The President’s Wife 2/3/22

History with Richard Bleil

My very first “teaching gig” wasn’t too far from where I grew up.  I was there for four years teaching mainly general, organic and biochemistry (and associated labs).  The college was painfully small (but associated with a very powerful hospital complex).  As if teaching my first ever course as an assistant professor (the lowest rank of tenure-track professor) wasn’t intimidating enough, as it turns out, one of my very first students in my very first course was married to none other than the president of the college.

She was actually very nice, and a good student.  As it turns out, she was a benefit to have as a student.  That was 1990, and even then, students were starting to test their limits.  I had one student that insisted on calling me “Mr.”.  When I corrected him and told him the proper title is “Dr.”, his response was, “well you haven’t proven to ME that you’re a doctor!”  I explained that I don’t HAVE to prove it to him.  I stood in an Ivy League School and defended my right to use the title in front of seven doctors, including a hydrodynamicist from Harvard University, and THEY felt I provided the proof they needed to confer the title.  He pretty much fell in line after that speech.

My students, on my first year, loved “tattling” on me.  When word reached the president’s ear, he would (privately) ask his wife, and she backed me up every time.  It’s probably what got me through the first year.  Back then, we were using “acetates”, the clear plastic you used on overhead projectors.  I wrote them out in advance, wrote large so the people in the back could see, and sometimes put silly jokes and drawings up in an attempt to lighten the mood.  As a favor to my students, I would then put them in the library for the express purpose of giving them the opportunity to augment their notes in case they had missed something.  These students would simply copy the overheads, in their entirety, without even looking at them.  Then, they had the audacity to complain that it was costing them too much money.

My boss came to me to ask about it.  I explained that I did it as a courtesy, and that they didn’t have to copy them if they had been taking notes.  He then had the nerve to tell me to do something about it.  So, I did.  I stopped making them available.  Oh yeah, he heard about that.  When he asked me why I stopped, I pointed out that it was not a requirement that I made the notes available, and he can ask the president’s wife her opinion of the matter from the perspective of a student.  Interestingly enough, I never heard about it again, from the administration or the students.

Yes, the problems I’ve had with students started very early in my career.  As a matter of record, any time these complaints were looked into more carefully, they were always dismissed, including allegations of sexual misconduct.  I have always been an easy target; a single male professor teaching a subject that is difficult and frightening to many students.  I had these student complaints about faculty when I was dean, as well, but I would like to think that I handled it better than my supervisors as I always asked the students if they had spoken with the professor directly.  When they would not, I would call in my faculty, told them of the complaints (which rarely had actual merit and often were rooted in the teaching method the faculty used rather than any real grounds), and reassured them that I did not take the complaints seriously (and why).  Yes, I’ve fired adjunct faculty after some investigations (usually for not actually participating in online classes), but never without verifying the complaints myself. 

Kids today tend to act entitled.  There’s even a teaching philosophy based on treating students like “customers”, and customers know best.  But the reality is that students do not know best.  I had a freshman once try to tell me what chemists do industrially, refusing to believe anything I said despite having worked in the chemical industry personally.  Heck, just a year ago I had a student tell me what she needs to become a professor despite my long experience.  Students judged me based on their limited high school experience with teaching and examinations.  My job as professor was to prepare them as best I could for anything that might come after college, and my experience prepared me well for that training, and yet, somehow, students always knew what was best. 

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