An open letter to my colleagues in academia

Dear colleagues,

This week, I had three different students visit my office hours (or "student hours", as the trendy schools are calling them these days).   By itself, that made this a remarkable week, as I rarely have that many visitors during my office hours.

But that's not what is compelling me to write this letter.

Each of the three students began our conversation with more-or-less the same statement:

"I'm sorry for waiting so long to come and see you.  I didn't have my question worked out well enough in my head.  I was afraid that I would be wasting your time."

Three separate times in one week.   Almost word-for-word.

My dear colleagues: if this is what we are teaching our students, then we are failing miserably at our first duty as teachers.

My knee-jerk reaction is to cry out, "How do students get this idea?".   And then, I pause, and I know the answer.   Because we --- collectively --- are teaching our students to fear us.

"Not me", you cry in response.   And, if you've read this far, I will say to you "yes, not you."

But as I type this, I can see clearly in my mind's eye the face of a colleague.   This colleague explicitly tells students not to come to office hours unless they've first tried all sorts of other things to solve their problem (read the textbook, do the homework, visit the tutor lab, etc.).  Only then will they have done enough groundwork to "earn" the right to come to office hours with their perfectly-formed question.

One time, in a public faculty meeting, I challenged my colleague about this attitude.  Their response wasn't defensive in the least; they were proud of it, and cheerfully stated that this was good pedagogy.

Several administrators were in the room.  They heard every word, and said nothing.  Because my colleague is a full professor, with more time at the institution than all of them combined, and they were unwilling to lead.   

Of course, my colleague outranks me, so it was incredibly easy for my colleague to dismiss my objections.  Plus, of course, "academic freedom" means that we all have extraordinary liberty to conduct our classes as we see fit.  (It doesn't mean that, of course, but in the absence of academic leadership, you get academic anarchy.)

This is just one colleague.   I had hoped that this was an aberration --- that the rest of my colleagues would be more compassionate towards their students and cognizant of their duties.  

But three students saying the same thing in one week tells me otherwise.

By the time I had finished each student meeting, I had convinced each student that, in fact, they didn't need to have well-formed questions to come and ask for help.  I impressed upon them that, often, figuring out the question is most of the work in getting a solution, and that work may require guidance.  I also treated each of those students with the dignity and respect due to all people.   They all left happier than when they arrived.   (At least, I hope they did.)

My dear colleagues, this should not be.

I don't know how we've created a culture that tells students that they have to navigate the university by themselves.   I don't know how we've convinced students that teacher-student interactions are a waste of the teacher's time.  I don't know how we've created a rule that says that only "worthy" questions can be asked, and then set an impossibly high standard for "worthiness".

Nevertheless, we're here.

Being a teacher is an incredible responsibility.  Because those souls entrusted to our care learn far more than we realize.

"If anyone causes one of these little ones to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea."

We are failing in our primary duty as teachers.

When I was a young faculty member, I remember attending a seminar led by Yet Another National Teaching Expert that had been brought to campus.   He made a point in his biosketch that when someone asked him "What do you teach", he would always respond "I teach students."   At the seminar, I knew he was going to use that line, and so I tried to ask him "What subject do you teach?".   He responded: "I don't teach subjects, I teach students."   

At the time, I certainly understood his point, thought I thought he was a little arrogant in the way that he put it across.   (Okay, I think he was also a little peeved that I wasn't letting him use his standard schtick as a part of this introduction.)   

I wonder if that point has been lost on too many of my colleagues as of late.

I don't teach computing history, or computing theory, or ethics, or study skills, or binary search trees, or object-oriented programming.   I teach students about those things.  

May we all remember that we teach students, especially as most of academia contemplates the beginning of yet another academic year.


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