The new academic year is off to a start, and thousands of students have entered college for the first time.
I’ve been teaching college students for a long time, but this year, two developments have led me to think hard about my role as a professor: what it is, or rather, what it should be, with regard to undergraduates.
One involves a tenured education professor who was fired from Louisiana State University ostensibly for using profanity in class with her students. The other is the emergence of “learning analytics,” the use of software to flag students who are not doing well in a class.
Although these seem quite different on the surface, both raise questions about what professors owe their students.
Replacing certainty with uncertainty
Students do not need professors to merely pass on facts.
Although it is true that today Google makes it easy to find information, even before the age of the internet, students could look up information at the library.
So, what professors really do is provide organizational filters by highlighting what facts are most important and weaving an informed narrative about how they fit together.
In the humanities, we point out how every narrative has an alternative. In the sciences, we show them what we know today is likely to change.
More generally, we help students question their beliefs and assumptions. In other words, we help them develop critical thinking skills – skills that employers are looking for.
Inspiring confidence in students
This process can have moments that are confusing and painful for students. If students do not trust the professor who is suggesting new ideas, they are likely to resist.
So, how can instructors help?
If students believe that we really have their best interests at heart, they will have more confidence in our guidance through the world of intellectual discourse.
That is why I find the idea of a faculty member using profanity with students disturbing. I suspect that “salty” language, even if used to engage their attention, may make them uneasy, undermining their confidence in our intellectual leadership.
How we present ourselves matters as well. Recent studies have suggested that patients feel more confident in the treatment provided by doctors who wear white coats. It is the same within academic institutions.
During an advising session, I recommended that a student take a particular course with a colleague who, although brilliant in his field, clearly did not put much attention to his attire and personal grooming.
The student was reluctant, saying he felt that the professor did not take his job seriously. As the student put it, “the guy looks like someone who lives under a bridge.”
Fair or not, the student did not have confidence in the instruction provided by someone who did not present himself as a professional.
The human connection
Increasingly, universities are investing in learning analytics, meaning software that tracks students’ interactions with online resources. Algorithms recommend what the student should review or study next, and can even predict success or failure in a course.
I find myself balking at the idea that software should alert me to students who are at risk.
There is considerable irony in this because my own research involves learning analytics. Using technology to capture detailed data about how long students take to read an online assignment or about how many struggle on a particular problem can be valuable in improving the online experience.
However, I think it’s my job to monitor student progress and not leave it to technology.
To do this, I don’t need a fancy algorithm. Even with a class of 300-plus students, it doesn’t take much time to scan the learning management system to see who has not logged in for a week or to find those who failed an exam.
A quick email asking how things are going, reminding the student about resources such as teaching assistants or urging the student to set up a meeting can go a long way.
If a student fails to respond after several emails, I would even call the dean of students to request a student check.
Maybe that’s an extreme step, but I would not want to hear that something tragic happened to a student, and no professor noticed.
Perhaps some might find the idea that professors are monitoring them intrusive. But my experience has been the opposite.
In one case, a first-year student who was having a hard time told me that the two-line email asking how she was doing kept her from dropping out of school.
As college classes get larger and more interaction occurs online, our efforts to make and sustain these connections with students will become even more important.
When I was at the University of Arizona, the Office of Instruction and Assessment surveyed first-year students to ask what they wanted most from their college experience. The top answer was:
I want at least one professor to know my name.
Professors have always had a responsibility to act professionally and, in the future, will have more technology to monitor their students. But the key will be to use the technology to build human connections.
We owe that much to our students.