A Professor’s Job

professor.gifOne of my favorite things to teach in my literature surveys is Confucius’ Analects. The text never ceases to amaze me because of just how relevant it still is.  Despite being somewhat archaic in style and diction by today’s standards, Confucius really hit on some ideas that most of us would do well to meditate on.

In particular, I’m taken by one simple adage in which he describes a particularly engaged student: “When he is told one thing, he understands ten.”

When I read that, I just stopped.  I read it again.  And again.

“When he is told one thing, he understands ten.”

Wow.  Just wow.

Rarely has just a single sentence so accurately encompassed my outlook on my profession.  Despite my being against old school elitism, I take a fairly traditionalist look at the classroom.

I want to be as close to my students as possible, but not at the expense of their education.  I want to be there for my students and help them along in any way I can, but I’m not going to hold their hands.

A student at the college level, especially in online universities, must take an active role in his or her own education, and any professor who coddles by oversimplifying concepts and spelling every last detail out is doing everyone in the classroom a disservice by eliminating the need for discovering ideas on their own.  If students only get the one thing they are told, they are essentially wasting time. They are not actively engaged in their own education.

But Isn’t Explaining Your Job?

Yes, it is.  But only from a particular perspective.  My job is to teach.  To make sure that those who take my class learn.  My job is not, however, to treat these college students like children or to facilitate their laziness.

One of the major flaws in the public education system–at least in my opinion–is the complete lack of autonomy provided to students.  It’s one thing to teach to the test, and its something completely else to make sure that each student’s experience parallels every one of his or her peers’.

I teach my classes with a single mindset: that the students are going to work outside of class.  That the students who struggle will come to me–or a tutor–and clarify anything they might not have grasped from lecture or discussion.

It is not my job to make sure that each and every student walks out of the classroom every day with no need to open their textbook or think about anything they just heard.  In fact, I want just the opposite.

My job is to make sure that students are exposed to ideas.  My job is to make sure that students are given opportunities to learn and see the broader strokes that make up life and academics.  My job is not to take my three weekly contact hours and go over concepts that any students who can open up a grammar handbook can look up for themselves.

That’s not teaching.

Anything more detailed than what is covered in class is in the student’s purview to look up.  Professors are not there to eliminate the need for student engagement; we’re there to clarify what students bring with them from their preparation.

I’m not saying that I don’t go into excruciating detail on some projects, but I pick and choose.  I see a professor’s job as being the one who gives the ideas, who brings the student to the new horizons, but that the student must then become an active participant and put forth the effort to glean all the meaning from the more general introductions and ideas I present.

There’s a difference in going over the basics of, for example, MLA format during one class period and spending a week doing in-class exercises and assigning homework for practice.  In my comp II classes, I give a single day’s lecture on MLA format and citations because that’s the manuscript format in which I require my students to write.  I do not, however, go into detail about each potential type of source or the too-numerous ways students might have to alter them.

The reason why is twofold.  The first reason being that the students generally don’t care.  MLA is a dry subject, and it’s hard to keep their attention.  The high points are about all they can stand.  Secondly is that not every student in that class needs to know how to cite every single kind of source out there.  So I hit the high points; i cover what information goes into a parenthetical within, what constitutes an in-text citation, and what the Works Cited page should look like and where to find the information within the primary source.

Outside of that, though, I’d like to think that my students can open the handbook and find the information themselves.  Teaching a man to fish and all that.

Not Everyone Feels that Way

However, my mindset is not the only mindset.  And I’m not entirely certain it’s the majority’s mindset.  In many ways, undergraduate courses are becoming a second high school.  With the dearth of developmental classes being offered at colleges and universities these days, it can no longer be assumed that anyone going into post-secondary work is academically prepared.

Because of this lack of preparation, there is a school of thought that says we must prepare them.  And I agree.  To an extent.  We must prepare them by offering developmental courses through which students who need to catch up can.  We do those students no good by lowering the standards of the collegiate courses they enter later on.  Basically, once they’re out of developmental classes, the gloves come off.

However, many of the students are used to the hand-holding that comes with high school, and they aren’t prepared for the workload nor the pace at which college happens.  The students aren’t prepared for teachers to not hound them about turning in assignments, or professors simply listing an assignment on the syllabus and assuming students have read it and know about it.

There are many people who think that college teachers need to be more hands-on, more invested in individual students in the classroom.  And while that doesn’t sound like a bad thing on paper, I would like to argue that if I were to chase down every student in all of my classes who is at risk of turning in papers late (or not at all), I’d never have time to get anything else done.

If I had to portion out my time in class to instruction so that I was certain every student understood every concept and never had to open their books outside of class, then I’d still be on the first week’s reading and not have the first assignment graded.

And still those who think that college needs to be more like high school remain; they think that the students need more individual attention.  And again, I agree in theory.  I do think students need individual attention, and any student who comes to me after class or drops by my office gets it.  I spend the vast majority of my office hours talking with students and going over this or over that.

But that’s with the students who care enough to seek out the help they need.  My job is to give that help, and I gladly give it.  However, I do require that it be a two-way exchange.  They have to want that help, want to improve and learn.

The classroom is for instruction, for introducing them to new ideas, for discussion about whatever is pertinent to that day’s readings.  The classroom is not for playing catch-up with students who thought that six pack was far more important than Don Quixote, and the classroom is certainly not the only means though which a student learns.

Students must take an active role in their own education.  When I started college, I was told that I would be studying 3 hours outside of class for every 1 I spent in a desk.  I laughed at them, but looking now, I see how much I lost by not doing just that.  Or by doing half that.  A quarter that.  I could have gained so much more just by trying, caring, planning.

I’ll bend over backwards for a student who comes to me seeking help.  I’ll stay after school, work longer hours, and do whatever it takes to make sure that any student who wants to learn, learns.  I’ll make sure that anyone who asks for clarification understands.  But I’ll only do it if they care enough to ask.

As a professor, I give them the foundation.  I give them the base on which they can build their education.  What kind of education they build, however, is up to them.  I cannot shape it, and I cannot direct it.  I can say one thing, and an average student will understand it.  An above average student will understand it and remember it.  An exceptional student will understand it, and then come to my office and start a conversation by saying, “I get what you were saying in class, but what do you think about…”

By B.J. Keeton

B.J. KEETON is a writer, teacher, and runner. When he isn't trying to think of a way to trick Fox into putting Firefly back on the air, he is either writing science fiction, watching an obscene amount of genre television, or looking for new ways to integrate fitness into his geektastic lifestyle. He is also the author of BIRTHRIGHT and co-author of NIMBUS. Both books are available for Amazon Kindle.


  1. Good post, but as an elementary teacher in the NYS education system, it’s worth noting the biggest reasons *why* student experiences in the public sector are so similar to one another: state standards, No Child Left Behind, and bloated, protectivist school administrations that worry about giving teachers proper autonomy. I can’t speak for other states but New York has HUNDREDS of objectives that have to be met throughout the year. It’s enough to plan out every day of your instruction based directly upon them — and most teachers do, with rare exception — without even considering the “extras,” such as community involvement, social skills, etc. Couple that with NCLB threatening funding cuts for under-performing schools on state exams, administrators that are dreadfully afraid of that and, in several cases, are willing to lay out specific weekly outlines for lesson planning, and you don’t get a whole lot of freedom to tailor each lesson to each student. Now, I work with elementary students, and I expect high school teachers get a bit more flexibility within their subject areas. At my level, though, it comes down to building exploratory learning into each lesson and giving students opportunity to take part in extra activities and extracurriculars.

    Taking the public education system of my state as a whole, I can see your point, however. The problem is that state governments are far too restrictive; we’d need a total overhaul to really bring things to the level of the private sector. It’s unfortunate but this is what happens when politicians instead of educators construct educational policy.

    1. That’s very true. The state standards are kind of ridiculous when looking at the idea of actual learning. I do appreciate the work that high school teachers do; I could never do that myself.

      The students have become too used to that standards-based learning, and they don’t know how to function in an environment that is structured around learning rather than rote assessment. It’s not the teachers’ fault. It’s the system’s.

  2. I see the same in Germany. It does not only affect literature but other studies as well. I almost said subjects. Because like subjects at a grammar school the studies get organized and treated by now. That students are often lazy seems to be a constant, but leaving them for a large part in their school/pupil mentality is doing everyone a disservice.

    By now students are required to do this and that, so that it is ensured they did this and that. They do it dutifully, and learn not much. They get burned by their duties (every year they are required to do more and more. Because there is evidence students get worse. So they get to do even more BS. Oh my!) and I bet there are many who will leave university without every having experienced and understood academic freedom.

    Maybe those students learned something else, how to deal with a ton of a bullshit. Sorry, but this system is making it hard for students and their professors alike not to burn out and give up, but doing their duty and nothing more.

    1. I think you bring up a good point with those students who have never understood academic freedom. I’ve learned in my classes this semester that I have to be a bit more structured in my assignments. I have students who are flailing around because I write the assignments to be as open as possible, specifically in regard to the literature about which they write.

      Next semester, however, I am outlining specific works to pull from as well as specific types of analysis rather than the broad “literary argument” I’ve ran with for the past year.

      I don’t like that change, but I don’t see college freshmen (unfortunately) as being able to handle that much academic freedom because of the amount of confinement they’ve experienced in secondary.

  3. I wish I had more professors like you when I was in college. In my entire 4 year college experience I only had 2 classes that challenged me and required a lot of work outside of class. Those ended up being my 2 favorite classes because I was so engaged with them.

    The majority of my college experience was like extended high school. I expected every college class to take hours of work outside the classroom when I started, but I had classes where I never opened a book outside of class. It’s sad that the entire experience had to be so dumbed down.

    I’ve heard that a masters degree is more like my original view of college. Professors guiding the way, but lots of work outside of class that requires students to be motivated. It’s unfortunate that there isn’t more of that in undergrad education. The classes formatted in that way were the most interesting and engaging classes I’ve ever taken.

    1. It’s hard to get people motivated. I wasn’t during most of my career, but I see at this point that those courses in which I was challenged and forced to motivate myself were the classes I got the most from and actually use in my day-to-day professional life.

      I got more of that in graduate school, and you’re right: it’s a shame that it’s not there in undergraduate as often. I think my horror class will be that way because I have it designed to be very discussion intensive and student led. If they aren’t motivated, then they will find it very uncomfortable…and their grades will suffer for it.

  4. The problem is the public school system is not designed to prepare everyone for college level work, and to be blunt it shouldn’t: college is a plague on the workforce in general.

    It is, because a majority of jobs in the USA simply do not need 4 year bachelors degrees. One of my friends told me why she left Target was because they required a 4 year degree just to manage a retail store, despite the actual duties needing little more than basic business and computer familiarity, and a lot of time. Businesses use college as a sorting algorithim for competence, which it isn’t for many of the jobs.

    This is also why you see so many unprepared students. They are not going to your school to get an education past vocational training, which they can do very well. They have to, despite the subjects probably being taught as well in a 2 year school. Most high schools though still teach based on the older ideas that only a few will go to college and the rest would find vocational training or work in non-degree fields.

    College should be mostly for technical fields requiring a high level of competence and training. A lot of majors simply don’t need it: why should a librarian need a masters degree? Education should really be revamped: split up into vcational courses and enrichment courses.

    1. I’m not sure I agree that it’s a plague on the workforce, but I really do agree that it’s not a place for everyone. There’s no reason that people shouldn’t be vocationally trained. College is not technical school. I’m a smart guy; I teach college, but I have no real technical skills. I can’t go out into the world and do much of anything. That said, however, I can think the hell out of a problem and analyze the dickens out of something else.

      The system would do well to be revamped, but the problem comes from political correctness: people don’t like being told that they’re not cut out for something. So the standards are constantly lowered until they meet the lowest common denominator, which dilutes the fields and thusly means nothing. That’s the problem with Ph.D.s right now; there are far more people being given degrees because of accreditation requirements than from actual merit.

      There are a lot of fields that would do far better to have technical training than academic, and there isn’t anything wrong with that. People perceive that there is, though, and that’s where the problem comes in.

      I’ll have to let my wife comment on why a librarian needs a master’s degree, though; she’s the one who works at a public library. 😉

  5. “A student at the college level must take an active role in his or her own education”

    This is true of students at *any* level as far as I’m concerned.

    If I may be forgiven a brief tangent, a college professor of mine noted that his job is called “professor”, not “teacher”. He saw his place as one who professes of truths, and left true learning up to the student. It’s his view that it’s the Spirit that teaches (the Holy Ghost in Christian terms, but I suppose if you want to just go purely secular, you could call that your own internal thirst for knowledge and truth and efforts to acquire them), he just professes. He’s doing his job to the best of his ability, and the students must do theirs.

    It’s a simple principle that I’ve seen verified time and time again. Teachers and professors can only do so much force feeding and testing on regurgitation. If the student isn’t metabolizing and connecting concepts to each other, they will not learn, *no matter what the teacher does*.

    In math, which is more my subject when it comes to teaching, if a student only memorizes equations and rituals, they aren’t learning what math is or how it works, and will inevitably go off the rails when something unusual comes up. If, on the other hand, they learn the underlying logic and learn how those equations are derived, when presented with something out of left field, they can work from the basics and approach the unknown with tools in hand, rather than be flummoxed by something that doesn’t fit into neat memorized situations.

    …that pattern of logic applies to nearly any learning, I think.

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