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Students Must Reject Apathetic Teaching

Column by Brett Altschul

The conventional wisdom at MIT says that the importance of a professor's research is far more important than the quality of his teaching. Over the first few weeks of this semester, the truth of this observation has become more and more evident. A great many professors simply demonstrate a total disregard for their undergraduate students, and the entire Institute suffers.

Naturally, innate teaching skill varies a great deal from person to person. However, many professors who lack "the gift of gab" make up for it with an enthusiastic attitude and a willingness to talk to students outside of class. They may not be the best instructors around, but they welcome suggestions and try to make use of them.

The teachers who genuinely cause problems are the ones who just don't seem to care a whit about the students under their tutelage. In my experience, this kind of attitude appears much more often in full, tenured professors. Too much time in secluded labs probably makes these people forget what it's like to be a student.

Apathetic professors have many ways of expressing their basic disinterest in their charges. Sometimes, they simply make themselves unavailable outside of class time. Too often, office hours "by appointment" means that the person is consistently busy at any time you'd like to see them. If you send e-mail, they respond with something like, "I can't meet with you this afternoon, but if you drop by my lab between 3 and 5 a.m. tonight, I might be able to answer any questions you have about tomorrow's test."

Another technique used for making undergraduates feel like worthless urchins is taking long trips at inopportune times. Many professors go to significant lengths to ensure that they will be present and available in the days leading up to a test. However, some prefer to take their research presentations on the road at just such times. Apparently, potential funding sources are receptive to proposals only at the same time as undergraduates are cramming.

Usually, the absent professor will draft one of his graduate students or post-doctoral fellows to lecture or lead recitation. Fortunately for undergrads, the metaphorically unwashed masses, the more literally-so graduate students tend to possess a real measure of enthusiasm about their temporary students. However, they more than compensate for this gung ho attitude with unfamiliarity with the conventions of the course and what's actually been covered.

Particularly when full professors are found teaching recitations - as occurs in physics classes - professors are often very poorly prepared. They often fail to attend lecture, so they're not really in touch with the notation and specific techniques introduced by the lecturer. Sometimes, they seem to be leading recitation by the seat of their pants, making up poorly constructed problems as they go. This definitely isn't the best way to teach.

The severity of this problem is perhaps much greater than it seems at first glance. The level of competition at MIT makes it a fairly harrowing place without any assistance from the faculty. The high level of student dissatisfaction is MIT's biggest single weakness. Everything that we can do to improve the quality of life at the Institute is worthwhile.

To raise that quality, the less-than-stellar professors need only do a few simple things. Primarily, they need to make themselves available to the undergraduates. Research doesn't really consume all their time, although it provides an easily-invoked excuse for why they can't make any time for undergraduates to ask questions. These people are paid to do more than fiddle around with circuits, or chemicals, or whatever, all the time.

We can't expect the faculty to recognize their failings spontaneously. It's up to the undergraduates to express their displeasure when a professor isn't fulfilling his teaching role adequately. Even the most jaded professor is likely to at least listen to constructive criticism and make at least a nominal effort to change methods. The situation can be improved if students speak up and if professors accept the importance of undergraduate education.