I read a comic strip about higher education called, appropriately, Piled Higher and Deeper, written and drawn by Jorge Cham. While it focuses on people pursuing advanced study in the sciences at a research university, most of what it says about the academic world works for all of us. For example, the strip that’s up right now is about adjuncts, while the one before that is about a post-doc who’s trying to get work done while raising a child. Most of the time, he hits the universal.
About six weeks ago, he had a strip up titled “Things You Can Do in Academia That Would Get You Fired in the Real World,” and it was spot on. One of them struck a chord with me, so I thought I would talk about ways professors behave that are either unacceptable in other professions or just odd.
First, I want to comment on one Cham mentions in his strip: not replying to email. This one bothers me greatly because it’s so easy to do. The problem is two-fold. On one hand, professors are notoriously bad about replying to students’ emails. I used to have an assignment where students could use a wide variety of research, including interviews. I would hold forth on how they were surrounded by experts, and I mentioned several examples of professors they could interview. Almost to a person, students would come tell me that they had tried several times to get in touch with professors on campus, and none of them had responded to emails asking for a time to meet (many of them also tried visiting offices during office hours, which also didn’t work because professors simply weren’t there). I know we’re all busy with all we need to do, but responding to an email within a day’s time is not unreasonable, especially as most student emails take no more than two minutes to respond to.
On the other hand, though, professors also don’t respond to emails from other professors or administrators. Every semester, at our opening meeting, my department chair has to encourage us to respond quickly (in a day or two, usually) to emails from our department secretaries or her, a request that baffles me. In most of those cases, we’re simply being asked for information (such as when our office hours are that semester) or something that will help us (what we want for lunch at an upcoming meeting). Again, these responses don’t take more than a minute or two, yet professors don’t respond. Whenever I have had to send out an email asking the entire department for information (I help manage the department website), I usually receive about a 10% response rate.
One of my favorite behaviors comes from the stereotype of the absent-minded professor. Here, the professor just cannot seem to function on a basic level. For example, one of my colleagues forgets to eat lunch unless his wife calls to remind him. I’m not sure if this is a cultivated affectation, as it would seem hunger would remind him to eat, but it’s certainly one that would be seen as bizarre outside of an academic setting, where we supposedly focus on the life of the mind.
There are also more harmful behaviors. I know of colleagues who barely teach their classes, for example. This summer, we had 19 class meetings during the session I taught, barely enough time to cover the material we would normally fit into our regular semester. One of my students told me about another class where the professor cancelled several of those classes and didn’t tell students how that would affect their assignments (they were supposed to have four exams, but the professor never told them how many they would now have, so there was no way to plan).
In fact, changing classes is another such behavior that would not work outside of the academic life. If employees regularly changed due dates, their bosses would ultimately talk to them to have them explain why they couldn’t stick to a schedule. Professors, though, often change due dates, reading assignments, and the like because they are unable to follow the schedule they planned.
You could probably add to this list, so feel free to do so in the comments section. I’m sure I have one or two behaviors that I do, but, thankfully, I’m not aware enough of them to get them down here.