Blaming the Students (or Reputation, part 2)

I wrote about professors’ reputations last week and what we can do about those reputations.  I’ve kept thinking about that idea over the past week, but in a different way.  We have reputations with students, true, but we also have reputations among ourselves, and those are a bit different, though they’re definitely related.  We can control these reputations, as well.

First, let me acknowledge that we all have classes that don’t work, not from anything we do or don’t do, but, sometimes, classes just don’t work.  Sometimes, we have classes that won’t talk, despite our trying every technique we know, and, sometimes, we have classes that talk way too much and are unable or unwilling to focus on the material.  Of course, we also have classes that just won’t do the work, no matter how their grades suffer accordingly, no matter how many carrots we can find to use.

However, some professors have classes like this on a regular basis.  Every semester, their classes seem to be bad, and, often, getting worse than when they were a younger professor or when they were students (we don’t have to be very old to believe in a golden age; it’s just closer for some of us).

Good professors work to try to change those situations rather than sitting around complaining about it.  They read books on teaching, talk to successful colleagues, keep trying different techniques, do whatever they need to do to improve.  They still have some classes that don’t work, but those become the exception, not the norm, and their reputations change, not surprisingly.

What I have noticed that other professors (the ones with the bad reputation among their peers) do, though, is blame the students.  They do the typical “Students today just don’t…” or “Students today aren’t like they were when I was a student.”  They spend all of their time and energy talking about all the things that are wrong with students, none of which are things they, the professor, can really change, rather than focusing on the parts of the class they can change.

We all know students have changed since we were students, and they’re going to continue to change.  That’s how life works.  That means that we have to find a way to teach those different students, as that’s our job.  If students don’t know how to behave in class, then we have to teach them.  If students don’t know how to study, then we have to teach them.  If they don’t know how to have a fifty-minute discussion, then we have to teach them.

Students have to do their part, certainly, but blaming their ignorance does no one any good.  Our job is to help them see what they don’t know and motivate (or force) them to fill in those gaps.  We can only do so, though, if we are willing to change what we can about our teaching to meet the goals of the class.

When I think about professors I’ve worked with who have bad reputations among the faculty, the ones we try to help students avoid when we are advising, I think about professors who blame their students instead of doing the work they need to improve.  We never like it when students blame us for their poor performance; I’m not sure why we don’t see when we do the same to them.

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