John Smith hasn’t made up his mind yet

John Smith reports:

I am ready to move on – perhaps for a career where deadlines are
honored, ideas are exchanged and gimmicks and fads are routinely
avoided because they distract from advancing the mission of gaining and
sharing knowledge. Yes, it is time to find another line of work, where
I can enjoy the fruits of my labor, even if I realize that the grass is
grayer, if not greener, elsewhere.

John Smith is the pseudonym of a professor at a liberal arts
college. He asked to remain anonymous because he is continuing to teach
while he is job-hunting and doesn’t want his comments to reflect on his

Read the whole thing, from InsideHigherEd.  The guy swears he is quitting.  He is a tenured English professor in his mid-40s, highly employable in many sectors of our declining economy, especially those sectors where gimmicks and fads are routinely avoided.  I observe that a) John Smith seems to be quite a good professor, and b) John Smith needs one of Robin Hanson’s lectures on self-deception.


How do I know that my concerns are not unique to my employer, or my classroom? My students are brutally honest – they tell me with candor and without shame that their peers think of college as a four year cruise without a destination.

Even if he hadn't described his place as a liberal arts college, we'd know he's not at Princeton or the Univ. of Chicago. Not sure about other undergrad programs....

This also highlights why it is a good idea for students to work (not borrow) their own way through school.

Instead they perceive college as an overnight recreation center in which they exercise, eat, and in between playing extracurricular sports, they carry books around.

Among all the things he criticizes, this sentence strikes me as odd. Do professors really begrudge students exercise?

Well, as one who loathed my undergraduate experience but nonetheless thinks that the ostensible rewards of the private sector are often overstated by bitter academicians, I would say that this guy is in for one hell of a surprise.

If he is as academic as he claims he would do well to read a number of Harvard Business Review case studies about the dysfunction that is legion in the private sector. He will find the private sector no less lazy or partisan or dysfunctional than he finds academia.

Perhaps he is merely in search of Utopia, in which case he is naive.

This professor is a douche, and will do his students a favor by leaving.

Unless his university is an unusually easy one, his points on grades are stupid. The population of college students are magnitudes greater then when he was a slacking sycophant in school. The kids that "dare" to question a grade are self-selected; they are the ones who are constantly in fear of their future employability, where yes, a few C's nowadays will kill you. The kids who meekly accept whatever Mr. Smith deigns to give are the ones who don't give a damn.

There are a lot of things wrong with higher education; Mr. Smith is an example of one of them. I like, for example, his complaint that it seems so hard to read what his lazy students have taken the time to write.

I give him a year on the private market before he's back at a job where performance isn't measured.

There is a structural gap between profs and students - since the majority of students won't dedicate themselves to the life of study, research, and learning that their profs do, it is extremely unlikely that the average student cares as much as their profs do about learning.

Thus has it always been. Profs that cannot accept any value system other than theirs will always have John's problems. Occasionally they whine publicly, more often they whine in private and become bitter and resentful. It's too bad.

In my computer science program, the ability to use what you learn to make money seems deeply understood by the faculty. Maybe that has something to do with the money they make consulting.

Go to the world of warcraft forums to read a number of similar fare thee wells.

MM...yeah, kids these days, huh?

He isn't begrudging the students for not wanting to adopt an academic lifestyle, he's begruding the students for being lazy, spoiled pricks, and his fellow professors for bowing to their standards, to the point where a college degree is meaningless because standards have been whittled away to nothing.

The most obvious and glaring example is "rigorous thought" being completley done away with. "Intellectual sparring" has been done away with, according to the author. This is absoutely unacceptable, as a lack of cognitive ability and the capacity to defend your viewpoints is going to cut you off at the legs later in life: not to mention it throws off negative externalities, since it kills the political process as well.

I cannot speak about the TREND of college education over time, being only a college senior myself. I can certainly attest to the fact that "thinking" is not valued by students at all. "Effort" also is not valued, except to the extent that you work to acquire funds so that you can drink and live in expensive apartments instead of commuting/living at home. Understanding your major is not to be respected: it is to be chided and seen as overly burdensome.
Paying attention during class? Terrible! Students often ask me how I can manage near-perfect grades with little effort: the key, of course, is to listen during the class, because professors have created lectures so watered-down that small children could understand them with ease.
Math? Terrible! It is not seen as an asset, so is entirely shunned.
Bad grades? Totally the professor's fault in the eyes of a student. Some even bitch and moan about failing a test for cheating.

The biggest problem is that students do not have strong work ethics. Nor do they seem to have much empathy. And they all think they are hot shit.

There may be some bias on the part of the professors. I think that the supply of PhD's from top universities is higher than the demand for professors at equivalent institutions. Most of these new academics find jobs at lower institutions. They compare their own college experience (which probably was spent at a good univ, otherwise they could not get into the top PhD program) to their students at the lower institution. Basically they compare Harvard, Stanford or Swathmore to a 2nd or 3rd tier school. Naturally they are disappointed and find their students less motivated than their own classmates.

OK, it's been awhile, but....

I went to a bottom tier undergrad school (open enrollment, the only way I could get in in the mid-1970s). Completed a JD from a 2nd tier law school in the mid-1980s in the top 20% of my class (while working 35 hours per week to support my family).

Went to a large top tier state school in the mid-west to work on a PhD in Org Theory in the late 1990s, during which I was a TA in a 2nd tier MBA program. The first exams I graded, I gave a bunch of Cs and Bs and a few As, and corrected all the incredibly poor grammar and spelling. Was told by my very experienced prof not to do that as the students would get upset and argue for hours, not to mention that I was grading too much like law school and that's not how MBA programs were graded.

I have a lot more respect for places that award appropriate Fs, Ds, Cs, Bs and As than where everyone gets an A (Lake Woebegon, where everyone is above average, isn't real). And have encouraged my high school daughter to ask the colleges she is considering about grade distribution in their classes. My guess is that the weaker the undergrad teaching, the higher the gpa.

I totally get what John Smith is saying. But then again, I thought I was going to be a college professor for my career, and left academia after three years...

The only thing I can say with confidence is to the person who said the private sector is just as lazy as academia: No it isn't. As a professor, you don't even have to show up to your classes; you can ask someone to swap with you, or you can just cancel them. Your only real responsibility is to turn in grades by the deadline. And if you are up against a wall, you could just give everyone the same grade s/he had going into the final, and you'd probably be fine.

I'm not trying to sound bitter, and I personally didn't do the above techniques, but I'm just saying that being a college professor is conducive to laziness that I never experienced in the private sector. (It is close in the non-profit sector though.)

Does anyone here have data on % admissions over the last few decades? I remember reading that even the Ivy's were all once open-admission.

And what about AP classes? Was calculus even taught in high school when the last generation went to class? I don't know about other people's experiences, but for most of the students I went to school with, our parents stopped being able to help with homework about the time we hit sixteen.

It's unfair to generalize, I know, but it also grates when some slacker professor blames his students for his own failure as an educator.

The part that astounds me is that the guy made it to department chair before learning any of this about his colleagues or students.
Newsflash: these were the same people you were an undergrad with, and a grad student with. they cared exactly as much abotu hard work then as now, about intellectual rigor then as now, about getting laid then as now.

I guess that's why Tyler mentions self deception.

@Andrew Lacey

If you are new to Robin Hanson's thinking on bias, overconfidence & self-deception, listen to this short talk from OSCON07. It is one of his most beautiful and straight-forward talks on the subject. I hope he will soon sit down and just take the 7 months that would be required to fdo his book on cynicism, disagreement, bias & even free will.

Hanson is truly one of the great philosophers today, altho' he makes a show of denying it, and the history of ideas will be forever changed if he would relax his elegance of mind long enough to let the rest of us in through the medium of the book! It would be the most discipline-changing work of the last 40 years.

It may be easy to be biased by his own undergraduate experience, he was after all able to go on to get his PhD. Something I doubt his average undergrad will be doing.

Also when I was doing my undergrad at San Diego State University, I talked to the fraternity alumni sitting on the board a fair amount. Those guys made our drinking and chasing of the opposite sex look pedestrian by comparison. They also happened to share the same stories about classes being the least of their worries for the 4 year cruise they enjoyed.

Seriously, he should become a high school teacher. that's the only place where he might be able to change student's minds and behavior, and get an increase in deference.

1. It looks to me like students are paying for and getting exactly what they want.

2. The dream of every person who must trade his goods and services for a living is to determine his own value, rather than submitting to and working hard to understand the preferences of those with whom he trades.

1. It looks to me like students are paying for and getting exactly what they want.

I doubt most students are paying, although it is arguable that most parents are paying for college to get the little dears out of the house for a few years under the guise of "scholarship".

And most students are probably getting exactly what they want. Although like many choices made when you are young and immature, you realize later what bad choices you made.

As an employer who interviews recent college graduates in their early 20s, I am not impressed with much of the product many colleges (and their K-12 schools) are churning out. Contrariwise, most of the kids who played sports in college or who were in the military are much more mature. And MUCH better workers and colleagues....

Government subsidies for higher education have produced incredibly high tuitions that have far outstripped inflation for decades. Students pay too much and expect A's in return. They pay for them; they get them. Stop the subsidies ... watch the prices drop and see quality increase (see professors salaries decrease). A lot of people are getting rich from the fact that college tuition has been driven up so dramatically. Hmm ... reminds me of mortgages ... Sallie Mae next?

Who pays - parents or students - is irrelevant ... taxpayers are paying. When you subsidize an industry, it has consequences ... and one of those consequences seems to be grade inflation.

It is also irrelevant if it is "worth" it or not ... the schools and the banks are gulping up the consumer surplus while the taxpayer picks up the bill.

Most economists conveniently ignore this (could hurt the wallet), but Caplan has the right idea:

Who pays - parents or students - is irrelevant ... taxpayers are paying.

Uh, no it's not irrelevant. I'd like to see the state get out of higher ed - and college sports - altogether. Hell, let sports fully subsidize education! Go team Go!

The education bubble taking a bit longer to inflate, but at some point it will pop.

We could hurry it up a bit by adopting loan and tax policies "making college more affordable" and encouraging even more kids to go to college. Oh wait,....

JSK, I don't want to downplay the importance of the life-saving part, but people often seem to think only about emergency care when discussing this issue.

The efficient provision of more mundane services, which people use throughout their lives, is important for quality of life, too.

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