Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Skepticism for school

This doesn't have anything to do with religion per se, but I wanted to address something that is often repeated as an article of faith without any real evidence to back it up. School either will start soon or has already started for some people, and I wanted to discuss this matter.

Liberal arts colleges (like my alma mater!) love to tout their undergraduate focus in their brochures. They're chock full of statements like, "Since we have no graduate programs, we can guarantee that all your classes will be taught by actual professors." Implicit in this statement is something akin to, "Those poor, downtrodden students at the big scary state schools have to take some of their classes from the great unwashed--I mean, graduate students." (Cue the horror movie music of your choice at this point.)

After a couple of years at a big scary state school and indeed having some classes taught by grad students, I think I can safely say that there is no correlation whatsoever between people's teaching abilities and their relative positions on the tenure track. I've had excellent teachers who were grad students, and terrible teachers with doctorates from prestigious schools.

If there's any factor that could be said to make a difference, it's probably just a personal commitment to decent teaching. It may seem odd that a large number of college professors don't put much thought into their teaching skills, but in many cases, evaluations of their job performance rest on other factors, like publishing research. Published research also accounts for a lot of weight in things like university rankings in various publications. You can argue how wrong this is if you like, but don't expect to get very far.

If you really need your hand held through a class, even big scary state schools have assistance available. When I was struggling in a technical writing class, I went to the writing lab and got help. College is not like high school. Success is not handed to you on a plate. It's OK not to be a natural whiz at everything (it took me a while to make peace with that!). And generally, unless the question is over something specific that the instructor wants, the help from fellow students in the labs is just as good as what you'll get from an instructor during office hours.

Just think of it as practice with taking responsibility for your own success. That's how life is.

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