Berkeley Undergraduates and Professors: Then and Now

Stephen Hsu mentioned the documentary At Berkeley. In response, someone who had graduated from Berkeley long ago and recently returned commented:

One thing hasn’t changed much though, most professors still hate, and with studied contempt, having anything to do with undergraduates.

My mom was an undergraduate at Berkeley. I asked her what she thought of this comment. She didn’t agree, but she didn’t exactly disagree:

I got absolutely no sense of “studied contempt” or dislike from profs. Some were dull, one went on my forever hate list because he humiliated a student in public, some were difficult, one was very conservative but provoked me into doing good work. More or less enjoyed my economics courses, including one on “labor” taught by Clark Kerr. Maybe the sociology professors were like that. I’d declared it as my major, but didn’t like a single sociology prof I had, and barely escaped thru to graduation with them.

As I’ve said, Ken Jowitt, a political science professor at Berkeley, humiliated students who came in late. At one point he was Dean of Undergraduate Studies.

When I got a job at Berkeley, I remembered my mom’s comment that she’d had only three good professors (Kerr, Robert Nisbet, and David Mandelbaum, an anthropology professor). I wondered if I would be her idea of a good professor. It turned out that quite a few professors treated undergraduates badly, as Hsu’s commenter says. One professor told me that when a student came to him with a grading complaint, he made the student put the complaint in writing — just like in post-Soviet Russia, where paperwork obstacles were placed in front of those who wanted to start a political party. Another professor, I was told, did not look at students who came to see him during office hours. He sat with his back towards them. A third professor, when I asked when the assigned reading would be available (I was auditing his class), wouldn’t say. “Sometime,” he said.

With few exceptions, the profs I knew avoided students, as Hsu’s commenter says. One of them, when a student asked to see him, told the student, “I’ll be around.” It was easy to see why they avoided students (students bored them, wanted stuff, were full of complaints, “wasted” their time, and had nothing to do with what they really cared about, their research) but it said a lot about the situation, such as how much the professors learned from the students — not much, apparently.

Yet I learned an enormous amount from my undergraduate students, especially two of them. One student, in response to an open-ended term project assignment, chose to give a talk to a high school class about depression. Yet she had stage fright! It was extremely difficult for her to give that talk. But she did. Based on more conventional assignments, she had seemed a mediocre student. After I read her paper about what she’d done, I saw how much I had underestimated her. And it wasn’t just her. I suddenly saw how much the whole system — which judges undergraduates by how much they resemble professors — grossly underestimates almost all of them. What a tragedy. This is the fundamental thing to realize about undergraduate education, that students are judged by how closely they resemble professors. Excellence in other ways is ignored. It is an incredibly wasteful system. It is like “evidence-based medicine” reviews that ignore 1000 papers on a topic to focus on 4 papers that meet their restrictive criteria. And then claim to have summarized the subject.

She wasn’t even the most extreme case. I taught introductory psychology for a few years. One of my lectures was on weight control. I showed a graph of how I had lost weight when I had started eating less processed food — oranges instead of orange juice, for example. At the same time as the weight loss, I had started to sleep less (40 minutes less per day). One of my students came to my office hour. He said he knew another way to lose weight and need less sleep: eat food high in water content. He showed me a thick book that promoted this. The book looked bad — no data, just words. But he said it had helped him.

So I tried it. At first I ate four pieces of fruit per day. Nothing happened.

I ran into the student. Hey, I’m eating four piece of fruit every day, nothing’s happened, I said. He said, “I eat six pieces of fruit a day.”

So I went from four to six. I was already eating so much fruit that to eat two more pieces meant I had to change my breakfast. I changed it from oatmeal to two pieces of fruit. Exactly then my sleep started getting worse. I had been waking up early about half the time; I started waking up early all the time. Eventually I discovered that any breakfast caused early awakening. Oatmeal was simply better than fruit.

This experience was the turning point in my whole scientific life. It made me begin to realize that personal science — or self-experimentation, as I called it then — was a powerful tool.

My views about both teaching and research, in other words, were greatly shaped by contact with undergraduate students. The influence wasn’t passive — I did a lot more than simply listen to them — or simple. I did my part: gave unusual assignments, gave students much more freedom, tried student suggestions. In both cases, I ended up with a point of view very different than my colleagues and very different from the point of view I started with. I think professors can learn a lot from undergraduates because some of them are so different than professors. They are challenging and inspiring in ways graduate students are not.

7 Responses to “Berkeley Undergraduates and Professors: Then and Now”

  1. dearieme Says:

    I much enjoyed supervising final year undergraduates on research projects – principally experimental, sometimes computational. They are cleverer and more interesting than you would think if all you did was lecture them. Especially if you lectured past them rather than at them.

    On the other hand I remember with horror the twerps who taught me freshman physics. Could I face spending another three years in their company? I could not.

    Seth: I liked my undergraduate professors, at Caltech, College of Marin, and Reed, except for the College of Marin French teacher who wouldn’t let us, his students, speak French because we mispronounced it.

  2. bjk Says:

    One professor said that professors avoided undergrads to avoid the adulation of students. This was at U of Chicago, that may be something unique to Chicago. It made a certain sense to me, though; that is a responsibility most professors don’t want (and some do, of course).

  3. Portlander Says:

    Seth, you’re a Reedie? Nice. I’m not one myself, but there’s a few of them that end up never leaving town. Generally, I’ve found them to be sharp, interesting people and a lot of fun to be around.

    I’m guess I’m not overly surprised you’d have gone there, nor overly surprised you didn’t finish there — or did you?

    Seth: I finished there. When I was there, Reed had its own version of mistreating undergrads — assigning grades but not telling students what they are. School policy.

  4. dearieme Says:

    “assigning grades but not telling students what they are”: rather different from my experience. Not only were my, and everyone else’s, grades published on notice boards, our Finals results appeared in the better sort of newspapers.

  5. Portlander Says:

    “assigning grades but not telling students”

    Haha. Funny that’s what you bring up. A friend liked to joke… sleeping with students was frowned upon and would result in a letter of reprimand; telling students their grades meant immediate termination.

  6. Alex Says:

    “French teacher who wouldn’t let us, his students, speak French because we mispronounced it”? Wow, that is a special kind of crazy. How does no one put a stop to it?

  7. Dragan Says:

    Having studied at Berkeley and now working there as an instructor, the quality of teaching and uh “civility” of the professor seems quite variable. However, I will say that in 7 years I’ve been involved with the university, I never had the impression it’s as bad as some of those stories make it seem. Nor have I noticed a significant difference in this matter between Berkeley and the few elite, research-heavy, private universities I’m familiar with (both east and west coast).

    Perhaps it has something to do with a particular department(s)?

    Seth: My direct experience is in the psychology department. However, antipathy toward teaching undergraduates seemed to me to be universal. In 25 years as a Berkeley professor, I don’t think I ever heard another professor — including me — say something positive about teaching undergraduates. I heard lots of negative comments. In contrast, people often liked teaching graduate courses.