“But I Am Their Professor”

This is a guest post by Rebecca Jordan, a contributor to the recent November-December issue of Academe. Jordan is an associate professor of environmental education and citizen science, and director of the program in science learning at Rutgers University. Her interests are in Behavioral Biology, Learning, Development of Cognitive Models, and Public Understanding in Science. 

My investigation into student attitude and responsibility began when a colleague mentioned to me that a student said that I “get” my students.  This colleague then asked me how I do so.  I really didn’t, and am not sure if I really do, know the answer to that question.  To be honest, even when I was a student in college, I am not sure I understood much about the mainstream student culture!  I can’t even answer the question as to why I worked hard as a student.  I just did as if there were no other way.

Perhaps it was my inability to understand why students seemed to lack motivation or concern for their learning that lead me to ask them.  In doing so, I really did want to understand.  I also found that through my conversation with my students that they wanted to understand my perspective as well.  I must admit that another colleague reported to me a similar discussion with their students.  The outcome of that conversation, however, was not so positive.  It became clear through our discussion, that this colleague didn’t really want to understand so much as seek verification for their already established notions about student laziness and lack of discipline.  In that case, I can understand why that student-faculty discussion did not go well!

It is so difficult to let go of our expectations as to who we think should be sitting in front of us in a college classroom.  My experience and research into this issue, however, has led me believe that letting go of these expectations and to look, instead, at who is in front of us is critical for student and faculty success.  Openly embracing and seeking to understand who is there, representing both positive and negative aspects of learning, will readily foster an environment for growth.

With more experience, I find myself a bit less tolerant of individuals who claim that this is not part of their job description.  Fostering a learning environment IS part of the job description.  But even if someone disagrees, if you notice your gas cap is open after seeking full service at the pump, do you decide not to close it because it isn’t your job; driving instead back to the station?  Why make life harder on yourself?  It is a lot easier to push a stone uphill with a little help.  I believe our students are there to help. Agree? Disagree? Somewhere in the middle?

Note: A fuller discussion of this topic may be found in the November-December issue of Academe in “But I Am Their Professor”, an essay by Rebecca Jordan.

2 thoughts on ““But I Am Their Professor”

  1. The best communication is always “other-centered”. Teaching seems to me more about discovery, connection, and transformation. Students and teachers who journey together on this path have a much richer experience. I taught business law,school law,law and education,law and medicine, and social welfare law. Law can be tedious and boring; but discovering law and connecting it to personal experience transforms the student,the teacher and the community within which they reside. That is neither tedious nor boring. That is exhilarating and motivating. I am now retired but I miss having such fun with my students. I really appreciated this post. Brava!

  2. I recently read Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. I normally would not read so called “self help” books, but am in a professional development program that is using it, and I am glad it is. In it, Covey espouses the benefits of developing a strong character, not of utilizing cheap personality tricks to get others to follow you. His fifth habit, “Seek first to understand, and then be understood” is all about being an empathetic learner, and is a skill I have been actively practicing since reading it. Strong listening with the intent to understand can be helpful in so many circumstances!

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