Ben Borgers

Professorship Bias

June 25, 2022

My dad is a math professor, and I’ve talked a lot with him about the disconnect between professors and their students.

One significant disconnect seems to stem from the fact that professors are highly interested in their subject, while the students are often not. After all, that’s why they became a professor in this field.

My dad teaches math, and this is especially apparent in that field. There are some — some — students for whom pure math concepts are interesting. My dad and his colleagues were one of those students, and continue to be one of those people. That’s why they got into teaching this! But professors are biased towards being more interested in their field than the average person.

I didn’t inherit the interest in math from my dad. Cauchy sequences or equivalence relations are boring to me, and they’re especially boring the way they’re taught, because the professor teaches for someone like themselves. Someone for whom the pure mathematics was interesting on its own.

You can argue that this is a failure of the education system, or of my learning, or of my willpower; that I should find this interesting through learning it.

But I’m starting to think that not everything needs to be interesting to everyone. Maybe it’s something about the ways that our brains happened to be formed, or the way the chemicals in our brain have come to sit, that determines what we find interesting. But different people find different things interesting.

I’m more interested in what features of the CSS language are coming to different browsers in the coming months. Or how people do orchestrated animations on the web. Or web server infrastructure.

I have a friend, Christian, who’s more interested in the MBTA than I ever will be. It’s interesting to me, but he has much more of an interest in it. Something about the MBTA is interesting to certain brains.

Different people’s brains are more inclined to be interested in some things than other things. Maybe it can be taught, but I think that to some extent the interest is innate (or forms while you’re young).

So back to professors. When professors teach to the past version of themselves, they miss the people who are in this class not because they love it but because they have to take it. Maybe the existence of those people in that class is a failure of the university system, but they’re there.

My dad is experimenting with teaching that’s motivated by an example: you ask a question, like “Did closing the U.S.’s borders early in Covid save a significant number of lives?”, and then work your way back to the math required to answer it.

That’s the sort of thing that has a better chance at being interesting to someone who isn’t innately interested in pure mathematics. The underlying math by itself isn’t interesting to everyone in the class, but that’s okay.