Recently, a professor overseeing the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) sent me a confirmation email for my appointment. At the end of the email came a short acknowledgment toward her students that made me tear up a bit:
“Above all, please be patient and understanding with my extremely hardworking, dedicated students. I am so impressed with their enthusiasm and support and would love for them to feel the same from our clients.”
It made me think ‘these students must be happy to have a supervisor who has their backs’. But it quickly became clear to me that it wasn’t about whether faculty actually care or not, but rather whether they express gratitude. The faculty at our department must have also had moments where they were proud of their students. Why wouldn’t they? But I rarely hear expressions of appreciation. A passing “you did great” from a faculty makes our day. That is the fuel that keeps us going.
The primary reason for the lack of communication is the common (erroneous) belief that what is obvious to me should be obvious to you. Therefore, it should be obvious to all of us that the department is working hard to support us, well, financially. And that presumption of knowledge puts the blame on students when we explain the struggles we are facing in the program because the department is doing their best. In the department’s eyes, students are asking too much of faculty.
Students have no way to find out what the department is doing behind our back unless we are made aware of it. If opportunities to speak casually with faculty abounded, we would naturally hear from one of them about the behind-the-scenes work the department does to support students during this time. But speaking casually with a faculty member about departmental affairs is a rare event, particularly when all faculty members constantly put on display how busy they are. Students never want to become additional burdens.
Furthermore, not everything is about money. If it were, why would anyone come to grad school at the expense of other financial opportunities? Grad programs are an investment that does not necessarily result in financial gain, and we know that. Mental support from and camaraderie with people in the department are just as important as getting paid enough. The sense of “we’re all in this together” and the gesture that “we got your back” is a form of reward, which I have yet to feel. Not a single professor reached out to us just to check in on how we were doing during the lockdown. I can only assume that the department too was undergoing a great deal of tumult and uncertainty of their own, in retrospect, to make sure students can continue studying in the program. A small gesture of kindness and care will go a long way toward preserving our mental health and our ability to produce the kind of work that faculty would like to see from us.
There is a weird “the more you struggle, the more you learn” pedagogy that seems prevalent in American universities. That is the underlying philosophy behind flooding students with assignments after assignments, which is then met with a final project. It also seems to be in line with the Texan spirit of “only the strong will survive” as a Texan mayor has once said. But what is the point of all these assignments if we aren’t given enough time to work on them? The mental transition that professors make once they themselves are no longer students is astounding.
The point of assignments is to provide opportunities to practice. It is the realization of “learning by doing”. Arguably, grad students should be beyond this point of having to practice. It is time to connect the once spoon-fed knowledge with research. Understanding what previous researchers had thought when they proposed a new method is the foundation of innovation. Courses like Applied Statistics where 200+ years' worth of statistical results are compiled and forced to be memorized do not deserve a place in a Ph.D. program. I mourn over the lost time I spent on memorizing seven different ways of estimating quantiles. I doubt I will ever use the Poissonness plot in my remaining life. Nor do I think any of the faculty have ever used it in a meaningful way that made it to any of their publications.
While we are learning these obsolete statistical ideas, we are simultaneously asked to be programming wizards. As one professor once told me, professors “want students who are ready and who are able to teach themselves”. I wonder if that’s the reason for not having an established course where students can learn programming. If everyone could be self-taught, universities would not—or shouldn’t—exist. Programming is ever more important yet it is not a required course in our department. It’s totally up to you to learn, or else you’re worthless.
Whether it is mathematical statistics or computer programming, students don’t only learn by doing. Students learn what they see. And as much as we all admit that there are professors who don’t think teaching is part of their job, possibly because they believe in the extreme version of individualism where students are entirely responsible for their own learning, teaching does absolutely matter. I would not be here pursuing a Ph.D. if it hadn’t been for the great teachers I had back in Korea University. Not everyone was good at teaching, but there were a few that I aspired to be like one day. And all of those good teachers had one thing in common: they showed us their tricks in class. None of them expected us to know about what we would learn in class, prior to class. They solved problems on the board as if they were doing homework with us. Assignments were for internalizing the tricks and thought processes we learned in class. Sometimes they had some calculations wrong but that never undermined their authority because it rather showed us that it is natural to make algebra mistakes. What’s really important is (1) the logical flow, (2) the ability to notice that something went wrong, and (3) spot the error.
What I have experienced here is the complete opposite. Presentation slides did the heavy lifting, in which the precious and informative details in the thought process were omitted. Students can never learn in that environment, yet all blame was put on students for failing to learn. Assignments are just fresh attempts because students couldn’t learn anything in class. It inevitably boils down to whether you already knew it or not. Students don’t learn by doing. Students learn by mimicking. Otherwise, why spend 4+ years under an advisor to learn how to do research? Learning to research by just doing it would suffice, wouldn’t it? It is clear that we see our advisors and pick up the good habits and thought processes that lead to good research. Without examples, there is no learning.
Furthermore, the practice of spotting errors is not celebrated, and small algebra mistakes are taken as cardinal sins that cannot be forgiven. The qualifying exam, which is the first program milestone, has nothing to do with statistics. It’s all about having a big enough brain to memorize everything, be a wizard in using engineering calculators that we will never ever use again, and not make any algebra mistakes because it doesn’t matter if 99% of your calculation was correct if the final answer is wrong. I am skeptical if anyone is able to learn what makes a good researcher in this type of environment.