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That’s ‘professor’ uptight to you

Website offers profs group therapy


 

Photo by Laura Mills

June Madeley is annoyed with the increasingly rude demands she gets from students at the University of New Brunswick in Saint John. Ten years ago, it was common for them to see her during office hours when they had a question. “Now there’s an expectation that we’ll answer their emails immediately and meet them whenever there’s a good time for them.” And as surely as the leaves pile up on campus each October, the communications professor knows her inbox will soon fill with complaints about mid-terms scheduled for the week after the Thanksgiving holiday. “There are a lot of people who feel they can’t make the exam because of travel arrangements,” she says. “And others who think it’s unfair that they have to study that weekend.”

But when Madeley gets frustrated, she doesn’t fire off a snotty email to the student. She logs on to “That’s ‘Professor’ Uptight to You, Johnny,” a Facebook group with 297 members, all of them teaching at universities and colleges. The members-only site is a place where university educators can vent in the form of steaming emails they wish they could write to their students but can’t because that would be, well, rude. Madeley, who says she hasn’t posted yet, enjoys reading the rants from her colleagues. The site is run by Khrystyne Keane, a Connecticut-based editor for a non-profit group, who took over its administration as a favour to a professor friend. The logo—a unicorn standing under a rainbow—is a jab at students, some of whom feel they are every bit as special as the fabled one-horned horse and the multicoloured arc.

The posts are all written to anonymous Janeys and Johnnies, but they share one trait: carefully crafted sarcasm. “Dear Johnny, I suspect that if you had spent as much time and effort on your last assignment as you did on the long flaming email you just sent me, this whole ‘conversation’ would never have happened,” reads one. “Dear Janey, I want to assure you that we didn’t do anything important in class. We just stared out the window for three hours in silence,” reads another.

Nothing riles a professor more than asking about material covered in a skipped lecture. But Joey O’Kane, a vice-president of the University of New Brunswick Student Union, thinks it’s no big deal. He also thinks it’s reasonable to expect email responses from profs within 24 hours, preferably 12. “Professors have a pretty good gig,” he says. “You put in some office hours, you teach for a few hours and then you end up with a decent paycheque, so taking 10 minutes out of your day to respond to a few emails . . . I don’t think that’s asking too much.”

Kevin Maness, another Facebook member from Eastern University in Pennsylvania, recalls a student who emailed him a couple of weeks after the last semester ended and asked if there was anything he could do to increase his grade because he had been “too busy” playing basketball. Incredulous, Maness wanted to shoot off a caustic retort. Long before he had even heard about That’s “Professor” Uptight, someone else had addressed the same complaint with a post that read: “Dear Johnny, Just tell me the grade you want and I’ll change it in the book, because it doesn’t really matter anyway.” After joining the group last month, Maness has found it to be “great group therapy.”

When Maness attended the University of Pennsylvania in the early ’90s, he accepted that professors would challenge him. In return for doing the coursework, he was rewarded with the grade he had earned. Now, if he hands out a C-minus “it’s almost like a complete shock to them.”

So why the attitude? In their book Lowering Higher Education: The Rise of Corporate Universities and the Fall of Liberal Education, University of Western Ontario sociologists James Côté and Anton Allahar say it started when higher education became purely a financial exchange. Funding pressures forced universities to accept as many students as possible, even those who weren’t suited to academics, says Côté. That crowds lecture halls with students who shouldn’t be there.

At the very least, one educator feels students should learn to mind their manners. At the University of Minnesota, law professor Michele Goodwin added “civility” to her course requirements this September. “Failure to follow this guideline will affect your final grade,” she wrote in the class syllabus, explaining that emails should include the basic salutation “Dear Professor Goodwin” and not “Hey Prof.”

She even assigned practice email as homework. “It’s a bit awkward for professors to think, wow, this is actually my job now?” says Goodwin, who blogs for industry publication The Chronicle of Higher Education, “but it’s necessary.” If the new rules don’t work out, at least she has a place to commiserate. The professor can always join That’s “Professor” Uptight to You, Johnny.

Editor’s Note: I wrote this story for the print edition of Maclean’s. As both Profs. Maness and Magatha have pointed out in the comments section, it should have included more nuance. For one, I should have made it more clear that every single professor I spoke to for this piece exuded passion for teaching. Indeed, research shows that North American professors work on average around 55 hours per week and many of those hours are dedicated to helping students learn beyond the classroom—something they get little credit for. The profs. also made it clear that there are many students who don’t fit the stereotype of entitled. I agree. While it’s a challenge to decide what to include in the space allotted, I should have done a better job. I also want to note that there was a factual error in this story that was introduced in the editing process. Maness did not read a complaint “months earlier” from another professor who sarcastically offered to change a student’s grade. That was merely what he said he might have written had he know about the page at the time.


 

That’s ‘professor’ uptight to you

  1. Thanks for writing this, Josh. There are a lot of reasons I stopped teaching at the college level, but had a support group been around when I was at my most frustrated, I might have hung in!

  2. Having a professor for a girlfriend, I can wholeheartedly agree with this- I’ve heard the horror stories of students complaining bitterly- and filing complaints with department heads- because they claim the work is too tough, or the beautifully idiotic “unfair”. Its funny, because, when I’m shown the work, its not anywhere the difficulty that I faced as a raw freshman a decade ago. It’s fallen that far.

    I suspect its partly because of the hypocrisy of the generation, but I also see another issue that’s a rapidly growing product of the times- Professors who shouldn’t be there. They’re lazy, under-educated, and unwilling to put in the hard work required to teach at the level of the predecessors. I saw this towards the end of my University endeavor, and friends and colleagues who are or were until recently serious students are seeing it more and more.

    They’re coming from the same generation of “Gimme”, don’t care about teaching, and at times know less than the students about the subject they’re teaching. Now, I well understand that profs- especially young, part-time ones- sometimes must take on topics that have them literally one-chapter ahead of their students in terms of their knowledge base, but if you’re not willing to put in the hours and do the work required to stay cerebral in a discussion, you shouldn’t be there. In my last years of school, I had professors that literally knew less about the subject being taught than I did- and I was far from a model student. I still remember- nor will I ever forget- the professor I had who taught popular culture, was lecturing on the Gangsta’ Rap movement in the late 80s/early 90s, and had no idea what the term “O.G.” meant- She actually termed it “Occasional Gangster”. Which would be an utterly mundane error unless 1) A large portions of Gansta Rap focused on the concept of being an “O.G.”, and 2) She hadn’t launched into a clueless 20 minute lecture on the importance of being an “Occasional Gansta'” if you were living the Gangsta’ Rap lifestyle.

    Attending the University of Windsor at the time- which is, as you may know, right next to the hip-hop/rap hotbed of Detroit- made it especially ridiculous.

    But I digress. Point being, while students are getting needier and more demanding of extras, professors are- with exceptions, of course- getting dumber, less prepared, and rapidly less able to hold a discussion in their classes that is outside of anything except the narrow, individualized pathway the professor happens to be researching for their next paper.

  3. @Random Guest: I agree with you. I have professors who refuse to meet with students, except for 90 minutes once a week which conflict with other lectures.

    I had a professor who cancelled a computer science class after 5 minutes because he couldn’t figure out how to turn on the projector.

    It’s nice to say today’s students are awful, but we need to realize that it’s not one-sided. Professors enjoy nice lifestyles with the perks of tenure. There is NO other job on the planet where someone can have sub-par performance and still keep their job.

  4. Why I totally have these experiences in common what keeps me in the classroom is those brilliant lightbulb moments and those times students make connections and later thank me for what they learned. It’s not an easy job and some of it can drive you crazy, but I wouldn’t want to do anything else and yes, I rarely have freshman classes.

  5. If you so relish complaining about students you are in the wrong profession.

  6. Saying that professors only work a few hours in their office, work a few hours in the classroom, and then have no other responsibilities is ridiculous. That is like saying that lawyers are only working while they are actually in court (which, unlike what you see TV, isn’t the majority of the time since so many cases settle out of court). Professors’ teaching responsibilities include: reading/preparing class discussions, writing lectures, grading, serving on committees that keep the university running smoothly, attending teaching workshops, advising students, supervising internships, and others that I can’t think of at the moment. A few lazy professors here and there are the exceptions to the rule.

    That’s in addition to the research responsibilities which include: keeping up with the current literature on your research topic, writing new material, seeking publication of work that’s already completed, writing grants, attending conferences, preparing research talks (for the general public or for other academics), and of course, the actual research process (which varies greatly depending on the discipline). It is not uncommon for faculty at my university to work 50-60 hour work weeks.

    Should professors respond to email within 24 hours? Sure, that is a reasonable goal. But to assume that they work 10 hours a week and spend the rest of their time drinking, sleeping, and being lazy is just idiocy.

  7. Also, my experience is the opposite of Random Guest’s, but maybe this is because I live in the U.S. Younger faculty here have more pressures when it comes to tenure because, in many of the humanities fields in particular, you don’t get tenure unless you have published a book. Period. This is in contrast to the older professors who got tenure without demonstrating much competency in their discipline. This is something I’ve noticed at a number of institutions, across the country. Perhaps things are different in Canada.

  8. Hi, I’m one of the people “quoted” in the article above.

    Josh, I really wish you had been able to offer a more nuanced account of the group and its function for teachers. When we talked, you seemed to understand very clearly how important it was to communicate that the people in this group love their students and their profession—not for the sake of PR or spin, but because it’s the honest truth. That doesn’t really come out in the article at all. Instead, the piece is just one more in the long tradition of “kids these days” cliches, and the teachers come off as bitter, graceless bores (who put in a couple hours a day for only part of the year and watch the cash roll in).

    I haven’t participated in the Facebook group featured for very long, but from what I can see, the people who do are very principled people who take their vocation seriously and go to work each day with a genuine desire to teach and nurture young people. The “Dear Johnny” posts are a release valve for some pent up tension, which is needed because there aren’t a lot of socially acceptable ways in everyday life for teachers to express that frustration.

    I’m disappointed by the article in part because you make stuff up (I don’t know about the other sources, but the stuff you say I said is only kind of like the things I really said) but more because it employs such a lazy, predictable frame—irresponsible kids and griping educators—which really misses what I think should/could have been the point of this article.

  9. I am a member of this group, and I am also a Canadian. I supported the idea of this article because I feel that Maclean’s generally does a good job of providing even-handed reporting. I was very disappointed in the result. In the two years that I have been a member of this group, I have noted that the members are, like me, caring professionals who genuinely want to see their students succeed. The group provides a forum for us to express our frustration with a small minority of students who clearly have not done the work yet expect high grades. This article does not reflect the spirit of the group, nor does it afford any sort of even handed reporting. To quote the vice-president of the University of New Brunswick Student Union as an expert on the academic workload– “Professors have a pretty good gig . . . [they] put in some office hours . . . teach for a few hours and then . . . end up with a decent paycheque”– without allowing an academic to respond to those comments is misleading and irresponsible.

    Quite frankly, this article is better suited to a publication such as the National Post.Instead of an inflammatory and polarizing narrative, this article should have focused on the fact that the members of this group represent a profession whose members are heavily invested in helping their students to succeed. You had an opportunity to present this material in a unique and thought/conversation-provoking manner; it is a shame you couldn’t see the value in such an article.

    • I found some of the comments here very extreme, and the article itself is not a good reflection of the reality. Magatha was right.

      It really upsets me when anyone says I have it easy as a college professor. I don’t. WE don’t. We work hard! Very hard.

      Many of us studied very hard to get where we are today. Many of us are taking work home, working over weekends, answering hundreds of students e-mails, mentoring after class, and bending backwards to make learning fun, interesting, and effective. This is on top of the numerous meetings and curriculum reviews and what have you.

      Many of us do walk the extra mile to help students (some of who do not make any effort to excel).

      Some of the comments here refer to incompetent teachers who do not have the knowledge base. One cannot generalize saying most professors are like that now a days.

      In my tenure as a professor I have only met a couple of new teachers who were asked to teach a discipline they did not master. The error was from management for hiring someone who was not fit to teach that course. This is not the norm though.

      Competing for a position in academia is tough; at least in Ontario, Canada. We have to pass through a triage first, then an interview with several members of management, members of HR, faculty members. College professors have to have a minimum of a Master’s degree, and now-a-days many colleges are requiring that professors have PhDs.

      Colleges in Ontario have Centers for Teaching and Learning which offer professors courses and workshops on didactic, pedagogy, ways of teaching and learning. We all have to take these courses despite our many years of undergraduate and graduate school.

      No, we don’t have it easy. No, we do not enjoy complaining about our students. We love our profession, we love to impart knowledge, and we love to teach our students and to learn from them.

      What we don’t like is to be consistently disrespected by some students who unfortunately come from a generation that has had been brought up without discipline, without the basic notion of respect for teachers, parents, etc. What we don’t like is to be disrespected by our own management when they take seriously the false accusations made by the very students who disrespect, cheat, and make no effort what so ever to be a good student. This actually happens often in college/universities.

      I think it is a great idea to have a group where teachers can share their feelings and vent after a frustrating day. To have that turned into something so skewed and misrepresented as this article does is really sad.

  10. I am a mature student who has noticed a number of things about my university which are contrary to what seems to be the main issues of laziness and entitlement. First I would say Harvard isn’t the only place to find kids from rich families with huge networks and a bad attitude, take a walk downtown sometime and your sure to find more than your share of 20somethings like that who have no education at all. Money won’t make you smart, you just won’t have to be because you have money. I don’t know what it’s like in the East or in the U.S. but at my university the students and professors are every bit as smart, hard working, dedicated and passionate as each other. I would love it if my prof. answered an email within 24 hours but with student numbers for each prof. in the hundreds maybe thousands that does seem a little bit of an unreasonable demand besides, what’s wrong with helping yourself I mean… look it up. Why bother a prof. with something you feel is unfair unless it really is unfair. To wit: The work is supposed to be hard, you are supposed be challenged you are supposed to… learn!
    I’m looking forward to the challenge of learning and growing and bettering myself with teachers who are demanding and challenging and who are interested in pushing me to push myself. When you’re 18 you’re supposed to be a bone head, that’s how you figure out how not to be a bone head; it seems to me the kids these days have never been told they’re not perfect and they can’t have everything their own way. If students want to be like those described in the article, let them flunk out and waste their money as many times as it takes to learn that lesson. Your teacher is supposed to make it hard… just like life.

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