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Faculty hopes: What do our higher-ed teachers want for their students?

REUTERS/Mike Blake
In the end, education may be one of the few “silver bullets” for improving our individual and collective futures.

According to a July Pew Research study, nearly 60 percent of Republicans and right-leaning Independents believe that colleges and universities have a negative effect on the way things are going in this country. In comparison, that percentage is about 20 percent among Democrats and left-leaning Independents.

Andy Tix

Maybe this shouldn’t surprise me. In my experience teaching at various colleges and universities in the Twin Cities during the past 20 years, it has become clear that personal beliefs often are elephants in the (class)room. Countless times, students have told me they were reassured to be taught by a Christian faculty member. Some of my colleagues and I have agonized for years over how transparently to let our personal views be known, both in terms of what we emphasize in our courses and in how we express our opinions to students.

Interviews with seasoned faculty members

This semester, I am on sabbatical, a time for working on projects for which I don’t normally have the time. Because I wanted to better understand some of these dynamics, I decided to interview a dozen seasoned faculty members, in various academic departments, at teaching colleges and universities across the Twin Cities. In a climate of increasing demands for faculty research, the focus of these interviews was a subject I fear we often don’t discuss enough: teaching and learning in higher education. I have even observed a few teachers. Ultimately, I was interested in how faculty desire that their students develop during college and university, and how those desires come through in what transpires in the classroom.

To those who are skeptical or worried about what students are learning, and what kinds of people are influencing our youth: I wish you could have been a fly on the wall during these interviews. Of course, this group is not representative of all faculty. I hand-selected my interviewees, based on whom I most wanted to learn from and imitate. Nonetheless, my biggest takeaway from these interviews is this: Our local colleges and universities are filled with some of the best of the best of our community – bright, thoughtful, caring, and dedicated faculty who sincerely want all the best for their students.

More specifically, I found four common faculty desires for students. Probably not surprisingly, the first relates to knowledge. Faculty hope their students better understand various course-related topics because of their time at college and university. The second – and actually the most commonly mentioned desire in my interviews – concerns the importance of critical thinking. Faculty want students to learn how to acquire and discern good information, think in complex ways given a complex world, and appreciate how we know what we know from different angles. A third desire is more personal. Faculty often mention their wishes for students to identify and develop a passion, grow in capacities for self-understanding and self-reflection, and connect with a motivation to learn more throughout their lifetimes. Finally, faculty desire for their students to learn to direct at least some of their energies outward, developing empathy and compassion toward others, and contributing to a better world.  

Little to fear, much that gives hope

It would be interesting to know which of these desires for higher education – if any – people find objectionable or unworthy. To me, these four faculty desires all encourage both job preparation and personal growth, which themselves are mutually intertwined. They all seem to reflect an important aspect of human thriving. Perhaps bias can enter into their pursuit, but the faculty I interviewed generally were aware of these biases and thought considerably about how to handle them, to be able to help students become the best versions of themselves.

In the end, education may be one of the few “silver bullets” for improving our individual and collective futures. Pulling back the curtain on what happens during college and university may reveal little to be scared about and much that brings us hope.

Andy Tix, Ph.D., teaches at Normandale Community College. He blogs at “The Quest for a Good Life.”

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Comments (7)

No one would argue about

No one would argue about faculty desires to teach and not many would question their good intentions either. It’s the means that are questionable… which leads to questionable results as New York University sociologist Richard Arum demonstrated in his research several years ago…

When I was in academia, I was

When I was in academia, I was dismayed at how many students thought of college purely as job training and their general education subjects as pointless hoops that they had to jump through in order to land that coveted corporate slot.

I wanted them to see that the so-called "pointless" and "boring" subjects were actually the most important ones, the ones that would make them well-informed citizens and would give them perspectives on how to spend their leisure time.

I tried to make them see that spending a semester overseas (the college I taught at made it very affordable to spend a semester in any of five countries and was happy to arrange full-year programs in cooperation with other colleges) was more important than cheerleading.

I wanted them to take advantage of the cultural opportunities on campus--plays, concerts, foreign films, visits by politicians from across the political spectrum, nationally-famous playwrights, composers, and authors in residence--and to understand that drunken parties were not the only ways to have fun.

I wanted them to make friends with the international students instead of ignoring them.

Since I taught Japanese, politics rarely came up in class, although I had to explain the Japanese political system, since most of the students had no idea how a parliamentary system works.

However, in my capacity as a member of the Honors Committee, I did encounter conservative students who wrote senior honors essays that used only right-wing sources. The students were not stupid, or else they would not have been selected for the Honors Program, but they did not understand the difference between a research paper, in which you are supposed to consider and evaluate all points of view, even the ones you disagree with, and an opinion piece, in which you can say anything you want.

I wonder if the reports of "persecution" of conservative students come this misunderstanding. Academics in all fields are expected to begin a research paper with a "literature review," a summary and critique of previous research on the topic. Criticism is supposed to be supported by facts. Then you state your own opinion, also supported by facts.

So if a conservative student writes what is basically an opinion piece and the professor says, "What about Fact A and Fact B, which you ignored? How do you know that your conclusion is true?" that is not persecution or indoctrination.

I went to college in an era when professors argued with liberal students for the same reason, unsupported opinions.

We see our jobs as making students think about their opinions and beliefs, not just accept whatever opinions they were brought up with or have heard on AM radio or at their pseudo-Christian church.

Caricature and Reality

Many thanks to Ms. Sandness for showing what is the dominant mindset in academia. Students who didn't share her left-wing opinions "...did not understand the difference between a research paper, in which you are supposed to consider and evaluate all points of view, even the ones you disagree with, and an opinion piece, in which you can say anything you want." What she implies, of course, is this type of paper characterizes conservative students, unlike left-wing students who are careful researchers not at all influenced by the political monoculture that is "higher education." Pure caricature that appeals to academics in their ideological bubbles.

Mr. Tix expresses noble sentiments about what professors hope for their students. A more realistic perspective about most college students is provided by a tenured professor in this recent Atlantic essay, with this being the most poignant quote: "I'm cynical about students. The vast majority are philistines."

https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2018/01/whats-college-good-...

Reading comprehension, Mr.

Reading comprehension, Mr. Webster.

I noted that when I was in college, professors had the same type of problems with liberal students when I was in college during the Vietnam era. I remember classroom arguments in which professors asked left-wing students (we had real left-wing students in those days) to prove what they were saying.

Coming back to my alma mater teach in the 1980s, I heard some of my own former professors say that they missed those days. At that point, they had a bunch of business majors who just wanted to gather a bunch of grades on their transcripts and get out and saw their non-business courses as pointless

But facts are facts. whether you think they are biased or not.

I honestly cannot recall a time when a non-conservative used one-sided sources.

With liberal students, we mostly saw poor research techniques, such as not making sure that one's sources were up to date (e.g. don't write about the Japanese auto industry in 1988 with a book that was written in 1955) or not footnoting things that should be footnoted (if you state a fact that is not common knowledge in the field, you have to cite your source), misunderstanding minor points of the source (the historical figure did change his name, but not at the time you suggested), or quoting sources that you do not list your bibliography.

The worst thing we saw was senior burnout, where students who had worked their rear ends off to maintain high grades just didn't have anything left for the seemingly monumental task of writing a senior thesis.

I can honestly say that we never saw a liberal student write a thesis without acknowledging all sides (there are usually more than two) in the literature review.

Thorough literature reviews are not "bias." They are a requirement of academic writing and have been since my own professors, most of them now past retirement and many now deceased, taught me about them.

I wonder where you acquired your stereotype of academia. Were you ever a professor? Did a college professor ever persecute you? Or do you get your ideas of college professors from the film "God is Not Dead," which portrays a situation in which any professor in real life would be hauled before the Academic Affairs Committee? Or is it from rants on AM radio or Fox News?

You may be right if you are

You may be right if you are talking about literature reviews (but then how do you know who is liberal and who is conservative – it’s irrelevant in analyzing Shakespeare or Tolstoy). It’s totally different when it comes to political subjects andI can tell you where I acquired my knowledge. My son was in speech, specifically, in oratory/persuasive category, both in school and in college, which is when kids write a 10 minute speech with intention to convince the audience of something. I can tell you that 60% of speeches were presenting a liberal point of view (10% conservative and 30% neutral) and 90% of them had absolutely no supporting evidence or logical structure. I also talked to liberal college students myself and saw lack of reality knowledge and reason.

A "literature review" does

A "literature review" does not necessarily have anything to do with literary studies. It simply means looking at the previous research on the topic, which can be anything from art history to zoology. if you are reporting on your research in nuclear physics or microeconomics, you have to start your paper with a literature review, describing previous research and indicating why you think it is inadequate.

If 60% of the speeches in your son's speech activities were liberal, it wasn't because the teacher said they had to be, because I assume the students chose their own topics, and if they spoke without supporting facts, they were probably marked down.

As far as talking to liberal college students and seeing "lack of reality, knowledge, and reason," I spent eleven years teaching college students, and even the ones with conservative views or those who were non-political could lack "reality, knowledge, and reason," especially the ones who were just out of high school. After all, they're still young, and most probably experienced very little outside their hometowns before coming to college.

Thank you for clarification

Thank you for clarification of the term – I missed your explanation of that. But this is what I encountered: 60% of the speeches (and probably more in college) that are liberal are not necessarily students’ choices, especially in high school. They are there because coaches push those topics, partially because coaches are mostly liberal and partially because those topics win. Of course, the latter reason also partially explains why students themselves prefer liberal topics. Why do those topics win? Because judges are mostly liberal (teachers, professors, students with certain majors, etc.) who naturally prefer liberal point of view that is familiar to them and with which they are already in agreement. As a result, supporting facts and logic are not necessary because judges think that way to begin with and don’t need convincing arguments or facts to be persuaded; they miss opinions presented as facts or evidence and lack of reason because conclusions are pre-determined.

Of course, many young conservatives can’t prove their points of view either and your explanation for that is totally valid. My point was that liberal students don’t know facts and lack logic as well, because you said that you never encountered that… And again, quite often, liberal professors don’t see lack of logic and missing facts in liberal students’ papers but see it in conservatives’ ones.