If you go to enough conferences and hang out with enough academics, you get to meet some fascinating people, some eccentric ones too (I consider myself one of those eccentrics). I also find it fascinating how unfiltered some people continue to be when expressing their thoughts about students, the state of higher education, and the “real problem” of education. Perhaps I should not, as I’ve been known to share my candid thoughts, even in places like this blog…for the world to see. I suppose that sometimes comes with having the title “professor.”
We want to be careful. though. Yes, there are some blunt people in almost every profession, but that doesn’t mean that they make up the majority. As such, following are eight quotes that I’ve actually heard from one or more professors in recent years, but I can say with confidence that each one is increasingly less common. Higher education has much room for improvement, and the future of higher education as a whole is uncertain. What is certain to me is that the perspectives represented in these quotes will become more and more rare as we move forward.
“I give them the content, and it is their job to learn it. If they don’t, that is their problem.”
This is far less common of a statement in higher education than it was even a decade ago. Some still think it but realize that it isn’t well-received. Fortunately, as with the past, there are many professors who recognize that content is not the most important thing that they have to offer. You can get much of that in a good library or even online. What they have to offer is expertise, modeling, mentoring, coaching, feedback, and even a bit of inspiration at the right time.
“Look to your left and your right. By the end of this semester, only one of those people will still be here.”
These cut-throat environments still exists and some argue that they are good and necessary when it comes to preparing people for high-stakes positions. The good news is that more people are setting this approach aside, and instead asking how they can set things up so that more students perform at a higher level.
“I am an academic gatekeeper for my discipline and field. My job is to make sure that the few and worthy make it through, and the others get started flipping burgers.”
As with the last one, some see their job as starting with a large pool and then doing everything they can to winnow it down to a small number of the best and brightest, with little concern or consideration for the rest. Again, there are some career pathways that are incredibly challenging, and not everyone will make it. Yet, there is a growing focus upon finding ways to set people up for success. When people realize that this pathway is not working out, there are efforts to guide them, give them the necessary help to turn things around,or maybe help them explore other viable options.
“I’m so excited about how this semester turned out. Look at this grade distribution. It is almost a perfect bell curve!”
I will be blunt about one. I’m sorry for those who are still stuck in the 1980s, but the bell curve is dead. It was never a useful or even humane way of thinking about student performance, and it has absolutely no connection to whether a professor’s course is the proper level of academic challenge. There are still plenty of situations where people frown on a professor when too many students receive high marks, and sometime that is because the professor is just “giving out high grades. Yet, the alternative is not to celebrate the fact that a significant number of students just earned failing or near failing grades. There is a better way and most faculty today see and embrace that.
“If you can’t handle the heat, get out of the kitchen.”
There is this persistent confusion between having academic challenge or rigor and just being a jerk. You can respect other people, challenge them, and be encouraging. Most professors are not jerks. Some really brilliant people are and candidly, as a result, we put up with them. We even seek them out and embrace their insults as a rite of passage. Honestly, I did that at times. I still do. Yet, there are plenty of brilliant non-jerks and there is no need to set up this “pompous and pontificating professor” as the model. Let’s keep this as the rare exception at best.
“If we want to improve outcomes in college, just stop accepting so many unprepared people who can’t read, write, manage their time, and do basic math.”
This remains a common approach. Just raise the admission standards and the problem is solved. Yet, some schools don’t have an exclusive or elitist mission. They want to see as much relative growth as possible. They accept students whom the school has a good chance of helping grow, persist, and succeed; and then they devise a curriculum and plan to help the students do just that. This means revisiting some of the ways that we do things, and there are many exemplars in the higher education landscape when it comes to this promising approach.
“Some people lack the family education necessary to succeed in college. The best plan is to help these people find good service jobs, and make college a place that invests in those who have a strong family education growing up.”
This statement came from a professor in a country other than the United States. She was basically arguing that the family upbringing of some students was substandard. They didn’t have parents who taught them to read, parents did not have high standards for them in school, and parents didn’t teach them the habits associated with success in college and many workplaces. As such, college was not a good option for these students, according to the professor. Only, this approach ignores some massive social considerations and implications. I will say that while it startled me to hear someone say it so directly, it was actually refreshing to hear someone say out loud what others might be thinking. It opened the door to meaningful conversation and debate.
“The problem with college today is a cultural problem. Students don’t read, don’t know how to have a meaningful conversation without looking down at their phones, are self-absorbed, and lack the focus of past generations.”
People rarely believe me, but the “kids these days” mindset goes back centuries. We can find examples of leaders and academics of almost every generation complaining about the decline of student preparation. When I point this out, people respond that this generation is really different. It is much worse. Yet, that is what past generations said as well.
There are certainly some distinct or even unique challenges of current generations, but people can and do learn, grow, and change. If they don’t, then the entire concept of college falls a bit flat, doesn’t it?
As I stated at the beginning of this article, these are real statements from real professors, but they are certainly not the norm. In fact, they are on the decline. What I see is a growing focus upon student learning, student achievement, and student success. There are many uncertainties about higher education but I am confident that this student-centered emphases is the future.
In fact, if you want a glimpse into the mindset and attitude that is far more likely to dominate the future of higher education, check out my podcast interview with Dr. Tim Renick at Georgia State University.