams, I gave them insider knowledge on 1 large or 2 small questions). Like TCMama said – I wouldn’t be against paying $60k a year to give my kid the same attention I received in college. It worked for me. And by that time, we’ll know if it would work for him.

  42. At this point in the life of this thread, I feel comfortable offering a trivial unrelated comment. It was time to upgrade the phones, and I decided to stick with my preferred Android rather than shift over to Iphone (I am a die hard Mac person for home computer – years of being onsite tech management for DH’s PCs has done nothing to change that view.) But I was satisfied with my Samsung Galaxy S3 and really didn’t want to deal with learning something new. I got the Galaxy S6 in gold – the Edge was cool looking, but I didn’t think I would use the edge feature for an additional $100 and I put a phone in a clear rubber case anyway for protection and grip. I ordered the phones online and did the transfer myself at home. I had no idea you could just put them back to back and transfer all the contacts and a list of apps. I am very satisfied. It is a clear upgrade from the S3 (and according to the literature, from the S4 and S5 too). I can set it not to lock while in trusted locations (the house). I am getting used to the fingerprint feature – not so easy for me to get on the first try. And I was able to find a flip phone for DH – he doesn’t have to learn anything new.

  43. I’m not really enthusiastic about spending $250k for my child to get the touchy-feely college experience unless I can see substantial benefits, either in career or learning that I can quantify in some way. I think the $100k+ I save can be put to better use to benefit my child.

  44. Re phones, I accidentally touched my phone with a friend’s the other day and they somehow started talking to each other. I’m sure I’m not using half of my phone features.

  45. Regarding the cost of college, we are having to deal with that now. There are a few schools (2-3) that DH has on his list that might be worth paying that much money for. Maybe. The rest of the colleges on his list are state colleges, or have substantial merit aid for students with good grades/test scores.

    At the end of the day, it’s up to DS. We told him we’d pay 100% of his college expenses. If he chooses a cheaper college or gets merit aid, he gets to keep the savings for grad school or down payment on house, etc. If he chooses an expensive school, there will be no money left over for him.

    Risley: How did you prioritize colleges during your DS’ search?

  46. Houston, is SMU on your collective radar? We discussed them a bit recently, and I have a couple anecdata suggesting they are generous with merit aid, apparently to raise their academic profile. I recently talked to a friend whose family has a history of going to prestigious schools (one nephew currently in Harvard Med), and one of his nephews, who was class or student body president, won all kinds of awards, etc., and probably had Ivy options, is currently at SMU, in large part because of generous merit aid.

  47. Wow, the world is really small. DS knows one of the kids quoted in the article linked in Rhett’s post.

  48. Finn: Thanks to your advice and Rio’s, SMU is now on our radar. We are going on a college tour this summer, so thank you! Bonus: My parents and sister live in Dallas and they would *love* to have DS nearby.

  49. Houston, please share as much of your college tour as you feel comfortable.

  50. Houston- if your son wants to stay in Texas, SMU is a great place for networking. I also have liked every person I have ever worked with from A&M. In Texas, I think Northeast schools and Ivy League schools are seen as a negative. Sad but true. I play up my state U undergrad.

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