Why Do Professors Do That? How Not to Suck in Grad School
The general population does not appear to really understand the role and function of a university professor. Students, even most grad students, are unaware of the number of roles and functions that the professors manage each day. I am not trying to make excuses for rudeness or lack of support for students, but there are some genuine reasons why professors behave in ways that seem bizarre. Of course, there is that little issue of academia being one of the few professions where reasonable social skills are not an absolute requirement. You know it must be true because there are several television shows that revolve around the theme of socially awkward scientists. Most professors have reasonable social skills, yet the demands of the job can create challenges.
Why are professors’ emails so rude? Although some professors may be rude, most are simply terse. I average 215 emails per day during the fall and winter semester, about half that during summer. Of these, an average of 45 require some response from me. Even if they only require two minutes each, that is an hour and a half out of my day simply answering emails. As such, politely worded prose is unlikely and one-word answers are the norm.
Why are professors so rigid when it comes to grades and deadlines? Students are under intense pressure to receive strong grades. They seem to read course syllabi like attorneys who are looking for loopholes in a contract. And every professor has had a variety of students begging for a better grade, flirting, having parents call the professor to insist on a higher grade, threatening to appeal the grade, and otherwise spending an inordinate amount of energy not related to classroom work to get a higher grade. Then, there are the excuses. Family emergencies, medical crises, general hardships, mental health concerns, and the proverbial dead grandparent have all been tried with nearly every professor who teaches. The problem here is that these can be legitimate and very serious issues that deserve respect and consideration from professors. However, we know that many of these stories are not based in reality. Most professors do not want to be put in the position to make the judgment on which excuse is legitimate and which is not. They also do not want to be taken advantage of or played by students. The result is that professors become rigid and can be quite unfair for those with legitimate reasons for requiring accommodations.
Why does the concept of absent-minded professor see more reality than fiction? I can only speak for myself, but I do spend a lot of time working on problems in my head. I also seem to have the ability to focus and block out anything distracting. People may say hello to me in the hallway and I just walk on by without acknowledging them. There is no intent to be rude, I swear I did not see them. In addition, there are so many different activities in the course of the day ranging from committee meetings, large class lectures, Skype meetings with collaborators, grading papers, writing, conducting data analysis, and much more; that it can be difficult to shift sets completely and focus on the task at hand.
Why do professors seem to never be available? Many of us consider ourselves to be public scholars. Travelling to meet with collaborators, conduct workshops, conferences, conduct media interviews, provide keynote talks, consult with business and industry, and other activities take us off campus. In addition, we are often all over campus as we go from one meeting to another. Also, some of us spend a significant amount of our writing time at home where we can ensure that we are not interrupted. When this is put together, we tend not to be on campus, in our lab, or in our office all of that often.
Why are professors so selfish? This is especially related to authorship of papers. It is common for established professors to take credit and authorship when students or postdocs did most of the work. Also, students are frequently denied authorship or demoted from 1st to 2nd author without appropriate negotiation or rationale. To be clear, such behaviour is unethical without exception. However, there are some universities that only give professors credit for purposes of promotion or merit if they are the first author or sole author of the manuscript. Grant funding agencies often perceive scholars more favourably who have mostly sole or first author publications. These universities and granting agencies create incentive for professors to behave unethically and minimize opportunities for students. Fortunately, such universities and granting agencies are becoming less common, but they still exist.
Rant. This is started out as a lighthearted ramble, but I am going to go off the rails here into a full-blown rant. Every day I read about harassment, abuse, and unwanted sexual advances by professors towards students. I do not think I am a prude or overly judgmental. If older professors wish to hook up with younger partners or if someone wants to have relationships outside of their committed partnership, then I really do not care and it is none of my business. Once a person is under direct supervision or there is any sense of major status, control, or power differential; then that person is no longer a member of the set of potential romantic partners. The reason is that whether intended or not, the basis of the relationship is exploitation and this nearly always creates harm for students or those being supervised. This may seem clear, but I really do not think that unwanted sexual advances are about potential romantic partners. In most cases. I suspect that unwanted sexual advances are about establishing power and control; in the same way that other forms of harassment and abuse of students are about power and control. These forms of gaining power and control are common and toxic. I do not know why professors do this. I can only assume insecurity, entitlement, and lack of consequences are primary causes.
Professors often do stuff that is strange or confusing to others. Most of these behaviours have a reasonable rationale that are based on the context in which work is conducted. However, some behaviours are not simply strange or confusing to others, but are dangerous and harmful. There is no context or rationale in which this behaviour is excused. Few things are as harmful as the insecurity of entitled people with power.