Felder, Richard, "Nobody Asked Me, But..."
Chem. Engr. Education, 23(1), 26-27 (Winter 1989).
NOBODY ASKED ME, BUT...
Richard M. Felder
Department of Chemical Engineering
North Carolina State University
Raleigh, NC 27695-7905
It will probably come as a shock to those who know me, but I have some strong
opinions about educational matters. Very strong. Violent and unswerving
prejudices, some would say. And since I will regularly be using this forum
to subject you to whatever is on my mind, I thought it would be only fair
to run through these opinions for you. You may then feel free to dismiss
things I say in future columns on the grounds of my admitted bias.
(However, anything I say about a topic not on the list may be considered
Ready? Here goes, beginning with the most violent and unswerving prejudice
of them all.
- I hate 7:50 classes.
- I don't like people knocking on my door when I'm doing something I
really want to do. I welcome them joyfully, however, when I'm
doing something I really don't want to do, like grading papers or
critiquing an incomprehensible thesis draft.
- People who assume that all engineers are culturally ignorant,
anti-environment, good at math and science but little else, boring, etc.,
are irritating. On the other hand, our increasingly specialized and
elective-free engineering curriculum almost seems designed to assure that
those stereotypes are valid.
- I like summers that begin in early May and end in late August (until
it's late August).
- There's no excuse for undergraduate textbooks written for professors
rather than students.
- I value the autonomy that comes with this job--being able to choose
my research problems, work late and sleep late, stay at home occasionally
on days I don't teach. I can't think of another lawful profession that
provides its practitioners with so much personal freedom.
- I don't like stress tensors.
- The classroom occurrence that may be most conducive to learning is
spontaneous humor. (I've been using some of the same spontaneous jokes for
- I am bemused by students who walk into my office, see me talking on
the telephone with papers and open books scattered all over my desk and
another student sitting across from me, and ask (all together now), "Are
- The term "real world" can be intensely annoying, especially coming
from people who think they live in it and I don't.
- Cheating is repugnant. Even more so is the system that hangs
students' futures on the grades they get on timed tests.
- I like anything written by Octave Levenspiel.
- I hate walking down two flights of stairs to the department office
and then forgetting what I wanted there. (This happens with increasing
frequency--I don't want to think about what that might mean.)
- Our second-worst assumption as teachers is that if we don't cover
something in class the students won't learn it. Our worst assumption
is that if we do, they will.
- I like word processing, spreadsheeting, computer graphics, etc.,
but I'm worried about how dependent I've become on the computer. At this
point if it goes down I go right down with it.
- I don't like anything about the Ph.D. qualifiers--making them up,
grading them, and especially discussing them at faculty meetings.
- It is not pleasant to discover that I really don't understand
something I've been teaching for years.
- One of our best fringe benefits is getting to give seminars in some
of the world's most attractive places. (Getting honoraria for them is not a
bad deal either.)
- There is little value and much harm in tests on which the average is
in the low 30's. I'm bothered by instructors who would never admit or
even consider the possibility that such tests may have been unfair or the
students may have been poorly taught.
- A university administrator who says he won't do something can be
upsetting. One who consistently says he will and then doesn't (or who is
incapable of giving a straight answer) can be disastrous.
- I get terminally grumpy at badly delivered departmental seminars on
subjects I'm not the least bit interested in.
- I like engineering professors with interests and talents outside of
engineering. If I have a hero in our profession, it is Bob Bird.
- Few chores are as taxing as maintaining energy in a class that acts
like a wax museum.
- One that is as taxing is serving on a university committee that has
no real function and never accomplishes anything yet religiously meets
every two weeks for at least two hours.
I am filled with admiration for Professor Vincent M. Foote of the
N.C.S.U. School of Design (may his tribe increase), who chaired a committee
I served on last year. Vince called meetings only when there was something
to do, started the meetings on time, had us do what was needed, and
adjourned. The average duration of the meetings was about 20 minutes. It
was a revolutionary experience.
- Ambivalence: Being asked to do something I don't want to do (like serve
on a nonfunctional committee) by someone I like or to whom I owe a favor.
- The most troublesome aspect of American engineering education is the
way it penalizes outstanding teachers doing minimal research and rewards
outstanding researchers doing lousy teaching.
- The most puzzling aspect of American engineering education is the
notion that engineers with years of industrial experience but few research
publications don't belong on engineering faculties.
- The hardest thing I have to do as a teacher is decide whether I
should push the final grade of a borderline student up (providing
encouragement and a challenge to live up to my high opinion) or down
(maintaining high standards and providing an incentive to work harder next
I envy professors who believe in their hearts that this is not a
dilemma--that one of these choices is the correct one for all students on
all occasions. I think they're dead wrong, but their lives are a lot
easier than mine at least twice a year.
- I like teaching and writing. I love having a job that pays me to do
Help me out--what else should be on the list? The best entry wins a free
drink at the next Exxon Suite.
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