Am I going insane or is the quality of education at top universities shockingly low?
I’m fortunate enough to go to a high-caliber American university. I study math and economics, so not fields that are typically subject to funding constraints or have some shortage of experts. The incentives to become a professor here seem pretty strong—the median professor at my school made over $150k last year, and more than two-thirds of the faculty have tenure. There is, as far as I can tell, little to no oversight as to what they research or what they teach. From the outside, it seems like a great gig.
And yet, most of my professors have been really bad at teaching. It’s weird. And I don’t just mean that they could be doing a little better. I mean they consistently present things in unclear or inconsistent ways, write exams that are extremely subject to test-taking skill shenanigans, and go off on rambling tangents that lead nowhere. My classes are often poorly designed with large gaps in the curricula or inconsistent pacing throughout the semester. I feel like I’ve actually learned something in maybe 1⁄3 of my courses.
I don’t want to come across as someone who’s just ranting—I’m legitimately confused by this phenomenon and want to figure it out.
Are my standards unreasonably high? I was fortunate enough to go to an excellent high school with some truly fantastic teachers. I also spent a little time in the US competitive math scene and encountered lots of wonderful and smart tutors along the way. And, most of all, I’ve been fortunate to be involved with a number of extremely good teachers in my time at rat camps, many of whom have pushed the boundaries of pedagogy and content quality. I realize I’ve been living in quite the intellectual bubble, and I don’t want to overlook that.
My counterargument is that there are such strong incentives for professors that schools should be able to find good ones. My high school had a median teacher income of about $55k, and yet I would consider something like 20% of my high school teachers to be better than my university ones. University professors enjoy shorter working hours, the ability to do research, higher job security, and other benefits like housing. I don’t understand why the bar for competence is so low.
It’s also possible that my teachers just haven’t been good for me. Again…maybe? But most of the areas in which my professors have underwhelmed me are really basic things, like not interacting with the audience, arriving late to lectures, or giving exams that are horrible proxies for understanding. I can’t imagine any students preferring those to be the case.
Finally, I’ve heard the explanation that professors are there to do research, not to teach. While this might be true, I don’t understand the decision from an institutional perspective. The school makes money and builds a brand name on students/alumni and loses utility on research (if you don’t think that’s true, name 5 MIT alumni then try to name 5 current professors there). If anything, it seems like universities should only be using research as an incentive to draw great professors, not vice versa.
I know that there are great teachers out there—I’ve had the pleasure of working with many of them at rat camps, Olympiad camps, and other cool places like that. Why aren’t top universities filled with these people?