Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Professors and Students

I know that there are some academic types who read this blog. I'd like your perspective on an issue that's been turning over in my mind. It has to do with how professors deal with students.

My colleague across the hall -- let's call her Dr. J -- will telephone students who have been missing from her class and tell them to get their act in gear. I would never do that. About the closest I've ever come is e-mailing a student who has been missing for a month to remind them about the approaching drop deadline.

Dr. J also asks questions of her students that I would never think to ask. She asks how many hours they work, how they arrange their schedules, how many credits they are carrying. And if she doesn't like the answers, she'll tell them. "I don't think you will be able to pass this course unless you drop some activity." The other day she was telling me about telling a student that he should be taking notes in her class.

All this, for me, comes firmly under the heading of None Of My Business. I honestly wouldn't even notice who is taking notes. I don't worry about people's work schedules or their other courses. I assume that they are old enough to make choices, and if they make poor ones, they will fail. When a student brings it up -- "I've been working 40 hours a week lately and I'm carrying 18 credits, so I couldn't make it you your class." -- I listen sympathetically, but pretty much hold them to my expectations. Too bad, so sad. When you repeat this course, you'll have to make more time for it.

So, what do you think? Am I a hardass? Is Dr. J coddling her students? Or are we just different points along a spectrum of valid approaches to students? Or what?


Professor Staff said...

Dr. J might have crossed a line.

When I was an undergrad, I rarely studied. We are the geeks who became professors :)

So I would not ask such questions of any student. And I would never waste my time calling students on my own -- they are adults and typically learn to be responsible for the time management after making lots of mistake their freshmen and sophomore years.

However, if a student was attending class regularly, came to office hours, worked with the TA, etc., I would probably start asking such probing questions if the student came to me first.

Since I mainly teach engineers, many cruise through their freshman year only to get hit hard their sophomore year when they start taking courses in their major. For some it is a shock.

StyleyGeek said...

For me, it would depend a lot on the individual student. And I think that both your approach, and Dr. J's represent valid ends of the spectrum.

I have, occasionally, emailed a student to ask if things are okay. But only for students who I know are hard-working and conscientious, but have inexplicably missed a major assignment.

I will happily discuss issues like part-time jobs, heavy course loads, and medical issues with a student, if they bring it up first or if they reply to an email in the above circumstances in a way that makes me suspect they would welcome a discussion of the problem.

I think the problem is not how much you probe into their lives, but whether you are viewing your students as adult peers or as kids you are in charge of. While respecting students as adults who are able to make their own decisions and do things differently from me, I can still show that I care about their issues and struggles and am open to helping them find solutions that allow them to continue in my course.

At the same time, I expect it is possible for someone to take a completely hands-off approach, while having a disrespectful attitude towards their students as "kids who just have to learn a lesson". (I do not at all intend to imply that this is what you are doing, by the way, but just that I know lecturers who do feel this way.)

On the other hand, please don't take my suggestions here too seriously. I have never convened a course myself, and I have just drunk most of a bottle of wine :)

Amy said...

Ah, it takes way too much time to call students. I actually despite the phone. If a student has done the disappearing act from my class, I assume that it's that student's decision and if he/she needed help from me, then I would be contacted.

If I did have an email contact for a student and said student had done a disappearing act, I might (if I remembered) contact that student when the final drop date was approaching and encourage the student to drop before receiving an F. I do this in my online class when students disappear into a void of cyberspace and don't submit any of their work.

Dr. J seems to have a rather heavy-handed approach that doesn't work for me and my students. Her approach might help students who like to be coddled, but for me, I'm with you and feel it's not my job to manage their lives (it's often difficult enough to manage my own).

Emily said...

As someone who's still a grad student, I think it's important to remember than students can be intimidated (even to the point of being afraid) to talk to professors about personal issues which, while perhaps affecting their coursework, are not directly related to the course.

There's an important power differential to be considered... while Dr. J's approach might be too proactive, I think I approve of showing some concern and a little more nuturing attitude (even if nuturing comes in the form of butt-kicking) towards undergrads who are still doing a lot of maturing, no matter how "adult" you'd like them to be.

Inside the Philosophy Factory said...

I think it is important to teach our first-year students to be college students. That includes not calling everyone who misses a bit of class etc.

Dr. J will tend to attract students who are in need of more parenting from a prof... and they will also get insulted if other professors don't do the same.

I have to agree with others that calling students is going pretty far and takes a lot of time. It is also pretty intrusive, as they may have decided to drop but not done the paperwork. Someone probably told Dr. J that phone calls = retention.