Pardon Me, Dr. Deadbeat, But I Have A Question ...

by Ben Kleinman

It's a fairly simple one, and I'm sure most professors are more than qualified to answer it. It's likely that all too many professors are qualified to answer it. My query goes a little like this: What is the difference between your lecture and the book assigned for your class?

"Ooh, ooh, I know the answer!" I'm spending about 5,000 dollars on your class, and 100 dollars on the book.

Maybe you don't see my point just yet, so I'll rephrase the question. And I'll skip the cutesy stuff and cut to the chase. Why are Tulane professors reciting chapter headings and quoting from the textbook and calling it teaching? Do these professors honestly think that students don't recognize overhead after overhead of bulleted text as nothing more than section titles from the assigned reading? Are they too lazy to prepare a lively, engaging lesson or do they think that we actually enjoy spending three hours each week being told what we've already read.

There are some excellent professors at this school. I have had the pleasure of taking classes from some of them and these professors manage to make class, if not exciting, at least interesting. They also have consistently high attendance in their classes. Why do students go to their classes? Because it's imperative that they do so. It's not that there is a direct link between the grade received and the number of classes missed, but if you don't go to class you won't understand the material as well as someone who does attend class. These teachers teach.

There are also some not so excellent professors in this school. I didn't name the good ones, so I'm not going to name the bad ones (and despite the noble ideal of standing behind my convictions, I still need several of these deadbeat professors to write recommendations). However, students know these professors, and they more than likely know who they are. As a little clue, you could probably use a bit of a refresher on what it means to teach if you regularly have only about 60% attendance. Especially if people who don't show up still manage to ace your tests.

Let me explain exactly what it is I'm writing about in this little editorial. To quote the 1993-95 catalog, "Tulane classrooms are places of intellectual excitement." This can be very true. I've had classes where students did get excited. They paid attention to a lecture, took notes, asked questions, and even learned -- on a daily basis. But I've also had classes (perhaps they even constitute the majority of my transcript) where students, if they were present, routinely slept. Or where they would sit with a pen and their textbooks and underline everything the professor said -- because it was all in the book anyway. Underlining, while possibly entertaining if you have a multicolored pen, is not intellectually exciting.

Maybe professors don't trust their students to read the book. Maybe professors don't believe Tulane students are intelligent enough to understand anything more that what is written in the book. Maybe the book happens to be the end all and be all -- the ultimate reference on that topic. Or maybe professors don't trust themselves to come up with an original lesson plan -- or are unable to do so. Let's handle each scenario.

If you don't think your class will read the book then don't ask them to buy it. That way, you can buy the book, make it into a series of overheads, and present a book report to the class. We won't know. We may not be bursting with enthusiasm, but at least we'll show up and won't fault you for making us spend 100 dollars on a book. Or we'll sleep in and copy someone else's notes.

A lack of faith in the ability of Tulane students is unjustified and perhaps even a sign of malpractice. Our job, as parents and administration are fond of saying, is to learn. If we can't do that, if we can't make heads or tails of a class because the professor chooses to be a little creative, then we deserve to fail. Any professor who turns down the intellectual volume of a class to avoid failing someone who can't handle the noise is not doing right by that student or by Tulane. If you absolutely must avoid failing people than don't -- raise their grades. But don't limit the opportunity of students to learn. For crying out loud, this is a university.

Perhaps you have found the perfect textbook. It's lucid, it's detailed, it's complete, it's perfect. Then you, dear professor, should just have office hours. Don't go through the motions of having class if you can't teach me anything that's not in the book. If the book is wrong then it's not perfect, and you need to let the class know. If the book is confusing, then it's not perfect, and you need to explain. Not restate, but do something vaguely original and explain. If however, the book is neither confusing, nor wrong, nor incomplete, then let me come to you if I don't understand. Tell me what book to read, allow me to ask questions, test me on the material, and leave me alone. Don't compel me come to class if all you're going to do is rehash what this book says because you're unable to contribute anything original.

The last excuse I proffered on behalf of our beleaguered professors was professional insecurity or ineptitude. It's perfectly possible that Tulane University employs professors who don't trust themselves to diverge from the suggested lesson plan in the teacher's version of the text. And in some cases that may be quite all right -- Prentice-Hall might have some damn fine people in their employ. But don't count on it. And don't count on students to provide you with a lesson plan by way of their questions. While it may work every now and then, classes become bored when proffs pull a Ferris Bueller's 'anyone, anyone.' If you can't come up with a lesson that excites students and that gives them a compelling reason to come to each class, then you should not be teaching. At least not at Tulane University.

What it boils down to is that we are not just students in the academic sense. Clubs, friends, sleep, and multitudes of other responsibilities compete for our time. If professors don't make class interesting, if the lesson is nothing more than an oral (or aural) version of the text, then it tends to be more convenient to read the book (when we want to read the book), then to attend class (when the professor wants us to attend class). Professors have expertise in their fields, a knowledge that probably can't be captured in a book (even if that very professor wrote it). Professors who fail to convey that knowledge and who settle for recycling someone else's words are wasting our time and our money. And they are not doing their jobs.

Last modified: 1995-96 academic year?