By Gray Whitsett – Columnist
I was blessed with a solid class schedule my first semester – a good balance of difficulty, lively professors, and a diverse genre of subjects.
I say “blessed” for a reason, as I had essentially no choice in the matter. The only input I had was suggesting during the summer one gen. ed. requirement (for me, I didn’t even get my recommendation).
This lack of control, which I genuinely do understand, makes it paramount that professors, particularly professors in general education and introductory courses, be among the strongest of our faculty. As I said, I was blessed with such instructors. Others, it seems, were not.
And that’s what I want to talk about in this issue – the philosophy with which we approach these classes at Centre College, and perhaps in the liberal arts community as a whole.
After my first semester I waited and waited to stumble into the classroom that housed the accursed professor who couldn’t care less about her 110 class, for she is far overqualified to teach such silly things.
I am only halfway through my sophomore year, but I’ve yet to find this collegiate nightmare. That is not to say, however, that I’ve had a perfect record of influential classes.
In my experience, Centre professors never suffer from apathy – if anything, their affliction is hyper-motivation. This may sound ridiculous: how can you care too much about educating your students?
But hear me out for a moment. Any time I’m lagging behind in a class, it’s rarely because the professor refuses to help, or even that I refuse to seek out assistance.
All too often it’s because I’m being introduced to material I have no business even skimming, much less writing a term paper on. For a time I thought this was because some professors are simply out of touch with my place in the world, lost in the vacuum of Ph.D.-ville.
Some even seemed to accept it as a challenge, if not their goal, to weed out those unfit for their revered discipline, a type of educational Darwinism that inflicts gross harm and accomplishes little good. But any serious attempt to know a professor quickly sullies this view, or at least reduces it to a level of relevance unfit for discussion.
It was here that I arrived at the conclusion that some professors are just too excited for both their own good and the good of their students. It sounds funny, and I think in a way it’s a wonderful dilemma. But I’m serious about its implications and negative consequences. The unfortunate reality of this is visible in a number of ways:
1) The crucial and important fundamentals of the discipline are squandered in the mad race to reach more involved and “higher level” material that is no doubt incredibly interesting, but only for those who understand just what the heck is going on. The assumption that the pupil has a working understanding of the basics is almost always faulty.
Within the liberal arts community is the aim to complicate and challenge the student’s views. I completely support this. But you have to give me a view to complicate. I have preconceived notions about Democrats and Baptists – Freudian theory and Keynesian economics are going to necessitate a learning curve.
2) Very few people will latch on to a field of study because of the nuances of the particulars. That is to say, professors absolutely must make their discipline relevant to the student.
Ask yourself – why did I get into philosophy, chemistry, or history? Professors have made the choice to devote their career, and much of their life, to the study of a specific field. People who are good at math go into finance; people who love math go into education.
The chief goal of an intro level course is not to make a student into a biologist; rather, it is to ignite the desire to become a biologist. With this, the belief that students share the professor’s passion and in fact have an obligation to invest themselves in the subject is false. Perhaps this is how we should be – regardless, it is not reality. It is the unfortunate but ungodly important task of the instructor to battle with competing interests and win.
3) Students are more often than not going to let down their professors. This sounds terribly pessimistic – I don’t mean it to be. In fact, what I advocate for will hopefully reduce this. When we talk about general education and introductory courses, at some level we have to be realistic.
Our biologist I just described is not going to be found in every person. This really is a tragedy to the professor, and I get it. Everyone knows what this is like, the feeling you get when something you’re really excited about completely falls flat for someone. It’s a lot of things, but mostly I think it just hurts.
When sharing something you really care about with someone, it hurts when your interest isn’t mirrored. But when our expectations dictate reciprocity we invariably set ourselves up for rejection.
I proudly say that we have some of the best faculty in the nation, but we all must manage our expectations. If we anticipate Humanities 110 to look like Shakespeare in grad school, there will be no good outcome.
By no means is this list exhaustive, and by no means do I pretend that I know more about education than a trained professional. Indeed, these points were instilled in me by professors who do a spectacular job.
I am also in no way pinning the failings of students to the institution. Centre has provided me thus far with an incredible education and I am very appreciative.
This process is only possible by the actions of individuals, most of which have been professors.
Certainly, a separate article could be written addressing the shortcomings of students. But overall, the vast majority of students do care and do want to learn and do well.
By and large, professors want to make that happen and are serious in their commitment to the cause. Ultimately it rests on both the students and professors to make these interests line up most effectively.