This post will try to pull together a few things that have been on my mind lately. And no, despite my increasing annoyance at the elementary teacher job actions and strikes in Toronto and Vancouver, this has nothing to do with any of the teachers my children have had.
The trigger (and I use the word advisedly, since there appears to be an entire generation so delicate that they require warnings and ask in advance that their lecturers avoid "trigger words") was reading Sylvia Townsend Warner's Mr. Fortune's Maggot. In so many ways, this is an inverse of the (superior in my view) novel by J.F. Powers: Morte d'Urban. In Morte d'Urban, a smooth, urbane (and urban) priest is more or less banished to the wilderness of rural Minnesota, where he essentially rediscovers his faith and finds a new purpose ministering to his new flock. In contrast, Mr. Fortune somewhat perversely chooses to become a missionary (despite the strong misgivings of his superiors), fails miserably at it, and, incredibly, is not recalled, despite making no progress at all -- making only one partial convert in 3 years. I'm just not really feeling the payoff, since books about people failing in their careers are generally not that entertaining for me, though I might make exceptions for those where they are thwarted by external forces. I guess I just don't see Mr. Fortune rising to the level of self-consciousness where he can identify his own short-comings as a priest. (For all his failings, Fred Vincy of the novel Middlemarch at least realizes that he would make a lousy priest and he exerts himself (to some degree) to find another calling.) Anyway, Mr. Fortune has such a weak understanding of human nature that he thinks he can comfort or at least distract his young charge by teaching him abstract mathematics and starts with geometry. He, of course, is just as poor as a geometry tutor as he was/is as a priest.
The other main strand behind this post is what I consider a generational gap between Gen X and Gen Y. There was some article by a Millennial either in the Guardian or in Slate (I can't seem to retrieve it now) where as a bit of an aside the author said that it should be taken as a positive sign that Millennials cared enough about their education that they often asked to retake mid-term exams where they had done poorly. Most of the commentators below the line that addressed this aspect of the piece were a bit incredulous and hostile, and certainly in general, the reception of the piece was negative, feeling that the author had merely proved their point about how disappointing Millennials really were. Nonetheless, there was one very persistent Millennial below the line who kept asking if Boomers or Gen X'ers would like it if they were fired for one bad day at work or one botched project. Aside from the fact it is a silly comparison (getting a bad grade is not the same as being fired -- it is more like getting a bad mark towards one's annual review and this definitely does happen when someone botches a major project), it definitely reflects a very different approach to education -- that it is a continual process, that rewarding progress should matter more than absolute standards and that educators need to accommodate students with different educational needs -- and when taken to the logical extreme, that students have no meaningful accountability. I don't really hold with any of this, but this is more or less what the education lobby has been promoting in North America for a decade or two. (I'm not trying to single out educators -- every profession suffers from quite a bit of groupthink. I just happen to think that the current trend in education is a pernicious one.)
However, university professors are brought up in a different system (much more dog eat dog), and it is fair to say that teaching students is more or less an afterthought, particularly at the more prestigious schools. So it is a bit of a buzzsaw effect when students brought up through high school in a more supportive system hit university.
I probably would not have even written this post except on a shuttle bus back from the Brick Works yesterday, I overheard a young woman (probably the upper end of Gen Y) complaining about a terrible professor who would not let a friend of hers retake a mid-term. I had kind of thought it was an urban legend, but here was the embodiment of this generation's entitlement in the flesh. While she had some concrete examples of why he was a terrible professor, I still don't see why it is incumbent upon the professor to change the grading system or to offer make-up exams, unless that was clearly spelled out in the syllabus. (For example, in the class I taught, I made it clear that the students could delay handing in one assignment for a week with no questions asked, but they could only do it once. For a different course I TA'ed, it was spelled out that the lowest grade on one assignment would be dropped. I think these are examples of trying to accommodate students and understanding that not all assignments will register equally well for all students. But it is simply unfair to allow one student to get preferential treatment on a mid-term!)
I had professors I got along well with, but I simply didn't understand what they wanted on an assignment, and I accepted the poor grade. No question I was unhappy about it, but it wouldn't even have crossed my mind to complain about it. For that matter, I ran into a professor where my style of learning and his lectures didn't coincide at all, and I eventually had to withdraw from the class and retake the class with a different professor. That was certainly unfortunate, but again, I think it is one of the things one learns in college -- that not everything revolves around you and your needs. (In the spirit of full disclosure, I did try to get the "W" taken off my transcript after I passed the course the following semester, since I thought that was within the rules, but I didn't pout when I found out I had withdrawn too late.)
Given all the quirks of academia -- and all the years I was part of it -- it is actually surprising that I have not had that many terrible professors. Most were quite good. I did have some I didn't find very inspiring, but I still learned something from them. I had one statistics professor who was quite good on abstract theory, but it was only the follow-up lectures by the TA that allowed any of us to understand the practical details and thus complete the assignments and pass. (This is a case where the department took preemptive corrective actions. I might have had a more sympathetic ear for those Millennials if we had been given lectures on one thing and been tested on another.) I did have one professor of philosophy take over a course and change the entire direction -- we had to spend far more time on Hegel than was allotted, and this ended up being a disappointing course, not just because of the swerve but because I was not in sync with this professor's style.
In terms of the worst, as I think over my whole career, I only had one professor who literally dusted off old notes and gave the same lecture year after year. He was probably the third worst professor I had. The second worst was at U Michigan where a professor of religion basically insisted that we parrot back what she had lectured to us in our term papers. The very worst was a professor at U Toronto, who, in addition to expecting us to parrot back her line of thought, was actually quite sarcastic to students in the out group. Hands down she was the worst professor I ever experienced. Yet even there I didn't go and complain about the grade (though I did think it unfair) or ask to resubmit a paper. However, a few years later I did try (unsuccessfully) to sink her chances of tenure when UT contacted me, somewhat out of the blue.
I think professors and university students always have some gulf between them, but it seems to have gotten much worse in recent years. Expectations are unchecked, and a consumerist mindset has infested many of the students (and their parents!) that it is the students who are paying for a good education, which by necessity includes getting good grades. The more privileged and prestigious universities are making some headway against this tide, but the trends are not promising. While there are many days I wish I was in academia, I also read about these Millennials expecting to retake tests and negotiate their way to a better grade, and I realize I am well out of that. I'm quite sure I would be rated as an unsympathetic and unfair teacher myself with poor scores on http://www.ratemyprofessors.com, particularly on the Hotness score. It kind of boggles my mind that this is what matters nowadays.