Why professors don't bother

When I was an undergrad, I noticed that professors were often reluctant to deeply engage with students; when I got students of my own, I realized why and wrote “How to get your Professors’ Attention — along with Coaching or Mentoring” to explain it. Since then, I’ve noticed one other facet of this general phenomenon: when I do engage, or spend a lot of time offering advice or guidance, students often ignore it—making me feel like I wasted my time. Paul Graham’s footnote in A Word to the Resourceful catalyzed this realization for me:

My feeling with the bad groups [of tech startup founders from Y Combinator] is that coming into office hours, they’ve already decided what they’re going to do and everything I say is being put through an internal process in their heads, which either desperately tries to munge what I’ve said into something that conforms with their decision or just outright dismisses it and creates a rationalization for doing so. They may not even be conscious of this process but that’s what I think is happening when you say something to bad groups and they have that glazed over look. I don’t think it’s confusion or lack of understanding per se, it’s this internal process at work.

This happens with students too. A few weeks ago a former student wrote to me about career choices and whether she should major in biochem or English; she started with biochem but struggled in classes (which isn’t at all unusual in science classes). A friend majored in biochem major, so together we wrote a thorough response that turned into an essay called “How to think about science, becoming a scientist, and life” that should go up soon. After spending a couple hours detailing an array of issues, we sent the e-mail, and I got back a response saying. . . she’s going to go to law school and “become a judge.”

So all of the considered reasoning and description and discussion was merely “put through an internal process in” her head. (She’s not the only student to have done this, but she’s merely the most recent example.) Reading her response was painful because she has no ability to understand what being a lawyer or judge is actually like and no ability to project what she’s going to feel like or want in a couple of years, let alone ten, let alone twenty. She’s not alone in this: most people can’t anticipate what they’ll want in the future, and most of us can’t even remember what we were like in the past; we tend to imagine ourselves always having been more or less as we are now. That’s one of Daniel Gilbert’s remarkable insights in Stumbling on Happiness.

Now, I might be overwrought about this, and I might be wrong; one commenter said:

I’m not saying your student didn’t have a pre-filter as you describe. On the other hand, you may have been just one source of advice for your student. Asking for advice doesn’t mean that taking it is always the best course, it’s information to be weighed against all other advice and information.

This is certainly true, but I have’t gotten the sense that most students are doing this. My sense is that most are trying “to munge what I’ve said into something that conforms with their decisions,” or they just “outright dismiss it and create a rationalization for doing so.” The worst part isn’t even that they’re doing so: the worst part is that they’re probably not even aware they’re doing it.

(Observing this phenomenon also makes me wonder about how much I listened when I was an undergrad or just out of college; I may have been no better than the student I’m describing above.)

There’s a second reason why I suspect professors don’t bother and build intellectual moats, and it relates to “25 Things I Learned From Opening a Bookstore;” someone in a Hacker News thread about it said, “Turns out mild loathing towards users isn’t unique to software.”

I suspect that, in retailing, 95% of the customers are fine, but that last 5% take up a disproportionate amount of time and mental energy, whether because they’re clueless or morons or mean or whatever. That’s how I think jaded teachers / professors develop: most students are okay, but that small percentage of “story” students create all kinds of artificial barriers and special exceptions and so on that make the teacher / professor not real pleasant. (I won’t defend the exact percentage of 95 and 5 in teaching, but I will say that the vast majority of students are okay and thus not terribly memorable, while the bad ones or the jerks are entirely too easy to recall.)

One jerk makes a vastly larger impression than twenty nice students, customers, or waiters. The jerk sticks in your mind as an example, and the more you build defenses against the jerk, the worse you’re going to react to the average, reasonable student, customer, or waiter, because you’re calibrating your defaults to dealing with the tiny minority who are jerks or irrational or irrationally demanding, when you should try to ignore those experiences with the jerk minority. If you don’t, you’re going to be overly brusque or defensive, corroding the quality of your teaching, selling, or life. The rules you make to deal with the jerks also apply to the normal, pleasant students or customers. Paul Graham discusses this at the scale of companies in The Other Half of “Artists Ship”:

The gradual accumulation of checks in an organization is a kind of learning, based on disasters that have happened to it or others like it. After giving a contract to a supplier who goes bankrupt and fails to deliver, for example, a company might require all suppliers to prove they’re solvent before submitting bids.

As companies grow they invariably get more such checks, either in response to disasters they’ve suffered, or (probably more often) by hiring people from bigger companies who bring with them customs for protecting against new types of disasters.

It’s natural for organizations to learn from mistakes. The problem is, people who propose new checks almost never consider that the check itself has a cost.

Over time, business and government accretes rules that are designed to prevent mistakes, but those rules themselves can eventually become so onerous that they stifle legitimately good ideas. As professors or other people with power and knowledge begin building defenses based on the 5%, a lot of the 95% are harmed too—which is unfortunate. I’m also not sure there’s anything that can be done about this at the institutional level, because the incentives point to the value of building a moat. But by reminding individuals of the cost of the moat, and implicitly telling students how to get over it, perhaps a few people will have a better overall experience.

EDIT: Here’s Graham on funding startups: “The reason we want to fund the most successful founders is that they’re the most fun to work with. It’s exhausting trying to pep up founders who aren’t really cut out for startups, whereas talking to the best founders is net energizing.” Replace “founder” with “student” and “startup” with your field, and the same thing applies. So if you’re a student, you want to at least look, and ideally be, energetic and resourceful.

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