I am not your friend, but I do want students to feel comfortable approaching me. And I am not “Mr.” That would be my father.
Last week in this same space, Katrina Gulliver, made an argument regarding “an epidemic of familiarity among undergraduates” that directly implicated white male faculty for “resting safely in the comfort of assumed male authority.” I have witnessed this alleged epidemic in my very own classroom; and I have — much to the chagrin of Gulliver — done nothing to prevent it. Some, in fact, may even accuse me of silently fostering it.
Who I am is a white, male, millennial faculty member and college administrator who prefers creating a respectful environment in which my students are afforded the greatest opportunity for success without worrying about the same interaction in other classrooms. I have been known to occasionally teach in clothes that I could mow the lawn in and apparently a student or two have at some point said I was cool. That’s not my goal, however: I did not pursue a doctoral degree with visions of becoming Robin Williams in "Dead Poets Society." Instead, I worry about making sure I deserve the respect of my students rather than expecting my title or position to simply demand it. I want students to respect me as an individual, not solely for my role, title, or degrees.
I strongly believe there is no need to rest on my apparent genetic laurels. I may be a white male, but this has nothing to do with why I am comfortable in a classroom. And more importantly, I think it has little to do with why students can respect me despite knowing my first name and using it if they feel so inclined. The underlying current of any college classroom involves a faculty member who is supposed to be more educated then the students on the topic being covered and understanding that this person will control assessment and grading. No matter how formal or informal interactions may be between faculty and students, those facts rest squarely in the backdrop of everything. If what students call me determines whether I am respected or not, I’m not deserving to be in a classroom.
Rather than worry incessantly about how an email is drafted, I am thankful students are asking questions. On the first day of class I consciously do not demand to be referred to by any particular title. There is no need for a lecture on why I want to be called Dr. Miller, Professor, Will, or even Master of the Universe. I may have a reputation for being laid-back and getting good teaching evaluations, but I also carry a hefty DWF percentage. Being informal does not imply that I am an easy A. In fact, I’d argue the opposite. If students respect me as an individual, I firmly believe I am able to push students to do more because of that mutual respect.
In an era of discussions throughout higher education about flipped classrooms, student engagement, and whether faculty should be a sage on the stage or a guide by their side, some faculty seem to be forgetting the importance of place, comfort, and feel in determining how to run their classes and manage their relationships with students. Like Gulliver, I did not use first names with my undergraduate instructors and still struggle using the first name of my dissertation chair. In fact, I still have nightmares about accidentally slipping and using the first name of a particular faculty member during an office hours meeting and the subsequent tongue lashing I received. Yet I did not lose respect for her nor her for me. Because the interaction fit the expectation for that particular faculty member.
And that is my major concern with the line of reasoning used by Gulliver yesterday. Without question, certain colleges, programs, and student bodies necessitate different levels of familiarity between faculty and students. Even perhaps more importantly students do need to be exposed to professional work behavior. Unlike Gulliver, however, I believe a part of that process is being able to navigate different environments and interactions. Students are fully capable of discerning what is acceptable with one faculty member and is not with another. If we look at today’s work environment, it is hard to believe that a student would fare well attempting to enter the workplace at Zappos.com or Google if they demonstrated the type of behavior Gulliver mandates with students.
In short, it is about fit. I am at time envious of my friends and colleagues who wear bow ties, five piece suits, or even just sports coats to class every day. But that’s not me. And I do not view colleagues any differently who wear Vans and comic book t-shirts into the classroom. What I wear, how I allow students to address me, and the way I conduct class sessions does not make me an inferior instructor or complicit in some alleged epidemic of familiarity. In my experience, it creates the learning environment that I feel best allows students in my classes to succeed.
Faculty should make expectations clear to students, but in an era where higher education faces regular attacks from outside actors, should we really be casting stones at each other regarding interpersonal style and choices? So, Dr. Gulliver, I apologize for not helping you out. But, in the grand scheme of things, I am considerably more concerned with making an environment that works for my students and I then worrying about you thinking I’m “down with the kids.” After all, am I not here for the kids? There is an important difference between formality and professionalism that appears to be misunderstood by some in the academy. I feel more comfortable teaching in jeans and being called Will than being Dr. Miller with a necktie on. Yet I’d welcome someone to attend one of my classes and suggest that I am ineffective as an instructor for these reasons.
Will Miller is director of institutional research and effectiveness and teaches at Flagler College.
Students at Alamo Colleges in San Antonio will have to take an academic success course based in part on the popular self-help book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, MySanAntonio.com reported. The course, backed by Chancellor Bruce Leslie, had been controversial among faculty because it will replace one of just two humanities courses in the core curriculum. Faculty at Northwest Vista College were particularly vocal in their opposition, writing a letter to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board asking it not to approve the course as part of the core. But the board approved the course this week. Viviane Marioneaux, president of the Faculty Senate at Northwest Vista, said the course had not gone through the typical faculty vetting process and compared what she said was a "course-centered," versus student-centered approach to the core, to "riding a horse backward." Leslie has said that students come to college underprepared and need explicit instruction on how to "do" college and prepare for the working world.
Instead of trying to counter the survey data that led Professor Cech to conclude engineering education makes students cynical, I would instead like to highlight some of the motivations and actions of engineers and engineering students and then consider whether these indicate a desire to improve the human condition.
Lafayette College hosts a Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) summer camp for elementary school students. At the camp last summer, I was asked by a camper to explain what engineers do. Engineering covers such as vast array of applications and technologies that summarizing the whole of engineering to a group of 10-year-olds in a sentence or two was a challenge. I’ve heard it said that engineers are “problem solvers” but that description seems a bit vacuous. Medical doctors are problem solvers, but they’re not engineers. The description of an engineer as a “problem solver” is, at the very least, incomplete. I needed to think of something better for the camper, but I’ll get back to that later.
Let’s dig a bit deeper and look at the motivation for engineering problem solving. Why do engineers develop things like smartphones, medical devices, and (my favorite on this frigid winter day) central heating? The cynical answer here would be the money. Engineers do have relatively high compensation rates compared to many liberal arts degree recipients and they have excellent job prospects. However, it is not money that motivates students to become engineers. The high salary may initially attract students to the programs, in a similar way that high salaries attract people to become medical doctors, but the hope of future earnings does not drag students into a lab at 2 a.m. to complete an analysis. Passion does.
Data support the premise that engineering students want to have a positive impact and improve the human condition. Over the past decade, enrollment in undergraduate engineering programs across the United States has increased by nearly 25 percent. Over this same period, environmental engineering enrollment has grown nationally by over 75 percent and biomedical engineering has grown by an astonishing 170 percent. The very nature of these degree programs is to help people and the environment. This provides direct evidence that engineering students are deeply committed to using their talents to improve people’s lives. More traditional engineering disciplines have also grown in numbers partly due to employment prospects, but also because prospective students see engineering as a way to simultaneously have a financially rewarding career while bettering the world.
Students who pursue engineering careers want to combine their math and science skills with their creative abilities in what is called engineering design. Although the engineering design process is taught at every engineering school, there is no single agreed upon “best” design process. Just like different companies have different design principles and practices, faculty and engineering programs have different variations of the design process as well. That said, engineering design always starts off with the same first step; recognizing a need. Engineers, at their core, are trying to make things more efficient, easier to use, and more effective.
One of the most progressive engineering design processes, made popular by Stanford University’s Design Institute, is called Design Thinking. An early step in Design Thinking is to empathize with the client. Whether an engineer is developing a prosthetic leg to enable an amputee to walk, a process to produce a drug to lower cholesterol, or a bridge to better connect people’s lives, engineers are empathizing with the condition of those impacted by their design.
One can gain insight into the values embraced by the field of engineering by looking at its professional organizations. In addition to the traditional ones founded to improve safety and reliability of engineered systems, organizations such as Engineers Without Borders, Engineering World Health, and the National Academy of Engineering’s Grand Challenges were formed in the last 25 years to make a positive impact on the human condition. Recently a new type of organization was created called Engineering for Change. This community brings together the combined talents of engineers, social scientists, NGOs, local governments, and community advocates to improve the quality of life in communities around the world by promoting the development of affordable and sustainable solutions to the most pressing humanitarian challenges. These types of service organizations are thriving at engineering schools across the country with broad participation from students who are doing impactful work to help people live happier and healthier lives.
Engineers are optimists who believe that they can design and create solutions to help solve the problems facing society. This brings me back to the response I gave the camper who wanted to know what engineers do. “Engineers make people’s lives better through the use of technology,” I told her.
There is nothing cynical about that.
Scott R. Hummel is the William Jeffers Director of the Engineering Division at Lafayette College.