Thursday, November 18, 2010

Berating Professor Talbert for Berating His Students

Since I wrote my post on the video that shows Cornell's Professor Talbert admonishing his students for artificial loud yawns in the middle of his lecture, I have visited quite a few academic websites that discuss this situation. I was surprised to see how many fellow academics literally fall over themselves in their rush to condemn their colleague (talking about teacherly solidarity, one can see that it hardly exists.) What people fail to realize, though, is that while teaching at Cornell sounds extremely prestigious, it isn't as simple as it might seem to someone who hasn't tried doing it. As someone who did, I would like to share my insights into the very specific nature of teaching at Cornell.

Cornell students are quite special. Don't get me wrong, I loved my students, and I still keep getting letters from them thanking me for being their teacher. However, these kids mostly come from a very specific kind of families. From birth, they are prepared for a certain kind of life, for a certain type of careers. Many of them have those helicopter parents who follow their children's academic successes with a single-minded dedication. Before you give a Cornell student a B (let alone a C), you have to brace yourself for endless phone calls that you will receive in your office from concerned parents screeching "My son is so hard-working, and you just went and destroyed his entire future by giving him a B!" Often, this is followed by the timeless adage of "We are paying you a lot of money to teach my kid, so go and teach her in a way that will let her continue being a straight A student she's always been!" One of the first things you are warned about as a new faculty member at Cornell is how to deal with such parents because the issue is so wide-spread at that university.

The students there are very hard-working and dedicated. However, their academic diligence is of a certain nature. It is very mechanical and even robotic. They see the learning process as a set of tasks and obligations that need to be completed. Involving them in general discussions about anything is very hard because they start badgering you with questions about how this discussion will be relevant to the final exam, the final essay, and the final grade. Whenever you talk about anything in class, you get interrupted every two minutes by a student asking in a frustrated voice whether this will be on the test. As a result, the students feel exhausted and lack interest for anything that will not be on the final exam. It isn't for nothing that Cornell has become known as a "suicide school." 

I once interrupted one of my courses at Cornell and dedicated 3 weeks of class to discussing with my students why they organized their academic careers - and their lives - in a way that precluded all enjoyment. Why did they see the process of acquiring education as a series of boring obligations that need to be ticked off the list on a daily basis? Their answers to these questions were sometimes scary. "What other way is there?" they would ask. Or, "I need to graduate, find a good job, and start supporting a family" (this from an 18-year-old boy who, obviously, had no family yet.) "My parents invested all they had to pay for this, so I can't disappoint them." And so on.

We talked for three weeks about why being overworked and deriving no pleasure from life was considered fashionable among Cornell students. Why they flaunted their endless to-do lists in discussions with friends. Why the idea of spending all day in bed with a good book or a collection of old movies, or that perennial staple of student life - arguing about art, politics, and the meaning of life with their fellow students all night long - scared them so much. I am happy to report that since then one of the students in that class wrote to me to tell me that he was taking a year off school to fulfill his dream of travelling through Latin America, while another student decided to join the Peace Corps for a while. Both of these students' e-mails started with "Remember what we discussed in our course on identity? So I decided. . ."

Professor Talbert was teaching a class with 250 students. As a result, he had no chance to enter into these long, philosophical discussions with the students. You need an intimate setting of a literature seminar in order to do that productively. Having to deal with the students' profound indifference (and often even an outright rejection) towards anything that isn't robotic, task-oriented, and ultimately meaningless, he took the road of showing them how unacceptable such an attitude is. If the parents of these students failed to teach their overachieving little robots anything about decent human behavior, what choice does a professor have but to remind his students that the world is a lot more complex than they were led to behave? That getting an Ivy League education and learning to multi-task will not make it acceptable to be a swine and treat others like rubbish.

You go, Professor Talbert!

P.S. Google surely works fast. An hour after I posted this, the post comes up at the top of the search for "Professor Talbert." I'm glad because I don't think that the character assassination this fine educator has been subjected to is fair.

34 comments:

Richard said...

As I have noted before parents who send their children to Ivy League schools like Cornell for their undergraduate work are wasting their money. That being said, I am somewhat surprised that Mr. Professor Doctor Talbot’s outburst is considered so much out of line. In my college days students were routinely kicked out of class, professors would stop in the middle of a lecture and stalk out of class over something as trivial as a dumb question, and many thought nothing of insulting and embarrassing students in front of the class. Part of the learning process is the constant tension between students and teachers that sometimes leads to unpleasantness.

Clarissa said...

I think that there is this general environment of "let's dump on the teaching profession" that's very much in vogue nowadays. Newspapers, magazines, TV shows are filled with ridicule aimed at college professors who teach nasty, liberal values to good, wide-eyed, innocent American kids. So whenever an opprotunity arises to demonize a college prof, it is milked for what it's worth.

V said...

So what are you supposed to do about students' parents according to Cornell administrators?

I am not at Cornell, so I had this experience only once. Just refused to discuss their son's grades with the parents. Said it is between me and him...

Clarissa said...

Well, there are 2 possibilities. Either the parent has been able to bully the student into signing a release allowing them to discuss their grades with me or not. In the latter case, you try to get rid of the parent by telling them that you are not allowed to discuss. . . etc. Which is not extremely helpful because they tend to get shrill and insistent. In the former case, you are supposed to ask them to come by with the student to discuss their academic goals. Bleh.

Canukistani said...

“Having to deal with the students' profound indifference (and often even an outright rejection) towards anything that isn't robotic, task-oriented, and ultimately meaningless, he took the road of showing them how unacceptable such an attitude is.”
Your post started me thinking about an article in McLean’s magazine this month about “Asian universities.” Basically the article frames the issue of the type of university experience along a party animal/ technocrat in training continuum rather than a liberal education versus task oriented job training dichotomy. This is analogous to the public media dissection of the current crisis in America to a left/right bifurcation rather than class warfare. Asian kids just study math and science while “white students, by contrast, are more likely to choose universities and build their school lives around social interaction, athletics and self-actualization—and, yes, alcohol.” Framing regulates the discussion and is connected to the control of the low information voter which I discussed in a previous comment. Your comments about students are not new. Upton Sinclair in his book, “Goose steps: A study in Higher Education” which was published in 1923 during a prior plutocratic era makes similar claims. I’ll leave you with the words of Upton Sinclair as written on page 462 of his book.
“The need of the college professor is one with the need of the citizen and the worker; and so, when you agitate for academic democracy and freedom of teaching, you are educating the community and taking your part in that class struggle which is the dominant fact of our time. You will find that the struggle calls for its heroes and its martyrs, in universities as in factories and mines. To college professors who read this book—and especially the young ones—I say: what is life without a little adventure? You will not starve; no educated man need starve in America, if he keeps command of his inner forces, and uses but a small quantity of that shrewdness with which his enemies are so well provided. And surely it is not too much to ask that among the two hundred thousand instructors in American colleges there should arise just a few who are capable of combining intelligence and self-sacrifice!
What are you? You teach history, perhaps; you handle the bones of dead heroes, the ashes of martyrs are the stuff with which you work. Or you teach literature; the spirits of thousands of idealists come to your study, and cry out to you in your dreams. Or perhaps you are a scientist; if so, remind yourself how Socrates drank the hemlock cup with dignity, in order that men might be free to use their reason; how Galileo was tortured in a dungeon, in order that modern science might be born. Is it then too much to ask that you should risk your monthly pay check, to save the minds of the young men and women of our time? Think of these things, the next time you are summoned by your dean for a scolding, and tell him that a college professor remains an American citizen, and that he does not sell all his brains for two or three hundred dollars a month!”

Richard said...

I find the general tone in the discussion of parents disconcerting. In point of fact parents are the ones paying the bills and indirectly your salaries. As parents they love their children and want to make sure they are doing alright. They are counting on the education the children are presumably receiving to allow them to make a good life for themselves. If you are not allowed to discuss student grades without the students permission, that is all well and good. There are no rules preventing you from explaining that to parents and maybe even assuring them that their child is receiving the best instruction possible.
Superciliousness and smirking behind bureaucratic rules are unbecoming to anyone including academics.

Clarissa said...

Canukistani: I cannot believe I have never read this great book by Upton Sinclair. Thank you for the apt quote!

Clarissa said...

Richard: as a pedagogue, I can assure you that nothing is more detrimental to a young adult's development than this kind of cloying, coddling, helicopter-like love on the part of their parents. How do you think a 20-year-old student feels when his parent drags him into the teacher's office and humiliates him by demanding that the "boy" should be given better grades? In my experience, students are mortified by this. The embarrassment makes them incapable of processing any information as a result. I don't think that paying the bills should give anybody the right to inflict such humiliation either on the students or on the teachers.

Richard said...

Clarissa of course you are correct. University should be the time one young men and women become their own persons (grow up if you prefer). Yet ‘cutting the apron strings’ is hard on the parents and sometimes the children as well. My point is that little is gained and much is lost by treating parents like interlopers who no longer have the right to be concerned for their children.

Clarissa said...

What is shocking is how notorious this fairly trivial incident of a professor who admonished students without using a single offensive word suddenly became. This post has literally gone viral. There were people from Finland and Greece, for Pete's sakes, who entered "Professor Talbert" into Google Search and landed here. I really didn't expect anything like this when I wrote the post.

In said...

Unbelievable. These students, or someone tied to them, are paying on average of $30,000 per year for this school. If it wasn't so expensive, I would agree with the majority of these statements and this blog post. However...that alot of money! It really is COMPLETELY out of line to treat a 6-figure investor in such a manner. With a classroom of 250 people, Professor Talbert insulted a group of people responsible for about 7.5 million dollars in tuition payments.

Unfortunately, in the United States, University is no longer the simple act of "cutting the apron strings" when theres so much money involved.

Clarissa said...

Wow. That's really sad. The next thing we will hear is that if Professor Talbert is getting a salary, he should put up with any kind of disrespect.

How tragic the pervasiveness of the corporate mentality that insists an employee should agree to any kind of disrespect and indignity in exchange for a paycheck.

Tell me, In, if ypur employers paid you an 8-figure salary, would you allow them to, say, spit in your face (literally) in exchange?

Anonymous said...

Nice try, but I still think he's a douche, and that you sound a little douchy yourself ranting about how students who are trying their very best to be successful are nothing but "overachieving little robots". As a side note, I feel that reading some of your comments ("How tragic the pervasiveness of the corporate mentality that insists...", etc.) in which you use flamboyant language to try to seem smarter than your opponent has disillusioned me from my belief that there was a significant gap between Cornell-level professors and typical teenage girls.

Clarissa said...

I don't think that a person who writes things like "has disillusioned me from my belief"
should comment on anybody's writing style unless they want to make a fool out of themselves.

MetaDouche said...

Clarissa, you are again being douchy by calling out Anonymous; I am saddened you won't admit it. Let's take a post-postmodern look at this. It is your own acknowledgement and critique of Anonymous's comment that undermines your argument. You're being a meta-douche, just as I am. At least admit that you're a douche. I am one myself.

Clarissa said...

Is your life so pathetically empty that you have absolutely nothing else to do other than troll on other people's blogs in this unimaginative and clumsy manner?

sptc said...

The tuition still doesn't pay the whole cost of education, and paying tuition does not mean one is buying grades and a license to mistreat.

It's not just Cornell. Today I had a student unable to participate in class discussion because he was listening to his iPod and couldn't hear us - as I realized when I called on him. This student couldn't afford the book so I went to the trouble to get him a free copy. Meanwhile I have an honors student who stays asleep and cannot be roused. And others who allege that since they are "visual learners" (which they appear to construe as a disability) refuse to either listen or speak. And in the past one could have asked them to wait in the hall rather than disrupt class in these ways; now that students are customers, they are always right, and we can't do this, although their non participation is detrimental to others. Also: because they are receiving financial aid, they must always attend class even if their goal is to fail, and we must allow them this privilege regardless of the effect they have.

I am a taxpayer and I also do a lot of free things for the university, so I am also subsidizing these students. Even if this were not the case it would not be their right to behave poorly, nor receive high grades because they paid tuition.

I also note that many students, although they know nothing about the subject being taught, often have strong opinions about what aspects of it should be taught and how. Mine today wanted the right to not think about Juan D. Peron's connections to Mussolini. Eva was a saint, their parents say so, therefore all peronismo is virtue and any other historical information and critical thinking is sacrilege. Well, if I just told them they were right, I wouldn't be educating; however to some "education" means graduation not learning.

Anonymous said...

"It really is COMPLETELY out of line to treat a 6-figure investor in such a manner. With a classroom of 250 people, Professor Talbert insulted a group of people responsible for about 7.5 million dollars in tuition payments."

This is one of the saddest opinions I have heard in a long time. You don't really think this, do you? Does your opinion also apply to high school students who go to private schools, for example? I cannot grasp how anyone can believe that a professor or a teacher can only demand respect in proportion to the tuition being paid. So, students whose parents pay $30,000 in tuition per year cannot be reprimanded, but those whose parents pay $3,000 - no problem? That's so skewed.

Clarissa said...

" however to some "education" means graduation not learning."

-Exactly. If I were to listen to my students' ideas on how to educate them, we would have no tests, no grading, and half of the lectures would be cancelled altogether.

J.L. said...

Clarissa,

You really ought to stop responding to this lot. Have you seen the episode of 'The West Wing' where Josh "Lemon" Lyman interacts with his online fan base, with disastrous results? As Josh said of the internet commentariat, "...it's a crazy place. See, it's got this dictatorial leader who I'm sure wears a muumuu and chain smokes Parliaments."

Best,

J.L.

Clarissa said...

Thank you, J.L. As an educator, I have this weird need to answer even the silliest questions. :-)

Anonymous said...

"students' profound indifference (and often even an outright rejection) towards anything that isn't robotic, task-oriented, and ultimately meaningless"

As a current student of Cornell University I absolutely resent this generalization. While I understand where you're coming from - a great many of my fellow students do praise the almighty god that is GPA - you are completely underestimating students' genuine academic interest. It is merely a function of the system that, in the course of fulfulling all of Cornell's various graduation requirements, every student will inevitably find him or herself in a class towards which he or she holds little to no interest. When a student is placed in a situation like that, it is only natural that he or she will try to avoid unnecessary work or effort. If that means catching a nap in a class in which a student feels he or she can perform acceptably well, then why not conserve that energy to dedicate towards a more interesting subject? While there is no shortage of ambition at a place like Cornell, I have met a rare few who do not hold and pursue genuine scholarly interests. For example, attendence at various colloquiums or events with guest speakers tends to be quite high, despite the fact that academic credit is not necessarily involved, nor are the topics discussed likely to be on any tests.
As far as it being hard to start general discussions with students at Cornell... I must disagree. Perhaps involving students in general discussions of specified topics may be difficult, but if you would listen to the general conversations that students have inbetween classes and at their dorms you might find that many students engage each other in scholarly debate about issues and topics entirely irrelevent to their GPA. Within my first week or two as a freshman this year, I had already been involved in at least three general philosphical discussions with dormates that lasted between 4 and 6 hours each. Of course this is entirely different from a discussion led by a professor or other educator, as informal discussion among students has no focused direction, but through these discussions - led entirely by personal interests - the depths to which we probed each others minds was truly incredible. I imagine one would struggle to identify such behavior as "robotic".
Now, I recognize that my experiences do not represent the entirity of the University (or even more so of the collegiate population), I only ask that you at least acknowledge in you post, that neither do yours. (Part of the discrepancies between our two view points may simply be that educators are not provided windows into their students' lives...)
There is much more I would like to elaborate on... but as I mentioned I am a student at Cornell and the clock has just struck 5am... hardly the time for me to be pursuing my non-credit/gpa/what have you related interests (or for pursuing any interest other than sleep for that matter). (I would also like to respectfully request that you overlook my far from perfect writing style and mechanics - while I dabble in poetry, mine is not quite the art of the pen... or at least it isn't yet... hell I may not even have an art yet, oh well.)

Anonymous said...

"students' profound indifference (and often even an outright rejection) towards anything that isn't robotic, task-oriented, and ultimately meaningless"

As a current student of Cornell University I absolutely resent this generalization. While I understand where you're coming from - a great many of my fellow students do praise the almighty god that is GPA - you are completely underestimating students' genuine academic interest. It is merely a function of the system that, in the course of fulfulling all of Cornell's various graduation requirements, every student will inevitably find him or herself in a class towards which he or she holds little to no interest. When a student is placed in a situation like that, it is only natural that he or she will try to avoid unnecessary work or effort. If that means catching a nap in a class in which a student feels he or she can perform acceptably well, then why not conserve that energy to dedicate towards a more interesting subject? While there is no shortage of ambition at a place like Cornell, I have met a rare few who do not hold and pursue genuine scholarly interests. For example, attendence at various colloquiums or events with guest speakers tends to be quite high, despite the fact that academic credit is not necessarily involved, nor are the topics discussed likely to be on any tests.
As far as it being hard to start general discussions with students at Cornell... I must disagree. Perhaps involving students in general discussions of specified topics may be difficult, but if you would listen to the general conversations that students have inbetween classes and at their dorms you might find that many students engage each other in scholarly debate about issues and topics entirely irrelevent to their GPA. Within my first week or two as a freshman this year, I had already been involved in at least three general philosphical discussions with dormates that lasted between 4 and 6 hours each. Of course this is entirely different from a discussion led by a professor or other educator, as informal discussion among students has no focused direction, but through these discussions - led entirely by personal interests - the depths to which we probed each others minds was truly incredible. I imagine one would struggle to identify such behavior as "robotic".
Now, I recognize that my experiences do not represent the entirity of the University (or even more so of the collegiate population), I only ask that you at least acknowledge in you post, that neither do yours. (Part of the discrepancies between our two view points may simply be that educators are not provided windows into their students' lives...)
There is much more I would like to elaborate on... but as I mentioned I am a student at Cornell and the clock has just struck 5am... hardly the time for me to be pursuing my non-credit/gpa/what have you related interests (or for pursuing any interest other than sleep for that matter). (I would also like to respectfully request that you overlook my far from perfect writing style and mechanics - while I dabble in poetry, mine is not quite the art of the pen... or at least it isn't yet... hell I may not even have an art yet, oh well.)

Anonymous said...

Professor Talbert was an asshole; he over-reacted to a Yawn most likely putting all his stress and misery on that one person who was an easy target and proceeded to publicly humiliate that student and embarrass himself.
However what is really pathetic is that a bunch of eggheads are turning it into some pseudo-intellectual debate. In real life we view these things as mistakes and then forget about them.

Max S. said...

I go to Cornell and I found this post really insulting. What I love about Cornell, and I really love it here, is how diverse the student body is, especially in terms of interests and academic priorities. Your description of the students speaks to only a small part of the enormous student body, while I know it is accurate for some, to apply it to the whole is inaccurate, inappropriate, unwarranted. You are entitled to your opinion and again, I am not saying you are entirely wrong about everyone, but I feel insulted that you think you could paint 20,000 students with such a broad brush. You are portraying yourself as an authority which means you should chose your words more responsibly. I sincerely hope you do so in the future.
Go Big Red

NJ said...

I don't know if the last 3 comments were really left by Cornell students or whether it's just some people trolling. If they are actual students from Cornell, then I'm surprised how these commenters don't understand than they just made Cornell look a lot worse with these comments than anything Clarissa has written.

Clarissa said...

I don't know that, NJ. But I do know that it feels very weird to have people tell me that what I write are just my opinions when that is stated clearly in the blog's header.

So I confirm for everybody: yes, everything written on this blog is my own personal opinion. Everybody should feel entirely free to start their own blog and fill it with opinions of their own.

Soon, some people will arrive at a profound conclusion that everybody's experiences are subjective. And then they will leave many comments pointing out this huge revelation.

Anonymous said...

Please take note: Saying "that is a generalization, please recognize that it is so" and saying "that's just your opinion" are two entirely different things.

I believe I presented myself quite respectful, admitting that much of what you say is true and makes sense with regards to a portion of the population at Cornell. In fact, what I hoped, with my post, was to ellicit a response that would A - recognize the generalization you made and B (more importantly) - help me better understand your point of view as well... because that is precisely the nature of the discussion we Cornellians like to involve ourselves in - that which helps us better understand different points of view. I had believed you to be an intelligent person who would be willing to engage in such a conversation with me. While I still believe you to be an intelligent individual, I now see that you are only interested in providing constructive conversation to those with whom you already agree.

My apologies, I will look for a more open mind.

(The 5:09am poster)

Clarissa said...

Dear Cornellian,

I am sure that you are a great student and an interesting, thinking individual. However, there is no disputing the fact that personal experiences are, indeed, subjective. My experience of Cornell as a teacher was of necessity different from your experience of this great university as a student. No amount of debate will make me forget my experiences. As it won't make you forget yours, I am sure.

Max S. said...

Dear Clarissa,

I repeated the obvious that this blog is your opinion just to point out that I was not trying to devalue what you said. Obviously your opinion is as valid and your experiences are your own. It just concerns me when you make a generalization like, "these kids mostly come from a very specific kind of families." I am sitting in my dorm room right now after eating dinner with some other kids on my floor. The idea that any of us came from similar families, let alone a majority as "mostly" implies is ludicrous. It concerns me that people will trust what you say and have this negative view of those of us at Cornell and out families. There are just so many generalizations that it is hard to take them seriously when applied to all 12,000 plus undergrads.

My feelings were hurt by the post and I just wanted to make sure that another voice was heard talking about Cornell students.

-Max

Anonymous said...

"cornellian"? is that an actual word?
ouch - it sort of backs Clarissa's point of portraying Cornell as an elitist school

are there any other schools that invented a noun to use as a term to describe the student body?

Clarissa said...

Max S.: You are always welcome here. Talking to you has made me miss Ithaca to the point of tears.

Anonymous: at Yale, we were Yalies. :-) :-)

Anonymous said...

Clarissa,

I appreciate wholeheartedly your ability to dissect social identities from the egregious mess that is our current university system. However, I don't think it's appropriate to conflate frustration with an entrenched system and outright, blatant disregard for human dignity. A kid yawned, and a professor overreacted. This is pretty cut and dry. You wouldn't yell at employees for yawning, and you wouldn't yell at your boss for yawning. We have a certain set of social mores that we contract to as adults, and this professor clearly took advantage of that. Why did he take advantage of that? Kids at that age have no idea how such things work and are far more willing to let things like that slide. He was simply taking advantage of a classroom. We can pretend that college kids are adults, but they are generally intellectual adults and still emotional children (particularly in the USA). Professors should keep this in mind.

Sorry that your blog is being exploded with comments!

Clarissa said...

Oh, Anonymous. There is no bigger gift you can make to a blogger than to leave many comments on their blog. :-) Especially such intelligent ones. Your point about the emotional immaturity of college students is well taken.

Last week a student came up to me to ask some questions. In the process, he made several references to "the other kids" or "some kids." It took me a while to realize that the "kids" he was talking about were other students in the class.