Uninterested Professors?

Everyone who has been to college has, at some point, taken a class from a professor who didn’t seem to care.  Probably, some of them did care deeply about the class, but didn’t know how to express it (in which case more teacher training would definitely help).  However, that’s not true for all.  A friend of mine has TAed for a professor who said outright that he had no interest in teaching an intro class, but that doing so was the price he paid for doing his research and teaching graduate classes.

I do understand this sentiment.  Unlike some countries, where teaching intro-level classes is considered an honor, in America intro classes often seem to be taught by grad students, non-tenure-track faculty, and faculty who are new to the department and “paying their dues.”  If a professor’s research interests lie in quantum physics, teaching basic projectile motion may seem like time that could be better spent advancing the knowledge of the field and teaching more advanced concepts to more advanced students.  Let those with no research teach the intro classes.  I don’t even necessarily disagree with that – I strongly support hiring teaching faculty, whose focus and attention is solely on teaching and not research.

That being said, even if the professor isn’t interested in the class, the students should never know that.  That professor may be teaching a couple hundred students that semester, but that student will only have one Intro to Physics professor.  To some, who will never take another physics class, that one professor is the face of the subject.  If that face is uninterested and just “going through the motions,” then what is the student going to think?  On the other hand, if the professor is passionate about sharing the subject with his/her students, it may convince the student to be interested, too.  People’s lives are changed by passionate professors, and ideally, that’s the face every student should see.

Mission Statements: Notre Dame and Virginia Tech

At first glance, there are obvious differences between the mission statements of Notre Dame, where I earned my bachelors degree, and Virginia Tech, where I am currently a PhD student. Notre Dame’s is almost a full page long, while Virginia Tech’s is a single paragraph. Also, the language of Notre Dame’s mission statement is very religious, with frequent mentions of the school’s Catholic nature, but Virginia Tech, as a public (and therefore secular) school, has a non-religious mission statement.

I believe that these differences can be explained largely by the history and nature of the two schools. Notre Dame, a small private university in Indiana, has had a very specific mission since its founding in 1842: to bring a uniquely Catholic perspective to higher education. The mission statement is so long because it specifies all the different areas of life affected by this perspective and how they are affected, from academics to student life. Some of this is to refute some common fears about Catholic institutions: that research would be restricted or non-Catholics would be unwelcome. Some is to point out what makes a Catholic university, and particularly Notre Dame, unique: the commitment to fostering a sense of community in the school and to fighting “poverty, injustice, and oppression.”

In contrast, Virginia Tech’s mission statement is short and relatively vague. Virginia Tech, a large public land-grant institution in Virginia, was founded in 1872 as an agricultural and mechanical college. It now has seven different colleges, from engineering to liberal arts. With such a wide array of fields being taught, the vague language of the mission statement makes sense: it must apply equally to every college, regardless of their individual policies and philosophies. It speaks of the primary goal of the university as “the discovery and dissemination of new knowledge,” which can apply to any academic research or teaching.

Despite all the differences between these two mission statements, there is one big similarity: the importance of service. At Notre Dame, this is largely due to the teachings of the Catholic Church, while at Virginia Tech, it is a result of the large military presence on campus. Both schools, however, state that they want to prepare their students, not just for personal growth, but for “social and community development,” to serve the world as a whole.


University of Notre Dame Mission Statement:

The University of Notre Dame is a Catholic academic community of higher learning, animated from its origins by the Congregation of Holy Cross. The University is dedicated to the pursuit and sharing of truth for its own sake. As a Catholic university, one of its distinctive goals is to provide a forum where, through free inquiry and open discussion, the various lines of Catholic thought may intersect with all the forms of knowledge found in the arts, sciences, professions, and every other area of human scholarship and creativity.

The intellectual interchange essential to a university requires, and is enriched by, the presence and voices of diverse scholars and students. The Catholic identity of the University depends upon, and is nurtured by, the continuing presence of a predominant number of Catholic intellectuals. This ideal has been consistently maintained by the University leadership throughout its history. What the University asks of all its scholars and students, however, is not a particular creedal affiliation, but a respect for the objectives of Notre Dame and a willingness to enter into the conversation that gives it life and character. Therefore, the University insists upon academic freedom that makes open discussion and inquiry possible.

The University prides itself on being an environment of teaching and learning that fosters the development in its students of those disciplined habits of mind, body, and spirit that characterize educated, skilled, and free human beings. In addition, the University seeks to cultivate in its students not only an appreciation for the great achievements of human beings but also a disciplined sensibility to the poverty, injustice and oppression that burden the lives of so many. The aim is to create a sense of human solidarity and concern for the common good that will bear fruit as learning becomes service to justice.

Notre Dame also has a responsibility to advance knowledge in a search for truth through original inquiry and publication. This responsibility engages the faculty and students in all areas of the University, but particularly in graduate and professional education and research. The University is committed to constructive and critical engagement with the whole of human culture.

The University encourages a way of living consonant with a Christian community and manifest in prayer, liturgy and service. Residential life endeavors to develop that sense of community and of responsibility that prepares students for subsequent leadership in building a society that is at once more human and more divine.

Notre Dame’s character as a Catholic academic community presupposes that no genuine search for the truth in the human or the cosmic order is alien to the life of faith. The University welcomes all areas of scholarly activity as consonant with its mission, subject to appropriate critical refinement. There is, however, a special obligation and opportunity, specifically as a Catholic university, to pursue the religious dimensions of all human learning. Only thus can Catholic intellectual life in all disciplines be animated and fostered and a proper community of scholarly religious discourse be established.

In all dimensions of the University, Notre Dame pursues its objectives through the formation of an authentic human community graced by the Spirit of Christ.

Virginia Tech Mission Statement:

Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech) is a public land-grant university serving the Commonwealth of Virginia, the nation, and the world community. The discovery and dissemination of new knowledge are central to its mission. Through its focus on teaching and learning, research and discovery, and outreach and engagement, the university creates, conveys, and applies knowledge to expand personal growth and opportunity, advance social and community development, foster economic competitiveness, and improve the quality of life.