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What students want from professors

If you want a good education, you need to have good teachers. It seems ridiculous to have to say as much, but such is the state that matters have reached, both in academia and in the public conversation that surrounds it, that apparently we do. Between the long-term trend toward the use of adjuncts and other part-time faculty and the recent rush to online instruction, we seem to be deciding that we can do without teachers in college altogether, at least in any meaningful sense. But the kind of learning that college is for is simply not possible without them.

Teaching is not an engineering problem. It isn’t a question of transferring a certain quantity of information from one brain to another. “Educate” means “lead forth.” A teacher’s job is to lead forth the powers that lie asleep within her students. To put it in the language of computers, you can download all the data you want, but it won’t be any good to you unless you have the software to make use of it. That software, the ability to operate on information—to understand it, to synthesize it into new combinations, to discover and create with it—is what college is meant to “install.” But here the analogy breaks down, for unlike actual software, the installation isn’t quick and easy, and it certainly isn’t passive.

There are two things, above all, that students want: that their professors challenge them and that they care about them.

Thinking is a skill—or rather, a large and complex set of skills. In terms of what they take to learn, they aren’t any different than manual ones—than hitting a ball or throwing a pot. You do not learn them from a book or video or website. You learn them directly from another person. You learn them through incessant repetition and incremental variation and extension under the close supervision of an experienced practitioner. You learn them in classes that are small enough to allow for individual attention, supplemented by one-on-one instruction tailored to your own specific aptitudes and needs. If you’re learning how to play guitar, the teacher will place your hands exactly where they need to go (and do it again and again until you get it right). The mind has “hands,” as well, and an endless variety of things you can do with them.

In class, you do not spend your time transcribing information. The proponents of distance learning are not incorrect to believe that lectures are usually an inferior form of instruction. That is why a significant portion of classes, at least, should be small enough to run as seminars. The purpose of a seminar is to enable your professor to model and shape the mental skills she’s trying to instill. She conducts a discussion about the material, but she doesn’t simply let you talk. She keeps the conversation focused. She challenges assertions, poses follow-up questions, forces students to elaborate their one-word answers or clarify their vague ones. She draws out the timid and humbles (gently) the self-assured. She welcomes and encourages, but she also guides and pushes. She isn’t there to “answer questions,” at least not for the most part; she’s there to ask them.

Some of those questions should be ones she doesn’t know the answer to herself. Discussion in a seminar should be collaborative and open-ended, alive with serendipity and the energy of imminent discovery—a model, too, of how to think together. A student at Pomona praised his professors to me for granting students the “necessary illusion of discussing a book as a peer.” Yet it isn’t altogether an illusion. One of the rewards of being a professor is the chance to learn from fresh young minds as well as teach them. In Jeffrey Eugenides’ novel The Marriage Plot, the class that changes Mitchell’s life concerns the fate of Christianity in modern culture, whether belief remains a viable option. “Richter asked the students questions and listened to their answers as if it might happen here today: in Room 112 of Richardson Hall, Dee Michaels, who played the Marilyn Monroe part in a campus production of Bus Stop, might throw a rope ladder across the void.” I myself became a decent teacher only when I started to relinquish some control over the classroom—stopped worrying so much about “getting my points across” and recognized that those moments of disorder that would sometimes occur, those spontaneous outbreaks of intelligence, were the most interesting parts of the class, for both my students and myself. We were going somewhere new, and we were going there together.

College teaching, like any other kind, is a slow, painstaking, difficult process. (It is also, when properly done and adequately supported, an intensely gratifying one.) It is itself a complex craft that can’t be scaled or automated. You have to get to know your students as individuals—get to know their minds, I mean—and you have to believe completely, as a fellow student wrote about my own professor, Karl Kroeber, in each one’s absolute uniqueness. (It was Karl who said that a genuine teacher teaches students, not courses.)

My years in the classroom, as well as my conversations with young people about their college experience, have convinced me there are two things, above all, that students want from their professors. Not, as people commonly believe, to entertain them in class and hand out easy A’s. That’s what they retreat to, once they see that nothing better is on offer. What they really want is that their teachers challenge them and that they care about them. They don’t want fun and games; they want the real thing.

What they want, in other words, is mentorship. I remember just how starved I was for that myself in college. I saw how starved my students were: for validation, for connection—for (let’s not be shy of saying it) parental figures other than their parents. Not only is there nothing wrong with that desire, it is a necessary part of growing up. Other cultures—Jewish, Indian, East Asian—with their veneration of the teacher, recognize as much. In South Korea, so I’m told, parents warn their children that if they don’t stop misbehaving, they’ll tell their teachers. But in America, we’re not so sure. We are possessive of our kids, jealous of other influences upon them. But in The Path to Purpose, William Damon talks about the critical importance of outside adults in helping young people find their way. And Mark Edmundson remarks, while acknowledging the inevitable sadness for the parents who are left behind, that “it almost seems the natural order of things that children will leave their families and strive to put themselves under the influence of other guides ... more attuned to their rising hopes.”

Excerpted from Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and The Way to a Meaningful Life by William Deresiewicz. Out Aug. 19, from Free Press