Wednesday, June 5, 2013

The Myth of the Bad Professor

Back in my youth (not that long ago...really!), teaching was generally viewed as a respectable profession, filled with dedicated and patient professionals who regularly went above and beyond the call of duty to look after the welfare of their students.  Sure, there was the pot smoking 9th grade American history teacher who had us spend more time doing guided meditations (nap time!) than learning about the Civil War.  But what I remember were the teachers who assigned several essays/week (the grading!) and taught me how to write before I went to college; the teachers who coached us in after school activities and served as advisers to clubs; the teachers whose doors were always open and who offered great advice for college applications. I grew up in California, at a time when California invested in public education at all levels.  For the most part, it worked pretty well and I arrived at college very prepared to succeed.

These days, though, barely a day goes by without some new indictment of the teaching profession.  Teachers are incompetent, unmotivated, phoning it in, living off the fat of hard-working Americans thanks to the power of labor unions.  At least for awhile, it was the schools who were underfunded and failing; but now the blame has been shifted to the teachers.  It isn't state legislatures who are failing students (by slashing education budgets); it is badly performing, unaccountable teachers who are failing.  If students are being left behind, we are told, it's not because of larger socioeconomic factors or underfunded schools; it's because teachers aren't doing their job.

If K-12 teachers are bad, college professors are even worse.  They only care about research.  They devote as little time as possible to undergraduate education.  Their "grading standards" are irrational. They only care about money--and especially about making more money than their colleagues.  They use grad students as pawns to carry out their personal, interdepartmental vendettas.  Managing faculty is like herding cats (ok, this one might actually be true).  These caricatures have given rise to a large set of personalizable "professor" memes on  It's not funny to praise a professor for doing a great job of inspiring and facilitating learning in trying times.  No, it's far more funny to seize on outdated caricatures of professors assigning their own textbooks to make a profit off of their students; of professors assigning too much work (or, alternatively, constantly canceling class).  I'm sure that every university still has a few professors who live up to these caricatures.  What is missed in all of this, however, is the extent to which classroom teaching, even in large lecture classes, has improved substantially on campuses across the country in the past decade.

The myth of the aged, rumpled (usually male) professor reading his yellowed, dog-eared notes is just that....a myth.  Sure, this character used to be common--I can think of a number of such characters who taught my undergraduate classes (including one professor who still used purpled exams produced on a the early 90s).  But I suspect that, even on R1 campuses that put a bounty on research productivity, most instructors are, in fact, very good teachers.  Many are outstanding.  It is certainly true that many of us would benefit from additional professional development, in part because quality teaching can benefit from expertise with educational technology tools well beyond an LMS.  Many of us would benefit from a system that placed more value on high-quality undergraduate (and graduate) teaching.  Still, given the current state of affairs, the remarkable thing isn't how many bad professors there are out there, but how many good ones.

As Melonie Fullick so aptly articulates, "What I find deeply uncharitable (and inaccurate) is to generalize this experience even to the majority of university teaching faculty. I’ve given academic lectures in various classes, and I can assure you there’s no reason to assume the speaker is simply “transmitting” information. One of the main underlying issues here is the assumption of passivity in the students, and of a transmission model of communication that has long been critiqued by communication theorists. Another is the generalization about faculty approach, as if those doing the speaking aren’t working to make their presentation engaging and responsive—and as if there’s nothing but lecturing going on in a course."

This is an important point, especially when it comes to large enrollment courses.  The bad lecturer is the straw man invoked by the MOOC Incs and others who want to "scale up" classrooms in the thousands.  The argument goes roughly as follows: "If most classroom-based, large enrollment classes are terrible--because, according to our caricature of the bad professor, they must be--then we can at least select out the "best" lecturers (whatever that means), put them on video, and stream them over the internet."  So we take something that we have deemed bad, claim that it is bad because of the professor's incompetence rather than the context (one person trying to teach hundreds of students), and then purport to solve the problem by finding competent professors.  This logic completely elides the fact that, as research has demonstrated, students don't learn more or better from good lecturers (in fact, they sometimes learn less well because they have a false sense of confidence/mastery).  It ignores the fact that teachers don't create learning, we facilitate it.  The failings of the lecture class are, for the most part, a consequence of the large numbers.  Increasing those numbers exponentially is very unlikely to fix the problems and far more likely to exacerbate them.

Perhaps even more worse, though, is the damage that this "myth of the bad professor" does to faculty morale.  It encourages the general public, including students, to view professors as disinvested  narcissists who are a drain on taxpayer money.  Far from being a noble vocation, teaching at a public university leaves one open to the lampoons of politicians eager to justify their disinvestment in higher education.  In reality, professors (as well as K-12 teachers) are doing more with less, year after year.  They are working harder than ever, largely because they genuinely care about their students and believe that education is a social good.  In the meantime, legislators and even institutional administrators hang on to the myth of the bad teacher in order to justify a shift to very large-scale, lecture-based education using the so-called best professors.

If we can leave behind this myth of the bad teacher; if we can recognize and acknowledge all of the creative, engaged teaching that is happening at campuses large and small around the country, we might be able to begin the challenging work of brainstorming different solutions to the "large enrollment, lecture-based courses don't work very well to create learning" problem.  Specifically, in large enrollment classes, we might be able to experiment with ways to exploit ed tech to minimize the structural problems of the environment; through careful assessment and redesign, we might be able to find alternative models that work very well to teach larger numbers of students effectively.  To do this, though, will require the direction of money and technical support to campus-based teaching.  It will require recognizing that the teaching faculty are a university's greatest asset.  Furthermore, they are an asset that deserves to be respected and supported, not universally caricatured as incompetent, disinterested in undergraduate teaching, and easily replaced with videotaped (or live-streamed) lectures of select Super Professors from around the country (and world).

If this post resonated with you, please also read Melonie Fullick's excellent post on the same topic (written back in October 2012).  In her wise words: " Do we even have a way of “measuring” student learning to show what works? The context of all this is not a neutral one, it’s not just “let’s improve learning by finding out what will help the most”. The loss of resources including government funding has created serious material pressures. The urgency of the rhetoric about “change” should also remind us that there will be winners and losers in the education game, and futurologists have stakes in predicting something that could become a self-fulfilling prophecy—because prediction inspires present action."  Exactly.  And, as Fullick points out, much of this is driven by the basic assumption that on the ground university teaching is of poor quality, but with no data to support such a claim.
More on the connection between the myth of the bad professor and the replacement of professors by large-scale modes of course delivery in this post by The Homeless Adjunct.


  1. I'm also tired of the "All professors are Marxists" comments. I'm conservative, politically and must listen to those in my profession constantly attacked by people I would normally respect and admire.

    STOP! Just STOP!

    Maybe you had some politically-charged member of the great unwashed for your political science class in 1985. That's not me!

    Put away that dull axe that needs grinding and pay attention to the fact that the "guest commentators" on the news shows and radio programs you DO agree with are ALSO professors!!

    We are Diverse, Competent, Scholars who are mostly underpaid (I have a Ph.D., 25 years of experience, and make less than $50K--and don't say "You only work 10 months a year! I work ALL SUMMER, I just don't get paid for it!!).

    We are professors because we love our students and we love our profession. We got here because we did all the right things: we did good in school, we stayed out of trouble, we got a job, and we work hard every day.

  2. Each and every sentence of this post is a reality. Professors are just money making machines now, they dont care about the knowledge of their students. And this is why people prefer online education over its counterpart because now they can get Fast Bachelors Degree in the field of their choice with a minimum time wastage.