September 12, 2007

Who's Your Professor?

author_brad By Bradley Wright

It’s the end of summer—the nights are starting to cool off, friends have returned from vacations, the Red Sox and Yankees are fighting for the playoffs—and this can only mean one thing. It’s time for college students to start having to listen again to their professors.

This makes it a good time to reflect on just who your professors are. One answer is that professors are different from you in various ways, and these differences affect the education that you get.

First off, we’re old(er). Graduate school usually takes five to eight years, and many of us take time off before graduate school (some I heartily recommend, by the way). As such, most professors start in their thirties—almost double the age of entering freshmen. Furthermore, being a professor is a *great* job and not physically demanding--chalk isn’t really that heavy, so we tend to stay with the job until we’re pretty old. This is especially true for those of us who aren’t particularly good at saving money, since we probably won’t afford to retire.

What does our “old” age mean for students? Professors come from a different generation, and each generation has its own values and way of looking at things. The oldest generation still teaching in large numbers is the baby boomers—part of the population explosion after World War II who went through the crazy days of the 1960s. They started off as radical Because of these generational differences, professors and students share different cultural references and ways of communicating. We professors are constantly referring to things that students either don’t know about or don’t care about. Students practically have to translate what professors are saying as if it were in a different language. This is especially true in the humanities and social sciences, including sociology, which centers on social and cultural analysis.

Second, we professor types tend to be liberal. In the general population, there are moderately more liberals than there are conservatives. By some counts, the Democratic Party has between a third to a half more members than the Republican Party does. As a group professors are overwhelmingly liberal compared with the general population. For every one professor who self-identifies as a conservative, eight are liberal. This imbalance is even more pronounced in the social sciences, where every conservative is matched by an estimated fourteen liberals. Many, and perhaps most, sociology students will never have a sociology professor who has conservative views.

What are the implications of this difference? If you listen to us, we’ll probably make you more liberal. In fact, some professors (especially in sociology) see this as part of their teaching mission. Others try hard to be neutral in our presentation of ideas, but it’s hard to imagine that our own beliefs remain completely hidden—no matter how hard we may try.

Is this good or bad? It probably depends on your political perspective: You’d probably like it if you’re liberal and dislike it if you’re conservative. The important thing, though, is to be aware of the political assumptions, and the possible resulting biases, of your professors.

Third, we’re much less religious than the general population of students we teach. A recent study of American professors found that they affiliate with religion less often than the general population. This is especially true at the top universities where 37% percent of professors are agnostic or atheists compared clip_image001to only 7% in the general population. Likewise, only about 1% of professors in top universities identify themselves as “born-again,” compared to a full 33% of the general population.

This means that students receive a distinctive treatment of religion in the classroom. Just as professors make their students more liberal, they also tend to make them less religious. Religious students who take sociology may have a particularly difficult time since in this discipline religion is often presented as wrong, irrelevant, or harmful.

Fourth, we’re not always intelligent. How smart are professors? Usually pretty smart, but not always. Another recent study compared the average intelligence of professors to those in other careers, and university professors scored at about the highest level (along with doctors), which I suppose is good news if we’re going to be teaching people. There was, however, a wide range of intelligence among professors, with more than few at intelligence levels that were average of society as a whole.

What do these four differences mean for our students? Students should realize that we have our own experiences, beliefs, and biases, and that we’re not always the sharpest knife in the drawer. The next time that you listen to a professor talk (and talk and talk), take the time to critically evaluate what they say. Just as professors frequently ask questions to students, students should question their professors.

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Comments

interseting, very interesting. i must say you have quite the character - quite intrieging perhaps...

Wow. This is an unabashedly honest article describing the wide ranges exhibited in professors in three aspects of their personalities/identities.

The most interesting part of this article, I would have to say, is the comparison of professors' religious declarations from top universities in comparison to American population as a whole. I had always wondered how big a difference there would be between professors and the American population.

Immensely interesting.

This was very interesting. Perhaps all proffesors should realize these differences. I think my favorite part was the one that stated students sometimes have to translate what professors are saying. This is true. We come from such a different generation when our instructors try to talk to us about some things we get completely lost. Maybe if all professors realized what our generation knows and cares about, we wouldn't have so much trouble in certain classes.

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