“My prof is so stupid”

Leslie Ward, via Wikimedia Commons

I’ve heard this said on my campus. Often by a student who is also making fundamental factual and grammatical errors in the process of an extended whine that, I can only assume, was prompted by a lower-than-expected grade.

I’ve also gathered from students who have asked me about grad school that it is often assumed that becoming a professor is about going to school a lot and then answering job ads like with any other job, and that more or less anyone who can stand going to school a lot would have a decent chance.

That’s kind of true, but mostly really, really not true.

As I’ve written before, the Ph.D. degree — which is pretty much always required for a professor’s job — is not some kind of ultimate IQ test. It really requires more drive and motivation than anything else. But, at the same time, there’s intense competition at many stages to go from an undergraduate degree to a tenure-track job as a professor, so that while it’s certainly possible that your professor might be “stupid” (whatever that means exactly), it’s really unlikely your prof is just some random person pulled off the street who doesn’t know more than you do about his or her subject.

On the contrary, for admission to an MA/PhD program, there are hundreds of applicants and only a tiny handful of openings, so for starters the vast majority of people admitted into these programs went to the most competitive colleges in the world, earned top grades and test scores, and are recommended enthusiastically by Big Name professors. Then, in five to ten years of graduate study, these select few are put through an incredibly rigorous regime, and close to half drop out before finishing. Those who do finish (after having taken extensive exams in all the fields they might teach, judged by the best people working in those fields, and having written a book-length research project which is approved by a committee of top people in their fields), then face an incredibly tough job market (right now it’s the toughest it’s been since the 1970s). You don’t look for ads in the newspaper of the city where you want to live for an academic job. In my subfield this year, for example, there were five jobs in the WORLD. Five. And probably about a hundred people applying for them. All of whom have PhDs from top-ranked schools (Ivies, Chicago, Stanford, Berkeley, with few exceptions). Then, once in a position, those lucky few face rigorous reviews every few years to keep their position.

So that person at the front of the classroom who seems like an idiot to you — he or she had to go through some incredibly intense and competitive hoops just to get there, all after excelling to an extraordinary degree at the level of education you’re currently immersed in. That doesn’t mean that prof is perfect, and he or she may be so overwhelmed by the intense pressure of essentially holding two or three full-time jobs at the salary of half of one that you may not be seeing his or her best work. If your instructor is an adjunct, he or she may be commuting between several school, cobbling together 5 or 6 courses at the same time to earn less than sufficient money to pay rent, with no benefits. Research-intensive universities tend to value a professor’s research agenda much more than teaching and so in those cases you might see someone who has never actually had any training or interest in teaching (but who is a top expert in their field). But that’s becoming rare even at the big research institutions.

On the whole, the chances are you should maybe open your mind a little bit to the possibility that this person might have something of value to teach you after all.

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