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Oct 19, 2020

The harsh professor syndrome

It happens to those professors who do not learn how to teach and relate to students reasonably well within the first 3 years or so of their career. Receiving one- or two-years’ worth of negative student evaluations is tolerable; one can always use them to grow and learn. However, if they keep coming, the temptation to blame the students becomes almost unbearable. We begin to hear that “our students” are unprepared, immature, do not have good study skills, and need discipline. From such a colleague, we hear that students are too conservative, lacking imagination, racist, and otherwise prejudiced (All of which may be true but our job is actually to help overcome those deficiencies). The afflicted professor begins to talk more and more about the academic rigor, and how it is our job to uphold higher academic standards. They talk about how students need to learn a hard lesson, that harsh unbendable rules will prepare them for future lives and careers. You will inevitably hear how every student should be treated in exactly the same way. You will be told that if a student is homeless and lives in her car with a child, she must turn on her paper exactly before the midnight on Friday, like the syllabus says, otherwise it would be unfair to other students. And the entire world may actually end iа you show the slightest flexibility. You will hear that a student’s parent struggling with COVID is not an excuse for a missed class without a doctors’ note. And you will hear those stories again and again. They become incantations more than communication.

Our brains are very good at generating thousands of excuses to justify harshness toward students. As Tolstoy once wrote, “We love people not so much for the good they've done us, as for the good we've done them.” And vice versa, we do not like people we are mean to. Each individual excuse may have validity to it, and we all make fun of some of our students. However, the give-away sign of the fully blossoming harsh professor syndrome is the obsessive discussion of reasons why it is just, right, and necessary to be an asshole. The syndrome is not caused by intrinsic personal traits, although there may be a predisposition. No, it is a result of failure to teach, and the strong need to explain away the failure. Chronic failure is incompatible with professional and personal self-respect. It creates a tremendous cognitive dissonance. The dissonance can be resolved in one of two ways: by learning how to teach and/or relate to students, or by developing the harsh professor syndrome.

The tragedy of the syndrome is that it is very rarely reversible. Once a person develops it, her or his teaching and relationships with students fall victim of the self-fulfilled prophecy. One starts expecting all the bad things from students, and of course, they manifest in one’s classroom more and more readily. I am not writing from some point of moral superiority. If not for the great support from my senior colleagues at Bowling Green, I could have developed it too. They never supported the bad student talk, but strongly supported me in my growth as a teacher. I am so glad we have such a strong culture of teaching here at Sac State; it is the only way to avoid developing the syndrome. However, ultimately, it is a personal responsibility to stay away from it. Doctors never complain to each other how sick their patients are. Neither should we ever allow each other to blame student for the fact that they need teaching.

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