Scary professors

Yesterday on Twitter, I posted a “tweet” venting asking why it is that a student who keeps making the same mistakes over and over again on assignments, and who receives feedback clearly telling him/her about this mistake and even telling her/him that this is the nth time they’ve made the mistake, won’t come to office hours to get some additional feedback or at least ask some clarifying questions about the mistake they are making. I don’t usually expect replies on Twitter, but I got this one:

Two points in response to this.

  • Professors aren’t scary. Well, OK, some are — but most are normal human beings who really want to help students. And besides, if the student never comes to office hours, on what basis do they say professors are “scary”? How would they know?
  • Even if professors are scary, so what? You need the help; you take initiative to get it. This is the way life works, and if students are not learning this in college, exactly how are they getting ready for life? If, in the future, this hypothetical student gets a job and lands an important role in a difficult project and needs to get help from her/his supervisor, what happens if s/he feels like the supervisor is “scary”? Does s/he suck it up and ask for help or guidance (possibly to find out that the supervisor isn’t so scary after all)? Or does s/he keep running around not getting his/her project done, hiding behind the canard of “that supervisor sure is scary“?

To answer my responder’s question, yes, there is a tutor s/he can visit: THE PROFESSOR. And students’ tuition has pre-paid for a semester’s worth of on-demand, unlimited one-on-one tutoring with that prof. The rumor is that s/he even understands the material. Will the student take advantage? The invitation is out there; hopefully common sense will overcome juvenile fear.


Filed under Life in academia, Student culture, Teaching

7 responses to “Scary professors

  1. That must be frustrating. I don’t understand that mentality, then again, I was the student who sat in the first two rows, took notes, asked questions, made comments – it never occurred to me to do otherwise or be afraid of doing this.

    I guess this is one of the benefits of getting a private education K-12 where I had small classes. 20-30 people max.

  2. SRT

    My feeling is that most students feel that if they ignore it long enough, the problem will go away.

  3. I get both sides. I have students who won’t come to me, either, and I think I’m fairly non-threatening. However, though I haven’t had trouble with my grad school classes, I have felt frustrated by lack of up-to-date information and the relative “easiness” of the coursework, and have I gone to my professors to complain, even though I’m spending a lot of tuition? Nope. Not sure how to broach the subject with the person who gives me the grade. It can be daunting.

  4. Rob Huffstedtler

    In response to your hypothetical situation, usually the latter. Whether it’s fear of exposing one’s mistakes or just a persistent blindness to how bad the problem is (“I’m sure it will only take a few more hours to figure this out”), I routinely see people in the workforce not asking for help when they need it.

  5. Alex

    From the lens of the student, the professor is judge, jury and executioner.

    You don’t want to look weak to those who will decide your fate, so it may seem more tactical to suck it up and take the bullet instead.

    Your student likely doesn’t fear their TA’s as much.

  6. @Alex: But I’m at a small liberal arts college with no TA’s. Just the students and the prof in a class. And if anything, around here we err on the side of too much buddy-buddy-ness with students. So that does away with the judge/jury/executioner model as well as the thing about TA’s.

    The point about looking weak, though, might have something to it. Except I tend to think students skip office hours not to avoid looking weak to me, but to avoid looking nerdy to peers.

  7. James Crooks

    I could kind of see it both ways. A few professors are rather intimidating, the guy I have for Combinatorics is a good example, just the fact that he’s always the first one out the door when class ends is a little offputting.

    That said, I bother my Intro Analysis professor pretty much every time there’s something I don’t understand even a little, and sometimes even bring work to him that I think is correct just to go over a proof in person. The feedback is tremendously helpful, and going over things in ‘real time’ rather than just getting comments back on my homework has helped a lot with learning the more subtle points of the material. I’d suggest I’ve probably learned at least as much this semester by going to office hours as I have from lecture, and my ridiculously high grade shows it. Similar scenario for Algebra, that course that supposedly kills the math majors.

    Anyway, I guess a lot of it comes down to motivation for the student. I think any intimidation wears off after you ask for help once or twice, but it does provide a *really* good excuse for not going for help when you’re doing poorly and you don’t care too much.