A Letter to the Professors

Dear professors, 

First, let me start by thanking each professor for all of the hard work they’ve put in guiding students throughout our academic careers. Thank you for spending countless hours writing our shining letters of recommendation, giving us your sincere feedback on each of our statements, and grading our assignments and exams with constructive comments to help us learn from our mistakes. Thank you for opening up your homes to teach us over Zoom for almost 2 years now, and thank you for adjusting your class curriculums to be better suited to learning from an online setting. Thank you to the professors who make themselves available, whether it’s through plenty of office hours or just over emails and discussion boards. Thank you to those who recognize when a student is going through a hard time and do what they can to support them. Admittedly, it is easy for many students to forget all that our professors do for us. 

Through my time spent at an R1 university, however, I think some professors would benefit from hearing the following gentle reminders…

  • Remember what you mean to students. The things you say will stay with them, especially the higher-achieving students (the vast majority of graduate students). Choose your words carefully and don’t compare students to each other. We are individuals with unique backgrounds and experiences, think apples to oranges.
  • Remember that many students, especially first-generation college students, may not know what it looks like to succeed in academia. These students may lack a figure in their lives that exhibits the understanding, persistence, and management skills it takes to show up to class every day, know how to study effectively for exams, apply for research programs and grants, etc. For many of us, we are just showing up and doing our best. Don’t always expect us to understand how you would define that. Help us to understand these things through patience and communication.
  • Remember that many students come from broken families and have grown up struggling to make ends meet. Not everyone’s parents can afford to buy their kids a new car when they get their driver’s license. Many of us rely on other transportation that takes more time and is often less reliable (e.g., taking the bus, catching a ride with a friend, biking, etc.). We move through life much differently when juggling a job or two while taking a full load of classes. Then our beat-up used car (that we could barely afford in the first place) just broke down, and our parents can’t or won’t or aren’t there to help us. And, while all of these things are happening, our time is being spent. Focusing solely on your course without these external stressors is absolutely a privilege that not everyone has.
  • Remember what it was like to be a student. Show us your insecurities. Tell us which topics were more challenging for you to grasp and how you overcame them. Being vulnerable does not mean you’re weak; comparatively, much more strength is required to unapologetically be a good, authentic person. 

There is a particular moment in my academic career that will always stand out to me. Generally speaking, I think it’s common for many students to have a bit of anxiety when it comes to receiving our graded exams (myself included). We put in several hours of hard work studying to understand some material, and we are anxiously waiting to find out if we did well. To some students, “doing well” means they got the highest grade in the class; to others, it simply meant they earned the particular letter grade that they were shooting for. On this day, our class received the first graded exam of the semester. What stood out to me, and this is the moment that I’ll always remember, is when our professor got in front of the class to explain why he was NOT going to share the highest, lowest, or average exam grades. He said something along the lines of: “You don’t need to worry about other students’ grades. Are you happy with yours? Good, keep doing what you’re doing. If not, maybe try to study a little harder next time or come to office hours.” Thinking back, this seems like a very reasonable and relatively simple idea…  However, it was undeniably the most inspiring policy I’ve ever seen a professor implement in his own class. I started noticing in classes after that, almost all (if not all) professors did not implement this contemporary approach in their classrooms.

I’ve always wondered why competition in academia has been continually supported. As students, we’re essentially conditioned to compare ourselves to others, using grades as some sort of holy metric we should define ourselves by (and don’t get me started on classes graded on a bell curve). I do, however, recognize the importance of grades, as they attempt to satisfy our need for standardization and quantify the knowledge we’ve gained in each course. What I don’t understand is: why students are constantly being asked to compare themselves to one another, and why do many professors encourage this kind of behavior? 

The fact is we shouldn’t. My grades will remain on my transcript for the limited number of people, most of whom will choose to see them. At the end of the day, other students’ grades have little to no consequential effect on my education or its future applications. Frankly, other students’ grades are none of my business, so why are professors routinely announcing these metrics? We can Google what GPAs we need to aim for regarding our individual goals and/or ask which material is most fundamental to our majors. Encouraging a culture of competition in the classroom simply makes an unwelcome space to learn in. It exhibits this absurd idea that certain people are “better” than others, but if each individual has their own experiences, and knowledge, and background, how could this possibly be a fair comparison? One does not need a Ph.D. to conceptualize ways to improve the learning environment of our students. With that being said, what gives? Why do we continue to allow these attitudes of pretentiousness and condescension to live on? 

Professors— please remember that many of our responsibilities are not limited to that of a student. We are working to help support our families. We are navigating the school system, trying to figure things out on our own, and much, much more. One should never assume that they know a student (or a person) based on what they choose to show you. 

Lastly, I’d like to acknowledge that I’m not sure if this blog post will ever reach the ears (or eyes) of the professors that need to hear (or see) this the most. I’d assume it’s much more likely that any professor who might read this blog post already fully understands these concepts. If, on the off chance, part of this has offended you or you think this is foolish, I’d ask you to do a little self-reflection and think about why that is. What kind of relationship do you have with your students? You know what they say… “If the shoe fits…”

Sincerely,
An already jaded second-year grad student 

P.S. Please stop saying material is “trivial!”

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About Erica Ward

Erica is a second-year Ph.D. student at the University of California, Irvine, in the Mathematical, Computational, and Systems Biology (MCSB) program. She is passionate about enhancing diversity and inclusion in academia and connecting with aspiring mathematicians and scientists.
This entry was posted in Advice, Diversity, First-generation, Grad School, Math, Math Education, Mathematicians, Mathematics in Society, Social Justice, Teaching. Bookmark the permalink.

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