Your Prof Might Be a Prick If…

I recently read a piece by a guy who wrote in praise of one of his journalism professors—a man legendary for his exacting standards and fiercely unrelenting discipline. The writer lavishly lauded the autocratic severity of a professor who seemed, to me, like an imperious martinet and a bit of a dick. With each additional word the writer used to describe him, that fondly-remembered former teacher came to seem more and more like a petty tyrant in a very small fiefdom—the sort of man who gets little respect anywhere else he goes, but demands absolute obeisance in his classroom. His kids may diss him at the dinner table, and his wife may be cheating on him with an administrator, but in his classroom he rules— imposing his dictates on students who have little power to resist, and misusing the grading system to exact submissiveness rather than to measure learning. But, for whatever Stockholm-syndrome sort of reason, professors of this kind are often praised by those who survive the time spent under their thumbs. Anyone old enough to remember the movie The Paper Chase knows that these high-horse profs tend to generate a peculiar reverence.

Because I spent so much of my life doing battle with student-slackers, excuse-makers, no-shows, and bull-shitters, I’m not inclined to take sides against professors who try to impose discipline on a category of human beings best known for drinking vast quantities of beer, smoking goo-gobs of weed, and puking up their guts in weekly rituals of alcohol rejection.

But there’s such a thing as pushing students toward self-discipline and diligence—and then there’s a whole other realm of pickiness and policing that is often antithetical to a respect for learning.

For instance, in the blog that prompted me to write this little piece, the writer praised his former prof for the fact that he would accept no assigned work if it was even 30 seconds late, and had a departmental secretary assigned to monitor the precise moment a student’s work was turned in. Miss the deadline by half a minute, and you got no credit for your work. As a result, some students who did good work failed the course because of a stern and arbitrary deadline that had little to do with measuring learning, or the quality of work produced. What it measured was compliance with dictatorial whim.

When I mentioned this to the guy who was praising this kind of high-handed treatment of powerless underlings, he said that the course was journalism, where deadlines are important. And while I agree that is so, no “real world” editor in his or her right mind would fire a reporter or writer for missing a deadline by such a razor-slim margin. Nor would they discard a well-written and well-reported story because of a petty infraction of that kind. But schoolhouse dictators who like to impose strict rules on students always say they’re just trying to prepare them for the harsh realities awaiting them beyond academia. The fact is, however, that unless students wind up with those occasional bosses who turn out to be real pricks, the so-called “real world” tends to be no more or less harsh than the conditions one can find in school.

My point here is intended for conscientious college students who may have the misfortune of encountering an instructor who reveals an autocratic temperament in the way he/she sets up the syllabus. I’ve had colleagues who drafted point scales for student performance that would have made an entire law firm look as though they weren’t trying hard enough to split hairs and refine fine points. These teachers deducted points for all sorts of things that had nothing to do with learning the subject at hand. Back in my day, such profs could ding you for not setting your margins in the ways they dictated. One memorable dictatorial type subtracted a full letter grade for each punctuation error. Still another would count words, and drop his assessment a full letter grade if the (rather arbitrary) length had not been achieved. It didn’t matter if the particular essay turned out to be cogent and better for its brevity; the length had been assigned, and smart students quickly learned the bad lesson that padding was a good way to write. It isn’t.

It’s unlikely that anyone who spent even a semester in college has missed having one of these rules-y teachers, with a syllabus that reads like a legal brief, and a point scale that measures compliance with authority over the work turned in.

If you’re currently such a student, dealing with a teacher who seems to use the grading system primarily as a tool for asserting dominance, it just might be that your prof is a prick. If the syllabus makes you suspect that he (or she) is, then it would be in your best interest to drop that class and seek out a teacher who wants to teach what’s in the course description, and wants to use the crude apparatus of the grading system to appraise what you’ve learned— not how willing you were to fall in line with a set of rules designed to evaluate your character.

Beleaguered teachers need all the help they can get to ensure that students show up for class, that they don’t constantly straggle in late, and that they meet reasonable deadlines and performance expectations. But when your professor’s grading system rewards petty adherence to petty rules, it just might be that your prof’s a prick who thinks his/her job is to determine which students are most likely to be docile future members of the workforce who are unlikely to buck the system, ask questions, or think for themselves.

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  1. Murray Suid says:

    While this excellent essay is addressed to students, I’d also recommend it to people entering the teaching trades. Possibly, the ideas herein could nudge a novice professor toward teaching in a rationale, humane way. What the world doesn’t need more of is pricks, whether bosses, neighbors, spouses…or teachers.

  2. LaTarves Brooks says:

    Rules are not to be followed? You’re the prick.