Morning Sun
  • OKIE IN EXILE: A professor's apology

  • The faculty on a the campus of any university tend to remind one of the Holy Trinity. This isn’t because they are in three parts and sacred. It’s because they are a mystery and about a third of the time you just want to say, “Jesus.”

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  • The faculty on a the campus of any university tend to remind one of the Holy Trinity. This isn’t because they are in three parts and sacred. It’s because they are a mystery and about a third of the time you just want to say, “Jesus.”
    Don’t get me wrong. In spite of my journey over to the dark side, I am still faculty through and through: I can separate black pepper from fly excrement with the best of them; I can make a big deal over “the principle of the thing;” I can be oh so entitled; and I can whine. Lord have mercy, can I whine.
    This isn’t an apology. It’s just the way I am. I’ve finally become honest enough with myself to simply own it. I am comfortable with it.
    We are the way we are for a reason. When university faculty are sent into the classroom, there is not a lot of flesh put on the bone with regard to teaching. Faculty are given incredibly little scaffolding. Back in the day, during my first days teaching on my own, I was given a book, a list of chapters that are usually covered, a room to meet in, and a schedule of days and times to meet. My interaction with the university was a list of students from them at the beginning of the semester and a list of grades to them at the end of it. Sure, there was a little more, but not all that darn much.
    Before I go much further, let me say I think this is a good thing. Or, when it is done well, it can be. For an education, you have to learn more than just facts. Yes, you have to have the facts, but those facts change. New laws are passed; new discoveries are made; new areas become important. You have to learn how to learn.
    When you teach at the university level, you first have to learn the subject on your own, and sometimes this has to be done before the paint is dry on everything. Sometimes it has to be done before they’ve painted it.
    This calls for a particular personality type. For example, if you are going to teach something to someone else, teaching the right thing is very important. This creates a personality that values being right. There is nothing wrong with that. It can be irritating, but there is nothing wrong with it. However, being right is closely allied with appearing to be right. Here in lies the crux of so many of the frog-mouse battles of academe. We are said to fight so hard because the stakes are so small. (I thought this was Einstein, but have been told it was Woodrow Wilson; let’s not get into a frog-mouse battle about it.)
    Page 2 of 2 - We also get all hot and bothered about fine distinctions. This is because fine distinctions can be very important. One example I’ve seen is over comma placement: “Let’s eat, Grandma” versus “Let’s eat Grandma.” Put in a comma; save a life.
    The independence university faculty have is absolutely essential to the process of university teaching as we know it. There are problems associated with this independence, and I would be lying in a most transparent fashion if I denied them.
    The list of such problems is long: pushing their own political agendas, arbitrary grading, tests that have (apparently) nothing to do with lectures, and so forth.
    One problem you don’t hear much about is when faculty pass away in the middle of the semester. (Faculty, here’s a tip. If you want to get back at your department chair, just die on them; that’ll show ‘em.) When this happens, the students are always the first consideration. They’ve started a course; they’ve invested their time and money; the course must be finished. You’ve got to get a teacher, and that new teacher should adhere as closely as possible to the rules set down by the original teacher.
    And there’s the rub. There is great variation in rules. Every professor is a captain of a ship out on the sea, a cowboy out riding on the range. Every professor is, hell, a professor.
    These rules should be written down someplace; the student grades should be written down. Notes of promises made to individual students should be written down. Here we come to those important fine distinctions. The word “should” versus the word “are”.
    Such is the nature of the profession, faculty simply have to be relied on to be the ultimate professionals and to show the ultimate respect to their students, i.e. to organize their classes in such a way that their student’s learning won’t be disrupted should they, as the teacher, die unexpectedly.
    And, quite frankly, if you have faculty with that much of a value for the learning of their students, everything else will take care of itself. And you will have a hell of a teacher.
    Bobby Winters, a native of Harden City, Oklahoma, is Associate Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and Professor of Mathematics at Pittsburg State University. He blogs at redneckmath.blogspot.com and okieinexile.blogspot.com. We invite you to “like” the National Association of Lawn Mowers on Facebook.
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