There's been a debate going on in the comments at Dr. Crazy's recent post about students who want to join classes after the semester's started, and this, combined with some experiences of my own recently, have got me thinking about what exactly a professor's work is - or maybe, more accurately, how do we get across what a professor's work is.
I think way back around Christmas-time ianqui (or Cheeky? one of the two) wrote a "letter" that they wanted to send to relatives to demonstrate what it is they actually do with their time. Sometimes I think it's necessary to explain this kind of thing to our students, as well. I know that when I was in college, it didn't really occur to me, automatically, that professors actually had to study and learn the material that they were teaching us. I kind of assumed that they knew this stuff automatically (this is kind of like the elementary-school idea that your teachers live at the school, and your shock at learning that they have actual lives of their own). I remember having a conversation with one of my history professors my sophomore year, in which he talked about teaching the required junior seminar - more to the point, about teaching the material on the common syllabus that he hadn't chosen, and how he was only a little bit ahead of the students all the way through. To hear this professor talk about material that he found difficult amazed me - he was the professor! He actually had to read things for the first time, too, and was better at some things than others? Wow.
And now I have students who clearly feel the same way - that I just naturally "know" the stuff that I teach them in the classroom; they don't realize that I have to learn any of the material myself. More to the point, they don't realize that planning class entails making choices: what will we read for the day? how will we cover the material - lecture or discussion? what should the focus be? what are the main questions we're going to cover?
And it dawned on me that they don't see these things as work because they have so little sense of the contingency of knowledge - that context and purpose are everything. Instead, they think there is one narrative of knowledge - the "truth" - and that I just have to find it and report it to them. (This is best exemplified by one of my favorite of H's stories from teaching. He was teaching a course in a subfield of American history, and was meeting with a frustrated student, who said to him, "Couldn't you find the book?" H, understandably confused, said, "The book?" "Yes," the student said, "you know, like in my psychology class, we have this book, it says 'psychology.' Couldn't you find the 'x history' book?")
It's not especially surprising that students feel this way - our advising office told us that when most of them arrive here, they're at a dualistic stage in knowledge when they see things in black and white. (It's a little more surprising when juniors and seniors feel this way, but that's another story.) But the problem with this attitude is that the only professorial activity that they therefore see as "work" is the actual reporting of information. Other kinds of activities - leading discussion, or having students work together to teach themselves - are just about the professor trying to get out of the work they're supposed to do. And it's hard to change this attitude just by trying to explain what we do as work, because that just looks defensive. Instead, I think it has to be a much slower, more painful process of opening up their minds to the infinite ways that different people can think about the same subject - that leading them to see that, in fact, the world isn't black and white. Then perhaps they can apply a broader definition of "work" to what it is that we do in the classroom.
I should add that I'm really talking about a small subset of students - the majority are fine, even lovely to teach. But the attitude described above is much harder to combat than some other kinds of issues.