Student-professor relations

Starting from a Twitter thread by @roythaniago (see below) which basically compiled a bunch of complaints students had to their professors, I also want to chime in with my own two cents.

Indonesian academia, much like other facets of life, is colored with remnants of a mixture of colonialism, feudalism, and to a large extent, bureaucratism. Schoolteachers glorify rote learning and then question why there aren’t any critical students capable of facing future challenges. News flash, that student probably killed themselves (at worst) or is performing just so-so in a field they may not even like in the first place. It is actually surprising to see any kind of academic achievement given such repressive systemic conditions.

Since Roy’s thread is quite long and has a bunch of sub-threads, for analytic purposes, I may categorize faculty behavior into the following categories: (1) misuse of power/authority, (2) lack of professionalism, and (3) bureaucratism. Also, note that the term “Professor” in Indonesia is not understood as a way of addressing faculty in general; it is an acquired honorific. However, for the sake of this post, I shall be using the term “professor” as a mode of address referring to faculty members in general.

The first category—misuse of power/authority—covers a wide range of behavior in which the professor misuses their position and uses students as a means to an end, often in an exploitative manner. Examples range from light to heavy misuses, for instance, asking students to purchase cigarettes or food from the cafeteria to outright sexual harassment as quid pro quo for grade betterment. I believe students have all the right to call professors out on these types of behavior, as it does not reflect ethical academic behavior.

The second category—lack of professionalism—widely refers to when professors do not act in a manner befitting academic professionalism. This ought to be differentiated from the former category, as these acts are mostly conducted by the professor without exploiting students. However, the continuance of such acts may, in the long run, detrimentally impact learning. Out of some of the examples documented in Roy’s thread included lack of class preparation, from not preparing a proper syllabus to not delivering lectures properly. In my personal experience, I have had my fair share of professors who looked like they had no idea what they were doing; they simply taught the course because there was nobody else available. They would come to class, talk about their former experiences as whatever, and once the 150 minutes were over, would leave. When midterms came, all they did was tell me to answer a few questions to which the answers could easily be obtained through a cursory reading of textbooks.

Lack of professionalism also extends to academic conduct outside the classroom. Here the line becomes blurred with the first category, especially when we talk about student-teacher relations in research. One example which I have heard of from my friend, a former Master’s student in a state university, is outright theft of intellectual property. As a grad student in Chemical Engineering, he spent days (and often nights) in the lab gathering data. However, once he finished his calculations and submitted them to his supervisor, his supervisor stole his data and published an article. My friend was not included as a co-author not given any recognition.

The third category—bureaucratism—refers to the tendency of professors to assert (to a worse extent, flaunt) their position to intimidate students. This type of behavior, as far as personal experiences go, is often found in Indonesian state universities, where professors are structurally acknowledged as civil servants and thus act the part (well, at least, the worse parts). Though this is not to say that private universities are exempt; private university professors are also structurally acknowledged as “civil servant equivalents”. Several examples of behavior in this category would be like ignoring or chastising students for not observing “etiquette”, which usually involves the Javanese tradition of salim (kissing the hand of the superior (or putting it shortly on your forehead) while bowing) and addressing them as either “Sir/Madam” or “Professor”; and demanding special treatment due to their status. A rather irksome example is when they snub students who are asking for appointments. Extreme examples include advocating segregated bathrooms—one for faculty, one for students.

So, where do we proceed from here?

Student-teacher relations are inherently imbalanced, but it does not mean this wide gap in power relations need to be detrimental. Rather, both student and teacher must understand what their obligations to each other are. When students enter a class, both professor and students enter a social contract (an imbalanced one, though) with one another in which both have expectations and obligations to each other. It is the duty of the professor to explain this social contract and uphold their conduct. As for professors, they may already understand what their obligations are. But in the case where a professor does not adequately do so, the students have a right to demand the professor to hold their end of the bargain.

As James Schall wrote in the essay What a Student Owes His Teacher, students have three obligations to their teacher, i.e. (1) a certain trust/confidence in their direction, (2) the capacity to be taught, and (3) effort in thinking. Likewise, professors have three obligations to their students: (1) guidance, (2) the capacity to teach, and (3) effort in teaching. When both students and teachers understand these obligations, the gap in power relations may be reduced. However, no meaningful strides may be taken until perhaps this culture of bureaucratism is dispelled. More on this in a later post, perhaps.

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