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Why Your Professors Suck (zacharyernst.blogspot.com)
46 points by prostoalex on Oct 26, 2013 | hide | past | web | favorite | 56 comments

The truly good student is the one who signs up for the class with the goal of mastering the material being taught as well as possible. The 'good' student in this example cares more about gaming the signaling mechanism than actually learning the material - this is why he'll spend his time arguing with the TA over a handful of points on his problem set than spending that time going over the material again. The 'cynical bad' student is already convinced that he's not going to get anything out of the class, in which case he either 1). is taking the class because he has to or 2). is a fool who should be taking a class better serving his needs and not wasting his time.

Also, I don't know much about philosophy (and I suspect this is far less applicable for philosophy), but in science and engineering often mastery and innovation in a field requires an extremely narrow focus that, in turn, requires a significant investment in time and resources. This includes transmission of specialist knowledge to graduate students and postdocs, grant writing, paper publishing, acquisition of equipment or access to equipment. So I don't really think it's entirely fair to chalk up lack of interdisciplinary interest and/or innovative methodology predominantly to a system that weeds out people not willing to think the way it wants them to. (Not saying that tenure doesn't have its own problems...)

The 'good' student belives that the signaling mechanism and the understanding of the material is the same thing, they're identical. For those students nothing exists beyond (the signals of) good marks. So in a way they don't really game.

I find it difficult to imagine that anyone would actually believe the two are equivalent, but maybe I've just been hanging around HN-types too much.

I'm engaged to a "good student". She was damn well and fully aware, her entire life, that the signalling mechanism is very different from actually learning useful material.

As a two grad-student couple, we have mutual academic envy. I envy that she finds it easy to memorize large sums of material and pander to the system. She envies that I find it easy to acquire an intuition for the material I really care about. I envy that she's "saving the world" as an ecologist. She envies that I can make a good living out of my field.


I have friends who firmly believe that getting high grades is all that matter and that surely university is taking care of making them employable.

Arguing with them on that point proved useless in the past, but now that I get interesting internships while they don't, I believe they are somehow waking up.

At least, focusing on being a 'good student' is not the worst strategy out there. If one day you come to be aware of it, it's not an irrecuperable situation.

> Good student: "When will the midterm be?"

> Me: "Why do you care?"

> Good student: "Um... I'd like to be able to plan when I

> should study for it."

> Me: "Oh, okay. I don't know when it's going to be."

> Good student: "Um... Okay. What's it going to cover?"

> Me: "I'm not sure, but it'll be really great!"

> Good student: "That's good, I guess. Can you be more specific?"

> Me: "Not really. But why do you care?"

Wow, this guy is a jerk. This just shouldn't happen. Fair enough, don't tell a student exactly what's on the exam - they should be learning all the material, not cramming for a test. But not telling them when it's going to be is ridiculous. People have lives and need to structure their time.

If a professor or lecturer had refused to tell me the date of an exam, I would have pursued a complaint as far as possible, which would probably have resulted in disciplinary action. In the UK, this just isn't acceptable. Do US universities really treat their students with such disdain?

Regarding the classifications, he missed out "cynical good student", which I suspect is overrepresented amongst HN readers. I never believed my professors were particularly smart people or worth listening to so I didn't attend lectures or hand in work to get feedback, but I did see the value of learning the material so I taught myself and aced exams.

I think you're taking that conversation the wrong way. When I saw the exchange, I sympathized with the author immediately because I've been in this situation many times. It's very distracting when a professor is giving an in-depth lecture, then suddenly, the "good student" pops their face up from their daily planner and raises their hand in the most conspicuous way possible. "Oh, man," I think, "the professor was on a roll; this question better be good."

"Um, will this be on the midterm, and by the way, when will that be?"

Every time this happens (and it actually happens a lot), you can physically observe the lecturer's train of thought derailing and exploding into a mangled pile of molten wreckage. If the professor manages to answer all of the disruptive student's concerns, they then have the difficult task of re-engaging the other 25-100 students whose concentration has since gone elsewhere.

It's incredibly rude to ask a professor whether or not the material that they are covering will be on an exam. What you're essentially asking is, "do I need to be paying attention to you right now, or can we all just zone out while you talk at us?" That thought process represents a very immature mindset that still thinks you're paying for "an education" and not paying to actually learn.

That said, I don't think that this is something that most people will understand given the rise in tuition costs and the (flawed) notion that students are paying for a 4-year "educational resort and spa" experience. As someone who got an undergrad degree then worked for a few years before going back to grad school part time, it's amazing how much I learned to appreciate the classroom environment. IMO students must not realize how infrequently after graduation they'll have the opportunity to learn new things from someone more knowledgable than themselves.

I agree, the situation you describe sounds very annoying and rude, and indicates someone is just interested in jumping through the hoops to get their qualification.

Some schools require midterm dates on the syllabus, some don't. But in this case, the schools are more likely imposing structure on the professor rather than the other way around.

If you know exactly what you are going to teach for a semester, you can plan it all out. But god forbid if the class gets stuck on some material...if the schedule is strict the prof will just move on and let the curve sort it out. I preferred more flexible teachers in college and there were real reasons why universities in the US are high regarded.

In Sweden we know exact date for every exam from day 1. old exams are available and new exams are usually random questions from old exams.

As a physics postdoc who is thinking of switching careers, I definitely sympathise with this article. And I agree with almost everything about it, except this line:

    Success as a faculty member requires one thing above all else: a good reputation in your field.
And all I really disagree with is the wording - a good reputation does not mean a reputation for excellence. A good reputation means agreeable, means suitably deferential, means knows the correct people and will do as they're told. None of this correlates with excellence...and people who are excellent at research probably don't really want to become faculty, aside from the status and security - it takes away the ability to do research, for a large part.

So I agree with the conclusion that the overall standard of faculty is not impressive to students, but it's not because the faculty are not risk takers or innovative - it's because for the most part, the faculty are political animals, not technical ones. They may also be very good technically, but this is an accident and not a feature of the system and untrue more often as not. The cynical students mentioned in the article will likely sniff that out quite quickly whereas, in my experience, the good students are simply more naive. Both types tend to be just as intelligent and hard working, but the cynical students will work on what they want, rather than what the professor wants.

As a practicing (bio)chemist, I am usually somewhat cynical about philosophy professors, but what this guy says is spot on. Perhaps this is a self-serving agreement, since I was definitely one of these "good bad students".

In my experience, yes, including your minor clarification on the word 'good', the full description applies equally to chemistry as philosophy (presumably). But then that makes one wonder: Why are we entrusting this system with taxpayer resources to produce science?

Secondly, "But the university doesn't need to exert any pressure, because it's already filtered out the people who would need to be pressured..." What does this mean for controversial topics, like climate science, where political decisions are made based on 'consensus'?

"But the climate science community doesn't need to exert any pressure to conform to the accepted model, because it's already filtered out the people who would need to be pressured to accept it"?

Equally valid, to replace "climate science" with "cancer research", eg.

It's not even necessary for the topics to be politically controversial (by which I mean Democrats and Republicans have opinions on it) for this effect to occur. You can get the same filtering effect purely via internal pressures.

As examples, consider the Copenhagen consensus in foundations of quantum mechanics or the (currently being overturned, thanks to machine learning) Frequentist consensus in statistics.

About the statistics thing: I thought that Frequentism and Bayesianism were two separate frameworks to use in two separate contexts? Basically, I thought that you used Frequentism when you could do a definite experiment that yields an exhaustive probability distribution (like rolling a die to see how often it yields each number), while you use Bayesianism to evaluate accumulations of evidence about a distribution you can't experiment on directly. Is that wrong?

That's not correct. Frequentists view the world as an experiment measuring a set of unknown parameters describing a probability distribution. These parameters are fixed, and cannot be described probabilistically.

In contrast, Bayesians use probability to represent uncertainty.

I.e., to a Frequentist, it doesn't even make sense to ask the question "what is the probability that the coin is rigged", whereas the Bayesian would come up with a probability distribution for the probability of the coin coming up heads.

Largely, though it's a matter of terminology[0]. I doubt that any but the most dogmatic frequentist would say there isn't something to the notion behind the question you're asking "what do you think is the chance the coin is rigged", but rather that it should not be conflated (by using the term "probability") with the notion of a situation where something can be repeated and measured - or at least one that sufficiently approximates that situation.

[0] I find that battles over terminology can be the harshest and most recriminating minefields among the intelligent.

Ok, so frequentists believe P(x) for some event x is the limit of the fraction of trials in which x happens, as we increase the number of trials to infinity.

Whereas Bayesians believe P(x) is odds at which they would gamble, so to speak, that a particular proposition x is true.

Is that it?

It's deeper than that. The difference in views influences everything you compute. For example, Frequentists compute p-values, which is P(reject null hypothesis | null hypothesis is true) [1].

In contrast, Bayesians compute P(null hypothesis is false | prior knowledge).

Similarly, Frequentists compute confidence intervals (say at 5%), which is an interval that represents the set of null hypothesis you can't reject with a 5% p-value cutoff. In contrast, Bayesians compute credible intervals, which represent a region having a 95% probability of containing the true value.

Personally, I'm solidly in the Bayesian camp simply because I can actually understand it. To take an example, consider Bem's "Feeling the Future" paper [2] which suggests that psychic powers exist. From a Bayesian perspective, I understand exactly how to interpret this - my prior suggests psychic powers are unlikely, and my posterior after reading Bem's paper is only a little different from my prior. I don't know how to interpret his paper from a Frequentist perspective.

[1] http://www.bayesianwitch.com/blog/2013/godexplainspvalues.ht...

[2] http://www.dbem.ws/FeelingFuture.pdf For background, his statistical methods were fairly good, and more or less the standard of psychology research. If you reject his paper on methodological grounds, you need to reject almost everything.

That's why i said "cancer research" at the end. But the additional problem is that if it's politically controversial, by and large most research is paid for at the leisure of politicians, so you wind up with another layer of circular pressure.

The structural problem he mentioned at the end is this: students are not customers. Had they been customers, who could instantly stop paying this professor because they think he's boring and doesn't deliver, you'd see a completely different picture. It wouldn't be about grades and diplomas anymore. It would be about acquiring knowledge and skills that students can later apply. If they decide this professor cannot teach them, for whatever reason, they would stop paying. If they decide it takes too long - they would stop paying and find a better path or drop it.

What you currently have is a system in which professors feel superior for some reason. And they are not punished financially if some students fail. So the best way to incentivize this system in which professors actually serve their students is to apply market mechanisms to teaching.

The other side of students being customers is that they will see a passing grade as something they have paid for and should receive, not something based on merit. If you paid a lot of money for a course but didn't get a good grade are you more likely to blame yourself or blame the teacher? More likely to give good feedback to a lecturer that gave an A because the course was easy or to a lecturer that gave a C for a very challenging course? Are people more likely to pick courses that have a reputation for low marks, or pick one where they will get better 'value for money'?

The result is grade inflation and it has been well documented:


They then attribute the rapid rise in grade inflation in the last couple of decades to a more “consumer-based approach” to education, which they say “has created both external and internal incentives for the faculty to grade more generously.” More generous grading can produce better instructor reviews, for example, and can help students be more competitive candidates for graduate schools and the job market.

Abolish grades. Teachers are there to teach. Employers are there to assess and hire. You're just looking at it from the same old perspective.

Let me give you an example. I teach programming privately. People pay me $100/hr. Some of them found jobs thanks to my lessons. Some of them realized it's not for them and they didn't waste tons of money and time. And I've been doing this long enough to say there's a demand for my services and people generally like it. I don't grade them, I give them useful feedback on what should they improve and if they should continue. My primary goal is their success, not some stupid grade. Market works great if you apply it right.

Teaching programming sounds very rewarding. How did you get started?

As for how to get into the business... I posted a submission on a popular (Russian) programming site offering Ruby and RoR lessons. 2 years later my post is Google's search results first page. Then I started doing Ruby and RoR screencasts in Russian, they became #1 in Russian. That brings even more people. It's not a lot of money, mind you, but at some point I even quit my job completely and went to Thailand for 6 months. I'm thinking of stopping doing it, because frankly, I'm just tired of teaching. For now.

I wanted to make more money. So it was really selfish. And I wasn't good at teaching right away. What kept me on the way to improvement is also money. I knew that if I don't provide value to my student, he'll leave. If I act like a jerk (trust me, such a temptation sometimes), he'll also leave. So I just did the best I could to keep earning the money.

Why is this downvoted?

That seems pretty simple to solve - just decouple the courses from the grading process. Let the teacher specialize in teaching and let some other firm that specializes in testing rate/certify your resulting competence or lack thereof in the subject.

That is a very good idea, I don't understand where the downvotes come from.

Universities are institutions of research, that also happen to teach. To many faculties, students are a necessary evil to fund research. In order to teach students about their research, they have to go through three years of basics, not-so-basics, and then maybe some - to the professor - dull, repetitive, been-there-a-hundred-times preliminaries to their work.

The teaching many of them enjoy is their departmental or faculty seminars. And as a senior undergrad, those were the sessions I enjoyed attending the most. No surprises there. They were talking about the subjects they enjoyed the most.

Now - I'd argue that a professor should be bringing in revenue - either by teaching a popular set of courses that are relevant for students - or by bringing in research dollars. But then that's somewhat missing the point - universities should be exploring areas that industry doesn't yet understand and therefore doesn't want to fund... it's a quandary for sure!

This would probably result in a lot of illiteracy, good education only for the rich, and very little fundamental research.

Market mechanisms are excellent at solving many problems, but they're not magic. They don't work well to provide public goods like high education standards or social mobility, and they generally have a hard time with intangible goods like knowledge.

The "superiority" that you're accusing professors of is actually a reaction to the power struggle brought on by students with the mindset of "I'm paying for x, therefore I get to make the rules." I adamantly disagree with this idea. Students should go to a university with a sense of humility -- they should go not because they're told to by the job market, parents, etc., but because they have the self-reflective ability to identify the gaps in their knowledge ("scio me nihil scire") and the drive to fill those gaps through rigorous study.

The problem? Young people are terrible at self-reflection. I know that there were many points in my youth when I said to myself, "I know all there is to know about life now." This leads to a kind of privileged arrogance that really can't be fully appreciated until one sees how lucky we are to be able to have the opportunity to learn in such safe, structured environment.

> The problem? Young people are terrible at self-reflection.

No. Some people, not just young, are terrible at it. And some are good at it. Universities don't change that because they continue to be nannies. If you want people to be able to assess themselves and know what they want in life, you better start asking them to do it earlier, not later.

Previous experience with applying market mechanisms to teaching is that it results in grade inflation. Everyone pays for the biggest, best credential money can buy, and quality drops for everyone.

We need a more thought-out solution than "the magic of markets".

So if it results in grade inflation, why not abolish grades? When graduates are hired, why don't you look at their actual skills and knowledge? Teacher's job should be to teach and give feedback, so that students can correct themselves. It is employer's job to assess them.

>So if it results in grade inflation, why not abolish grades?

Why not, indeed? I do think that a portfolio approach is much, much more effective in evaluating people's capacities to do stuff.

It's also costly. That's why we keep grade-based systems: those numbers are cheap to compose, cheap to evaluate, and provide just enough pseudo-objectivity to make bureaucrats feel all right about basing decisions on them without having to do any deeper thinking.

>When graduates are hired, why don't you look at their actual skills and knowledge?

Well they should!

>Teacher's job should be to teach and give feedback, so that students can correct themselves. It is employer's job to assess them.

Slight disagreement, here. You should not be allowed to gum up the works in Calculus 2 if you can't pass Calculus 1 to some set standard. Just saying.

Sources for previous experience?

Unfortunately, the following is the best my Google-fu can turn up right now. I'd like to give you a link to the blog entry I once read by a professor who was actually working at a UK university when they started imposing market discipline with students as customers.


In my experience, cynical bad students are usually douche bags that think they are too good for the world and that university is just a bunch of crap. A small ammount of them is really intelligent. The most part of it are people who think too highly of themselves.

Really, I couldn't disagree more that doing assignments, reading books and studying end up "closing" one's mind. From my point of view, there's no such thing as "useless knowledge". Granted that you don't learn everything you need to be successful in college, but IMO college is not there to make you successful and give you heaps and piles of money. That is not the point.

One thing got me thinking: If you really don't respect the university "system" that munch, why devoting your life to it?

Definitely not an engineering prof. Top university professors (ie. R1 schools) are primarily judged on their research, not their teaching. If your professors "suck" it's because they're spending all of their time on the things that matter to their careers: grant writing and publications.

And students (good or bad) care about exam times because of... procrastination. The "bad" students (of the goof-off variety) don't stick around in engineering. At most of the top schools, a few C's and you're out. The cynical bad students often achieve mediocre grades but compensate by doing cool non-coursework stuff.

The top professors tend not be judged on their research, in my experience. They're judged on their publications. I, personally, know many 'top' professors that have enormous publication lists that come from being the guy who supplied the money via a grant application. From their publication list - which is what 'proves' their research excellence, you would be forgiven for thinking that they were savants. But they're generally just administrators with an eye for the main chance who view the publication list as yet another thing to be gamed.

Publications (or more generally, H-Index) are used as a proxy for research by administrators that cannot possibly judge the merits of the research itself. During the tenure process, administrators use other signals too: recommendation letters from peers, grants, "service", graduated students and their placements, etc.

When your work is only relevant or approachable to less than a dozen people on the planet, how can you expect a dean to judge it? They can't. So they use (often poor) proxies.

This is even more the case at public schools where large class sizes make it even more difficult for research-dedicated professors to engage with students. However, I think it's interesting that the article doesn't really mention cynical "good" students when I think I know more cynical "good" students than cynical bad students or plain "good" students. In particular, several of my friends are international students who pay essentially 4x the tuition I pay. That gives them an extreme incentive to go through college as efficiently as possible. This usually means attending a minimal amount of lectures, self-studying, and only showing up to turn in homework and take exams.

At a public school, especially in an engineering department, there often isn't much a difference between professor and a talking head reading off information from a student's perspective. In fact, one of the things that motivated cynical students quickly realize is that not only is self-study often more efficient than than the traditional go to lecture and take notes approach--it's often a far superior way to learn and you can easily find yourself outperforming students who diligently go to class. Cynical students quickly see through the facade of going to class for the sake of going to class.

The resources at a public school aren't about teaching.

Instead of

+Attend lecture

+Engage with professor who teaches your class

+Complete Assignments

+Take Exams

The flow becomes

+Study out of the textbook

+Complete Assignments

+Take Exams

+Engage with a professor on a research level and try to get out a publication

+Or forgo the research somewhat and try to graduate as soon as possible

True. The worst professor I had in school was a Nobel prize winner in physics.

Basically, he's saying that our professors suck because they are hired for their abilities to do research.

Being a good researcher doesn't imply being a good teacher, but neither does it imply being a bad teacher! I agree more emphasis should be put on pedagogical skills when hiring professors, but overall plenty of researchers are good at teaching.

I may be wrong, but it seems the author of this article is frustrated by a lack of research accomplishment so he bitches on his colleagues that supposedly suck at teaching. And in the process, he tries to get the students on this side!

I'm definitely a "cynical bad student". Fit the description perfectly. I only respect teachers who also work part-time as a programmer, sysadmin, ... anything interesting.

Me too, although it was less about the individual lecturers than about questioning the value of the whole system. I got mediocre grades overall but excellent grades in a few subjects considered very hard, simply due to finding them interesting and thus being motivated to go to the lectures and putting effort into the assignments. If I could go back, I would not have chosen a five year track.

There is a great book on this topic by Jeff Schmidt called Disciplined Minds: http://www.amazon.com/Disciplined-Minds-Critical-Professiona...

Here's a review: http://www.uow.edu.au/~bmartin/pubs/01BRrt.html

hehe the book's website is hosted on tripod: http://disciplinedminds.tripod.com/

I didn't even know they're still alive.

Another interesting bit about the author (taken from the website above)

> Upon publication of Disciplined Minds, the American Institute of Physics fired author Jeff Schmidt. He had been on the editorial staff of Physics Today magazine for 19 years.

Did the author plagiarize Noam Chomsky?


In this way, faculty are like columnists for major newspapers. Columnists for, say, the New York Times are perfectly free to write whatever they like (within appropriate professional guidelines, of course). But the range of opinion expressed in those columns is terribly narrow. The problem is not that the Times is exerting pressure on its columnists. The problem is that in order to be a columnist for the New York Times to begin with, you have to be the kind of person whose opinions already fall within a specific range. The same goes for faculty. Universities are generally pretty good about not exerting overt pressure on faculty and their research. Intellectual freedom is generally respected. But the university doesn't need to exert any pressure, because it's already filtered out the people who would need to be pressured. Those who survive are, for the most part, narrow specialists who care little about what's happening outside their own area of specialization.



When you critique the media and you say, look, here is what Anthony Lewis or somebody else is writing, they get very angry. They say, quite correctly, "nobody ever tells me what to write. I write anything I like. All this business about pressures and constraints is nonsense because I’m never under any pressure." Which is completely true, but the point is that they wouldn’t be there unless they had already demonstrated that nobody has to tell them what to write because they are going say the right thing. If they had started off at the Metro desk, or something, and had pursued the wrong kind of stories, they never would have made it to the positions where they can now say anything they like. The same is mostly true of university faculty in the more ideological disciplines. They have been through the socialization system.

Having similar ideas is not plagiarism.

But it's the exact same idea with the exact same example: journalism/university and the New York Times.

It's not that black or white.

I was a cynical student myself. I flunked a few of my classes simply because I looked at them and decided they weren't useful or interesting to me. This was at a particularly anti-authoritarian point in my life (and I also wasn't that happy) so consisted of me just skipping the coursework and focusing on other intellectual domains that felt right to me.

Although I am sure this made me more creative (and doing things because I wanted to know more about the world has made me love learning), I was ignorant to not acknowledge the inherent risk in following your passions in learning. The world is stratified by easily measured educational standards - my string of As and Fs did not help me here, and when you are tested by somebody that is canon (and you will be) you will be at a strong disadvantage.

I had to fill in a few holes over the last few years. You can't always be sure that you won't need something, and even if you don't need it what if you are graded on it? It's crazy luck that my industry is fast-growing and was new and unregulated enough to accept me. If I wasn't in technology I almost certainly wouldn't have managed to come out of this unscathed.

Incomplete access to the mainstream educational signalling mechanism is a very dangerous situation. The other methods of signalling intelligence are a lot more difficult and have a much smaller market. (My achilles heel is institutional leverage, but my saving grace is being obsessed with learning.)

I couldn't have stopped myself from being who I was when I was younger. I hated being told what to do. I was too depressed to make myself do something that I wasn't enjoying (the first year of University was unfortunately an emotional ground zero for me and I rebuilt myself brick by painful brick.) But it's not right to say that specialisation and conforming is only important in academia. 80/20 rule is probably best for most people, maybe 60/40 if you're extremely secure...

When I went to uni, I had high expectations that I'll learn intellectual bases of different fields of knowledge, and will be taught how they relate to and improve human life. But my expectations were shattered very first day in the first calculus class when professor started explaining how to solve questions in first chapter of course book. Wait madam, what is calculus, how does it relate to me, what need was felt to invent it, what problems does it solve? My questions remained unanswered and I lost my faith in uni education.

Is better possible? I like the "startup weekend" style courses. But run over a term or 2 rather than a weekend. There are a few around.

According to his description, his "good" students are sycophants, and no one likes those.

This reminds me of course of the Bipolar Lisp programmer :) http://www.lambdassociates.org/blog/bipolar.htm

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