What does respect mean?

Students and professors may not agree.

Recently, I came across this remarkable essay by Ellen Smith. Smith takes note of a study done at Memorial University, a study reporting that the number one thing students want in a professor is that the professor be respectful. I, always on the lookout for ways to be a better professor was intrigued, and then confused, and then despondent.

Intrigued because it seemed like a unique insight into the mind of the student. Confused because I quickly realized that I don’t really know what students mean when they say they want respectful professors. Despondent because it occurs to me that what the students mean by respectful, is not what I would mean by the same term.

When students say they want a professor who is respectful, I have a feeling they mean a professor who makes their lives easier. When the students who responded to that survey said “respectful” was what they were looking for, I think they were thinking along these lines:

Because my professor respects me, he will let me have as many extensions on this paper as I ask for.

Because my professor respects me, he will not assign too many hard readings. He knows I’m busy with work and my social life, and besides, I have other courses to work on, too.

Because my professor respects me, he will understand that he is the expert in this field, not me, and so won’t expect me to do to much on my assignments.

Not all students are the same, of course, but none of these hypotheticals is groundless — I have heard all of these sentiments expressed in one form or another over the years. Moreover, I suspect that this is the model of respect that Smith has in mind:

As an undergrad, I put myself through school waiting tables – a truly humbling experience that made me a better instructor. With a mission of 100% customer satisfaction and my livelihood on the line, the patron’s experience became my highest priority.

Taking that mindset into the classroom, I strove for 100% student satisfaction – within the confines of academic integrity, of course – and achieved great results. It turns out, oddly enough, that students love feeling important, valued, respected, and honored. And through the resulting faculty-student connection, students willingly transform into vessels of learning.

So, for Smith, respect is part of the customer-service model of higher education where student satisfaction is the highest goal and academic integrity gets only a passing nod. But, as perhaps Smith would concede, satisfying the student and meeting the demands of academic integrity are very often at odds. Academic integrity says students should only pass a course when they have demonstrated a reasonable mastery of the material; not all students achieve this mastery, and yet every student wants to pass. Indeed, every student wants as high a grade as possible — I have never yet had a student complain that her grade to was too high — and yet academic integrity says we must give grades according to the quality of the work done.

And so if being satisfied is the measure of feeling respected, many students are bound to find their professors disrespectful.

But what if respect for students was really taken seriously? What if respect for students meant assuming from the outset that every student was smart, and motivated, and willing to work hard? The vision of a respectful professor would be very different then:

Because my professor respects me, he will hold me to reasonable deadlines.

Because my professor respects me, he will assign challenging readings and will structure the course such that I can only succeed by doing those readings and considering them carefully.

Because my professor respects me, he does not presume to be smarter or better than me, only that he knows more about this discipline than I do. Therefore, he will not dumb down course content because I am just an undergraduate. Rather, he will set high standards for me and expect me to meet them.

I’m sure there are a few students who think of a respectful professor this way, and if you are one of them, you should be proud of yourself. In the long run, ironically enough, you will probably be more satisfied.

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