Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Who is your professor?

It’s the end of summer—the nights are starting to cool off, friends have returned from vacations, the Red Sox and Yankees are fighting for the playoffs—and this can only mean one thing. It’s time for college students to start having to listen again to their professors.

This makes it a good time to reflect on just who your professors are. One answer is that professors are different from you in various ways, and these differences affect the education that you get.

First off, we’re old(er). Graduate school usually takes five to eight years, and many of us take time off before graduate school (some I heartily recommend, by the way). As such, most professors start in their thirties—almost double the age of entering freshmen. Furthermore, being a professor is a *great* job and not physically demanding--chalk isn’t really that heavy, so we tend to stay with the job until we’re pretty old. This is especially true for those of us who aren’t particularly good at saving money, since we probably won’t afford to retire.

What does our “old” age mean for students? Professors come from a different generation, and each generation has its own values and way of looking at things. The oldest generation still teaching in large numbers is the baby boomers—part of the population explosion after World War II who went through the crazy days of the 1960s. They started off as radical Because of these generational differences, professors and students share different cultural references and ways of communicating. We professors are constantly referring to things that students either don’t know about or don’t care about. Students practically have to translate what professors are saying as if it were in a different language. This is especially true in the humanities and social sciences, including sociology, which centers on social and cultural analysis.

Second, we professor types tend to be liberal. In the general population, there are moderately more liberals than there are conservatives. By some counts, the Democratic Party has between a third to a half more members than the Republican Party does. As a group professors are overwhelmingly liberal compared with the general population. For every one professor who self-identifies as a conservative, eight are liberal. This imbalance is even more pronounced in the social sciences, where every conservative is matched by an estimated fourteen liberals. Many, and perhaps most, sociology students will never have a sociology professor who has conservative views.

What are the implications of this difference? If you listen to us, we’ll probably make you more liberal. In fact, some professors (especially in sociology) see this as part of their teaching mission. Others try hard to be neutral in our presentation of ideas, but it’s hard to imagine that our own beliefs remain completely hidden—no matter how hard we may try.

Is this good or bad? It probably depends on your political perspective: You’d probably like it if you’re liberal and dislike it if you’re conservative. The important thing, though, is to be aware of the political assumptions, and the possible resulting biases, of your professors.

Third, we’re much less religious than the general population of students we teach. A recent study of American professors found that they affiliate with religion less often than the general population. This is especially true at the top universities where 37% percent of professors are agnostic or atheists compared to only 7% in the general population. Likewise, only about 1% of professors in top universities identify themselves as “born-again,” compared to a full 33% of the general population.

This means that students receive a distinctive treatment of religion in the classroom. Just as professors make their students more liberal, they also tend to make them less religious. Religious students who take sociology may have a particularly difficult time since in this discipline religion is often presented as wrong, irrelevant, or harmful.

Fourth, we’re not always intelligent. How smart are professors? Usually pretty smart, but not always. Another recent study compared the average intelligence of professors to those in other careers, and university professors scored at about the highest level (along with doctors), which I suppose is good news if we’re going to be teaching people. There was, however, a wide range of intelligence among professors, with more than few at intelligence levels that were average of society as a whole.

What do these four differences mean for our students? Students should realize that we have our own experiences, beliefs, and biases, and that we’re not always the sharpest knife in the drawer. The next time that you listen to a professor talk (and talk and talk), take the time to critically evaluate what they say. Just as professors frequently ask questions to students, students should question their professors.



Ben Dubow said...

Those are great thoughts Brad... I'm going to pass those on to my FYE class.



Jim said...

My only college experience was about 5 mos at the University of Cincinnati in the fall of 59'. An attempt to please my father with pursuit of mechanical engineering. Right. He died in January of 60' and I entered the Navy that June. My knowledge of professors, then, is quite limited, but you give me the impression I'd enjoy sitting in your classes, even if the opposite end of the age spectrum is the truth in my case......

Doing Better Than I Deserve said...

I think that the solution is to teach young people that professors (& preachers & politicians & the people who write TV ads & ...) are fallible humans just like everyone else. The things that profs (& all authority figures) say should be measured against the absolute truth that the student already has.

The caveat is that hard science (math, physics, engineering, ...) is much more difficult to criticize from the Bible than sociology is. I would think long & hard before I put general relativity and soteriology in the same argument. But soteriology and sociology have a much larger intersection.

But the bottom line is: "Don't believe it just because the prof (or the preacher or the TV ad or ...) says it. Prove it to yourself." Of course, kids being lazy like they frequently are...

Brad Wright said...

Jim, you probably got more, and maybe better, education in the Navy. Hope that you were able to avoid Viet Nam.

Doing better... welcome to the blog. I agree completely that students need to question authority using larger standards.

Ben, that's why I'm happy you're using this article with your freshmen.