What a former college instructor really thinks…

Posts tagged “teaching

Why I Was Always Jealous of Dentists

Students often feel that sitting in class is like being in the dentist’s chair.  I, on the other hand, wished I could reap the same benefits as dentists.

Teaching and dentistry are not much different if you look at the pain inflicted on paying “customers.”  The biggest similarity may be homework.  When you go to the dentist, you will often be given things you need to do at home: brush longer, floss, use Listerine, and so on.  And much like students, patients often don’t listen to the person giving them instructions.  And so the patients come in to their next dentist’s appointment with yellow teeth and cavities.  This doesn’t create many problems for the dentist.  It drums up business and fattens his paycheck.  A patient knows better than to blame the dentist for getting cavities.

Teachers have it tougher.  When a student fails to do his homework and enters class with a yellow and rotting brain, the teacher is sometimes expected to do extra tutoring for no additional pay.  Unlike the dentist’s patient, the teacher is blamed if the student hasn’t reached his goals.  But most disappointingly, teachers don’t get the chance to drill inside their students’ mouths.  When a teacher or a dentist comes across someone who is especially obnoxious or difficult to work with, finding something cathartic is a great way to stay sane.  Dentists get to inflict pain intentionally and teachers don’t.  Sometimes life isn’t fair.

So why did you think your dentist was always running out of novocaine?

Cannibals in the Classroom

I always enjoyed slicing open a student’s torso, exposing the tense and writhing stomach inside.  If you crush a student’s heart by telling him that his work isn’t wonderful, it’s much easier to puree the heart and stuff it into his bleeding stomach.  (An intact heart does not puree as easily.)  You then have a nice plate of haggis, which still needs to be be prepared in a pressure cooker.  If you’re doing your job correctly, your classroom may just do the trick.  I find that this dish tastes especially good with mustard.

Students love to complain that some of their teachers are cruel, and the ones who earn this label can often count on not keeping their jobs for very long.  There’s a point where a teacher’s behavior crosses a line, but”cruelty” to students is not the most significant problem we face.  So I’d like to discuss a different kind of cruelty and a different kind of cannibalism.

Contrary to popular belief, most college educators do not enjoy a guaranteed “job for life.”  There are certain conditions that must be met.  Most importantly, you have to maintain a high number of students in your courses.  Students pay tuition and the college loses money if the student fails out of school.  Similarly, your department can lose funding from the school it it has low enrollment numbers.   At some schools, tenured professors (the ones who are guaranteed to have jobs for life) have been losing their jobs because of this.  What happens to teaching when you are forced to choose between keeping your job and telling students what they need to hear?  Simple: The student is the customer and the customer is always right unless he asks for vodka.  (If the student asks for pizza, it is okay to bribe him.)

It sounds like a great deal for the student, unless the student is studying something like nursing.  Just imagine the student’s future:

Doctor: “Nurse Schmidt, could you please take the patient’s blood pressure, shave his pubic hair, and give him this shot of local anesthetic?”

Nurse: “Sure, doctor.”  (And two seconds later, she administers the anesthetic to the area she’s shaving because she does not remember that the anesthetic is supposed to protect against pain from the operation, not from the shaving.  Of course, since the patient’s blood pressure was taken incorrectly, surgery never took place because he was rushed to the emergency room for circulatory problems.)

I exaggerate somewhat, but it should go without saying that reduced standards can have a dramatic effect on the student and the people that student will eventually work for.  Students receive diplomas but often lack the knowledge one would expect from someone with the diploma, a situation that can have dire career consequences.  Colleges also judge teachers on how well they contribute to this end result.  Student evaluations are practically the only way colleges measure teaching “effectiveness.”  If you give good grades, research has shown that you get better student evaluations.  It also helps if you don’t assign homework.  Teachers who are not appreciated until years later do not survive in this environment; they have to be loved today to keep their jobs.  But if students love them today and all night long, they can lose their jobs.

It is cannibalism to devour students’ futures to preserve your own career.  While students occasionally thought I was cruel, I regret that I was never fired from a teaching job.

For further information, check out the recent book Academically Adrift.

The Arachnid Theory of Mind

Among those without an extensive academic background in psychology or philosophy, a popular question concerns what kind of mind animals possess.   Usually, the question is posed in reference to the beloved family pet: is Fido happy?  At a slightly deeper level, one reaches what is known as “Theory of Mind,” which is an individual’s understanding that others around them have minds of their own and are capable of having thoughts and desires that differ from from one’s own.  It is often assumed that this capacity is necessary for a person to be fully conscious; although that characterization falls a little short (such as among autistic people), I would like to do a little thought experiment to see if we can discover anything new.  As a baseline, I will use the arachnid mind.  As we all know, spider brains are comparatively small and it seems difficult to imagine that such a small organ could produce something as complex as the awareness of others’ minds.  But I’d like to know about spiders and not just the big cute animals, so maybe I can come up with something similar to spiders.

So let’s talk about college students.  (Caveat emptor: I am a former college instructor.)   One of the most notable aspects of the college student mind is that it is regularly focused on sex, not unlike many animal species.  And speaking from personal observation, it amazes me how many students imagine that the teacher is hot for them.  Seriously.  (Yes, yes, I know.  There are some pervs out there in front of a classroom.  But not that many…)  These kids possess no theory of mind, only a consciousness of themselves.  They’re horny, so the teacher must also be horny.  And the object of the teacher’s affection must obviously be “me” and not any of the others in the classroom.  The teacher, who sees these kids only a couple hours per week, is somehow supposed to be infatuated with the student.  It’s almost kind of funny.

From the teacher’s perspective, things look a little different.  In my experience, I often wished I could teach as though I were leading an old-fashioned Latin Mass.  It would have been great to teach without having to look at the students.  Facing towards the class, the woman on my left would be sitting with her legs in a most immodest position and the woman in front of me (in the loose fitting shirt) has forgotten that she is entering a professional venue where someone will be standing right over her looking down to maintain eye contact with the class.   But at least she’s wearing a bra.  It sure beats looking to my right (which isn’t saying much) because the guy in the blue shirt is going commando and he’s hanging out of his shorts.   I think the Catholics had it right all along by having their priests face the altar instead of the congregation.

But I digress.  We’ve established that college students, at least in this one respect, lack any recognition that the people around them have (literally) a different perspective.  And as anyone who has ever observed a college classroom knows, college students very often lack consciousness.   And much like the spider with a tiny brain, they often lack the intellectual heft you would expect of a creature that can spin such an elaborate and beautiful web.

From all of this, we can conclude that animals may not have the same mental capacities we often ascribe to them.   If you are a professional psychologist or a philosopher, you probably knew that already.