Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Can you smell that...?

You may have heard about a website called "Rate My Professors"? It is a handy way for students to complain or praise their professors for others to read. Did you ever hear about the one called "Rate My Students"? Well I understand the domain is for sale, but there is no actual content there. Hmm, why could that be?
  1. Students like to whine more than professors? No, I do not think THAT'S true (trust me).
  2. Maybe professors just haven't THOUGHT about it? Well, maybe, but I doubt it. Really, most know that it would be ILLEGAL to post such information about students in a public setting like that without student consent... and would students consent to that? Doubt it.
  3. Professors do not NEED a web-presence to bitch and complain about students? Well, I will stop with this one as it is closest to what I believe may be true.
There is an element of frustration when someone else has YOUR fate in their hands. Especially when you believe they may be manipulating your fate in ways you do not like. So, one outlet is to complain anonymously (i.e., safely) on the web; knowing that other members of your cohort AND possibly even the professor, will get to read about it.

True, some students justify their online complaints by also posting favorable reviews of OTHER professors as well. This probably makes them feel as though their complaints are "balanced" or "justified" rather than biased. After all, if all students did was complain about professors, then that would seem like a personal problem. But by giving positive reviews (sometimes), it helps to make a person feel that their complaints are more valid/honest/etc.

Ok, whatever... this page isn't about all THAT stuff, though. Instead, I'd like to direct you attention to the idea that most professors have been doing the teaching gig for a LOT longer than you have been a student. They also SEE a lot more students than you see professors. For example, in the years that I've been here, I see an average of about 100 brand-new student faces in my classrooms EVERY semester!

Believe me, we have SEEN it all, we have HEARD it all... You might THINK you are fooling your professor with some excuse. You see them smile warmly and sympathetically, and give you that extension, or accept this excuse... But most likely, they don't care. Teaching is a lot of work. If a student is THAT committed to a lie (or exaggeration) in order to "get away with" missing class or getting an extension, then fine. We can turn our attention to the students who are there for an education (rather than waste extra time on those who are there just for their degree).

BUT KEEP IN MIND, someday, if ANY student thinks that he or she might need a letter of recommendation for graduate school, or for a job, they should keep in mind that professors are under NO obligation to LIE about you in their letter!

MOST professors will probably avoid the ugly truth, though, merely by omitting those from the letter. The result being a very brief letter along the following lines:

To whom it may concern,

I have been asked to write a letter of support for STUDENT who I have known since ________ as I have had STUDENT in ________ classes. These classes included, CLASS-1, ..., CLASS-n, and STUDENT performed adequately in MOST/ALL of them earning a mean grade of about ________ on a 4.0 scale.

If you should require any additional information, please do not hesitate to contact me.


Professor Name

Not much to say, really. But that was a student who really didn't say much in class anyway. The professor clearly does not really know the student. This is unfortunate. Most of the places (graduate schools or potential employers) are looking for information about reliability, aptitude, ability to take on challenging tasks, potential for success, communication skills, etc. These can sometimes be extracted from course work, but only rarely and probably never ALL qualities needed to write a good letter. So obviously one point that could be taken from this is to get the professor to know you AND demonstrate the skills and qualities that can be written about you in a strong letter.


Imagine what the professor COULD (should?) have said if the student engaged in ANY of the following classroom behaviors:
  • Often arrives late to class. ("Often" as in: I noticed it a couple of times.) How do you imagine this behavior would look to a potential employer? As far as your professor is concerned, this is the type of employee you would likely be. As far as your professor is concerned, this means you won't take graduate school that seriously either.
  • Often packs-up and/or leaves class early. So... why should I hire you (or accept you into my program) again?
  • Text-messages, or reads/studies-for an unrelated book/class, talks to neighboring students, (etc.) during my class. Um, yeah, THIS is a good person to hire. THIS person reflects the qualities I'd want from a graduate student... This student would surely be trusted to stay focused on the job, finish a task, pay close attention to detail, etc.
  • Only does the bad behaviors (or has a bad attitude) in OTHER classes. The ones that don't matter, right? Yeah, like professors never talk... they NEVER go to a colleague and ask, "Hey, do you know this student? How does this student do in YOUR class?" Yeah, being selective about what classes you slack off in is a REAL good strategy. Best of luck with that! So really, that type of student is NOT to be relied on. Apparently, if they think they can get away with crappy behaviors, they WILL try to behave that way.
BOTTOM LINE: Your professors are NOT likely to be your employers or the people who make the final decision as to whether you get into a graduate program or not. However, they ARE key elements to that process. Your letters of reference are not based solely on your grades but can also include the impressions you give to them while you are taking their classes. Should you be worried? Not at all if you would behave the same way in class as you would if your boss or graduate mentor were watching you. Or, think of it the other way, would you want to spend money on employees or give scholarships to graduate students who behaved similarly?