When professors’ words mean more than they think

Recently I’ve been giving a lot of thought to the roles that professors do, and should, play in the lives of students. Professors, at least as far as I have gathered, get paid in exchange for teaching students particular courses.

This is a relatively simplified version of the contract, but essentially, that is how it is supposed to work, right? Recently I’ve been questioning this.

The process of learning is far more complex than simple “knowledge transfer.” There is no way in which knowledge can be housed by someone, then beamed into someone else’s head. Because we’ve not yet discovered such technology, educators and students must rely on a system of lecturing and textbooks, as well as various motivation techniques to ensure that students will eventually be competent regarding some topic or another.

These techniques have been employed for years to try to aid students on their quest for knowledge, but what often is not discussed is the inherent subjectivity in the process.

Myth: Professors are caches of pure knowledge.

Indeed, while we may prefer to think that what we are exposed to in the classroom is “pure” knowledge, having a few university classes shows us that this is not the case. Lecturing and teaching are both human endeavors, and subject to appropriate subjectivity. For instance, lectures, much like conversation, are often stimuli for a professor’s anecdotes, jokes and, sometimes, political comments.

The last point has been a focus of my recent thoughts, and is something I would like to talk about.

Now, I make no attempts to hide my political preferences, nor do I advocate them outright. And, while I look on with mild amusement when someone makes a comment about President Bush (partially because it takes little effort to do such), I do have serious concerns for what they may do to someone’s classroom experience.

Particularly my concern is two-fold: a. the power relationships involved, and b. the potential to “turn off” an engaged student in the classroom.

As I mentioned earlier, it is very easy to make a crack about Bush. Anyone with the smallest bit of political awareness can pick out maybe one or two things monthly to poke fun at. What it essentially boils down to is that the skill is not very impressive. However, while it may not be impressive, coming from the right source, it may be very impressive.

Impressive in the sense that it leaves an impression. Regardless of personal disbelief, pro athletes, celebrities and professors all leave big impressions on others. Reading stories about Olympians taking steroids, or seeing movie stars smoke are things that have very real effects on those watching.

Similarly, professors possess very real persuasive power over their students. Whether by tossing in a political jab here or there, or neglecting to cite sources on a regular basis, what may be a very weak logical argument can quickly turn into a very convincing argument, simply because of the power involved.

Perhaps people in the marketing department can help me figure out why, but people seem to associate positions of power with being “correct.” It’s really a neat phenomenon.

An alternative effect regarding wise cracks and political comments is the students that may not be as willing to participate knowing a professor is actively pursuing a political agenda in class.

It works along the same lines as being insulted during an argument. Suppose I say to someone her haircut makes her look like a baboon, that her vocabulary is worse than John Madden’s, and then proceed to argue that Social Security should not be privatized. This is not an argument that I would expect to win, even with a heavy amount of evidence.

Again, you may want to ask your friend in the marketing department why this is, but people do not seem to respond well to arguments after having been affronted by the arguer.

I am not suggesting that students are being irresponsible in doing this, nor that professors intend for jokes to come across as offensive, but rather that both of these behaviors are very human.

And so, I want to urge professors and students to pay very close attention to their interactions. Professors, be aware that you are in a position of power and influence. Things you say are likely to have more influence than you would think.

Similarly, students, don’t let a professor get away with sophistry. If a professor says something that needs to be backed up by evidence, call him out on it. Also, for the sake of your education and your future as a human being, realize that an open mind and forgiveness will aid you more than it hurts you. Professors are human beings who make mistakes, have political preferences, egos and character flaws. Sometimes a joke need not be taken offensively, but can help you appreciate the flaws in all human endeavors.

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