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"She has a poor attitude towards students." "He is not a very approachable professor." Students frequently find such comments in their Cue Guides as they shop for classes. The attitude and approachability of a professor have undoubtedly become important factors for students when electing which classes to enroll in. The degenerating productive role of the Teaching Fellows in classes pushes students to look towards their professors for guidance--and rightly so. However, more and more students are finding that professors have more important things to do, that their priorities often do not include students at all.
It is no secret that to achieve tenure at Harvard you really need to be at the top of your field. Professors need to publish or establish themselves outside of the Harvard community in order for Harvard administrators to consider them favorably. Tenure is a word with major ramifications at Harvard. Don't say it around professors, it has the same effect that the word "recruiting" has for seniors, or "MCATS" for juniors--it is just not pleasant to think about. Concerned about their future, professors must devote a large portion of their time to researching, writing, inventing, and finding the cure for AIDS and the rest of the world's diseases if they want a job next year. Undoubtedly, this puts enormous amounts of pressure on the professor but it most certainly affects and hurts the students in the end.
The combination of this requirement with the already unfortunate existence of severe snobbishness among many professors just doesn't add up too well. Harvard is blessed with some of the most well-known authorities in so many fields of study. Of course, many of them also recognize that they are blessed and act as if a shrine is the minimum contribution we can make to their life-long worshipping campaign. Students become severely intimidated by these two factors and shy away from professors. Then there is the other half of the student population which does have the guts to approach the professors and get laughed at when proposing that a professor help them with supervised research or a thesis. What professor has the time to help a measly undergraduate with an insignificant thesis?
Many students, excited about the prospect of working closely with an expert faculty member for their thesis or even for a supervised research plan, are quickly disappointed when reality sets in: professors cannot dedicate time to these affairs because they need to dedicate time to furthering their careers. Although this is an understandable immediate reaction to the pressure placed by Harvard criteria, what does this mean for the striving student, the student who, despite a difficult schedule of his own, is willing to set time aside to research a topic that can potentially help his future? It is a tragedy that this is a consequence felt mostly by students.
Professors are just much too busy for students. Wait, did I really say that? Too busy for students? I thought that students were what made this school and what this college was for. I thought that a professor was an expert in a given field who taught students at a college like Harvard. Instead, college and the occupation of professor have turned into a test factory for professors to produce, not a forum to further a student's education.
What if this school was instead composed of professors who decided to ignore this type of criteria system, deflated their heads and instead made students their number one concern and dedicated their time to helping students on a more regular basis? Is Harvard trying to convince me that this kind of professor, the kind that cares about students, is not the ideal kind of professor?
Is it up to administrators to change the requirement for professors and tenure? Or is it up to professors to get a reality check and realize that they are simply human-smart humans, of course-and not superheroes? A combination of both efforts would be really nice. Maybe it would have been better if we didn't go to Harvard, but instead to a normal college, where you can get a pretty good education and where the professors have the time and the heart to care more for their students than for how many times they can see their name in the paper.
Nancy Raine Reyes' column appears on alternate Saturdays.
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