Don’t Just Complain about Bad Professors

Students are often exasperated by professors who waste their time with boring, rambling, irrelevant lectures. The problem is that tenured faculty members often just don’t care any longer. Sure, students can complain about them (such as at but that doesn’t accomplish anything.

I have no quick answers, but let me offer some insights to this problem. In a nutshell, the best path to improved teaching is to have better motivated, knowledge-hungry students. Like all human beings, professors crave appreciation, and with more approval, performance will improve. Teaching awards and cash bonuses cannot motivate teachers who daily encounter intractable student indifference.

That rather obvious insight arrived during a dinner-time Eureka moment. I was explaining to guests the principle of operant conditioning (dispensing the reward after the desired behavior) and recounted the story of a professor of psychology whose students conditioned him into the corner without him ever recognizing it. The ploy was simple: each time the professor headed toward the corner, students displayed rapt attention and smiled. But, when he returned to the center of the classroom, students immediately looked bored, sleepy and otherwise uninterested in learning. Supposedly, within weeks the professor automatically made a bee-line for the corner and never dared to venture out.

Students could learn from that.

Want the professor to update his shopworn syllabus? My advice is for students to begin asking questions that indicate that they are doing the reading. After all, what professor will spend hours revising a syllabus if nothing is read? Better yet, students should show thanks when the professor brings fresh material to classroom discussions or responds to a student question with, “You may want to read a recent article in ….”

Want the instructor to sharpen up incoherent lectures? Then they should respond positively to a particularly lucid explication or, conversely, look puzzled when he or she wanders off into endless confusion. What is critical is that professors see a connection between their lectures and how students react.    

More generally, students should display a zest for knowledge versus (as is all too common) obsessing over trivial details. Never, never ask the professor such questions as “Do we have to know this stuff?” or “Will the exams cover the readings?” or anything else that hints that all they care about is doing well on tests. No teacher is likely to make the extra effort when students become animated only when the grading curve is discussed.

What about students who complain about the lack of personal attention from professors?

That complaint is certainly commonplace, especially at big schools, but there is another side to this story. Professors are sick and tired of dealing with students whose only motive in making an appointment is to extract a grade change, a paper extension, or some other undeserved dispensation.  

Every professor of my acquaintance knows the drill—a student who arrives during office hours and initially feigns intellectual curiosity but eventually comes to the reason for the visit: “Can I take the test early since I have a plane reservation two days before the exam?”  If students want professors to be more accessible, they should talk about something of substance and cut the special pleading.

Would more knowledge-hungry students portend vastly better teaching in American higher education? Not quite. But, faced with students who actually want to learn, professors will try harder and teaching will improve. That could even motivate the zombies to update syllabi, spend more time polishing their lectures, and otherwise concentrate on imparting knowledge.   

Many students today are content with unmotivated professors, but we don’t need wholesale change in the student body before change is possible. Only a handful of enthusiastic students can re-energize weary or indifferent faculty members.

Let me conclude by acknowledging that this solution to improved teaching is a reach. In today’s intellectual environment (see my The Graduation Rate Myth) nobody can rehabilitate students mired in sloth. To even attempt this task risks a “Nazi” reputation and it might be career-ending.

But progress is possible. My aim here is to broaden the debate on how to promote “good teaching” by acknowledging that it takes two to tango. Let me also add that to a significant extent, good teaching begins with the admissions process, a connection that is seldom grasped. It is more than a bit ironic when a college president on Monday gives a speech celebrating “excellence in teaching” and then on Tuesday calls for admitting (and then retaining) students who are likely to be baffled by most classroom lectures and reading assignments. Surely the president must realize that nothing will kill the passion for teaching faster than facing students whose blank stares (and awful exams) demonstrate imperviousness to any classroom effort.

Encouraging good teaching and achieving a culturally diverse student body can easily collide. For decades, I taught courses on American politics that included students from abroad who were unfamiliar with the nuances of American culture and the English language. Many of them were smart but, judging by their ill-informed questions and often blank faces, they often failed to understand my lectures (and, I suspect, the reading assignments). Try explaining McCarthyism and witch hunting to students who have never encountered these terms or, more likely, vaguely know the concepts but not the American vocabulary.

The upshot of having to teach such students is that everything must be slowed down and diluted. Explaining terms and historical references can also bring classroom tedium, especially to better-prepared students who have heard it before. Such adjustments do not necessarily undermine good teaching, but conveying intellectual content will necessarily be hindered, and to the extent that we define “good teaching” as imparting knowledge, “good teaching” will decline. 

The bottom line is that professors who are under the gun to improve their teaching should demand students who will appreciate the extra effort. That begins with recruiting students whose appetite for knowledge will inspire the faculty. The faculty’s battle cry should be the old Hindu proverb, “When the student is ready to learn, the teacher arrives.”

Maybe college presidents should instruct their admissions officers to undertake an “affirmative action” program to get more students from a truly “underrepresented minority,” namely students who actually want to be in college to learn. Having a “critical mass” of such students (no matter what their other characteristics) could do a lot to raise the level of teaching and thereby benefit all students.