I don't know how many times I've heard peoplesay that professors just don't understand undergraduates - and most of these folks were college or university faculty! Of course, it's a two-way street this matter of misapprehension. Students, especially those in the early days of their post-secondary career, don't understand faculty either. The depth of this divide was brought home to me a couple of years ago at a faculty retreat. One of the speakers presented some really compelling data illustrating the profound differences between student and faculty perceptions. These two solitudes disagreed on everything from how well high school prepared students for success at college, to how much homework was reasonable, to the purpose of education.
It struck me that this probably wasn't a good situation. So I began to set aside time in the early days of courses (especially those heavy on Freshmen) to talk about how one became a professor and what that meant for my approach to teaching/learning and what I expected of them. I think it helped their adjustment to higher-ed - at least a few of them told me it did. Let me share a few of those insights with those of you heading off to college/university next fall, or indeed, those of you still trying to understand that strange tribe in charge of your academic fate.
The first point to keep in mind is that your professors aren't like your high-school teachers. In fact, the vast majority have no professional training in teaching at all. [Education departments/colleges are the great exception.] When your high-school teachers went off do their BEds and learn about curriculum, learning theory, assessment etc, your professors embarked on a 5-10 year journey of professional training in research. Underline that word in your mind: RESEARCH. That is the professional activity foremost in virtually all of your professors' minds.
What does this mean? For starters, they've put themselves through an emotional, psychological, intellectual and often financial wringer to get where they are. They've had to master a huge body of knowledge, become adept in the research methods and theoretical frameworks of their discipline, and make original contributions to that discipline, all in the face of cutthroat competition for funding and jobs. Their success in these ventures got them their doctorate, their tenure-track job, tenure, promotion, raises etc. Notice what I haven't mentioned. At no point has their professional success depended on their interest in or ability toteach.
The dirty secret of higher education is this: that with some glorious exceptions most professors view teaching, and especially undergraduate teaching, as a chore that keeps them from doing the work that they really love (and that will ensure their continued professional success). The type of institution you attend makes some difference in this respect. As a general rule, faculty in Liberal Arts Colleges and smaller, primarily teaching universities, are going to be more focused on undergraduate teaching and perhaps better at it than their colleagues at larger, research-focused institutions. Those folks' teaching energies are mostly channeled to the graduate students they are mentoring into professional status within their discipline.
So what does all this mean for you the eager undergraduate? Well, it certainly shouldn't lead you to give up college/university as a bad deal. Nor is it an excuse to go passive and slumber (Netflix?) through your degree program. But you will have to accept that the highly structured support systems built into your high-school classes will be absent from many of your college/university courses. Your Profs simply haven't been trained to approach teaching in that way (and sometimes the economic model of your institution makes it impossible anyway). Nor will most have the inclination to do so given their career priorities. This means a lot more of the learning will be left up to you and Profs simply won't understand why you find that so difficult. Their mantra will be some variation on: 'suck it up'.
By all means do so, but you don't need to stop there. My next post will look at a few specific strategies you can use to bridge the expectation gulf and get the most out of your profs.