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To be more specific, how do really top professors think about students who are much less smart than them, the students can be their Ph.D. students or just students who were taking his/her class.

This is a main problem I am concerned about when I have something I don't understand, and because of this, I am often hesitant to ask my professors or other friends, because I am afraid that they would look down upon me and think I am too stupid/useless/incapable, etc?

Can someone who know this give me some advice to overcome this unhealthy attitude?

closed as too broad by Brian Borchers, Ric, keshlam, E.P., EnergyNumbers Nov 1 '16 at 13:46

Please edit the question to limit it to a specific problem with enough detail to identify an adequate answer. Avoid asking multiple distinct questions at once. See the How to Ask page for help clarifying this question. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. Please take future comments there. – ff524 Oct 30 '16 at 1:58
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    The question asks something different than what it says in the title... – Tomáš Zato Oct 31 '16 at 13:48
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    Agreed with @TomášZato - the title is entirely misleading. The real question here is about dealing with self-confidence issues - what some professors may or may not think about a poorly specified group of "people" has nothing to do with it. – J... Oct 31 '16 at 16:28
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    My attempt to edit it was rejected though. – Tomáš Zato Oct 31 '16 at 16:37

14 Answers 14

102

I wouldn't say I'm a 'top' professor - hopefully someday, heh - but here's my take on it.

I couldn't care less how 'smart' my students are or aren't. It's tough to quantify, and different people have different strengths, and it's easy to mistake knowledge/experience for intelligence. At any rate I feel that my job is the opposite of competing with my students in any respect. I want to help them do well in (class/research/etc.) and find it all interesting and rewarding.

I always urge my students to ask me for help if need be, because:

  1. I do try to explain things well and clearly, but I don't always know if it totally gets across
  2. All of my students are different in a gazillion respects, meaning that they're not all going to understand the same things easily
  3. Providing extra assistance is part of my job!

I tell my undergrads that someone who has gotten an A in my class and gotten lots of help from me deserves that A exactly as much as someone who has gotten an A in my class with no help. Everyone is entitled to my assistance, even on a weekly basis or whatever. I don't think poorly of students who request extra assistance. The course is meant to have my students learn a thing or two; if they're a bit confused, I'm more than happy to clarify. The students I worry about the most are the ones who could benefit from extra help - which all of my students are permitted to seek whenever they'd like - but who haven't sought it out!

The only students I actually get at all impatient with are the ones who show indisputable signs of dishonesty or implausible excuse-making or picking on classmates or whatnot. Those ones irritate me. The rest are a joy, whether or not they seek extra help.

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    I agree with this quite a bit. For me it's always about effort. Some students will come from backgrounds where for whatever reason they're more quickly able to grasp the concepts than others. I've had students understand a subject in fifteen minutes that others don't get by the end of the semester. But is that quick-study coasting or taking advantage of his gift? Is the more challenged student rising to the challenge or giving up? There are a lot of smart, lazy people. Give me a not-so-smart hard working one any day. – Dave Kanter Oct 27 '16 at 23:24
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    I agree with this also. It's all about attitude. I have students who are 'poor 'but very good attitude towards learning, and they turned out to be outstanding. I have 'smart' students who show no respect for teachers, and those I hate most. End of the day, if you show a good working attitude, you should be fine. Top professors are workers, and they like to see a mirror image of themselves. All birds of feather flock together. Don't be a sloth. – Prof. Santa Claus Oct 28 '16 at 4:56
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    upvoted just after reading first line, but then again, reading through answer, you deserved it ;) – DroidDev Nov 1 '16 at 6:52
51

As a relatively senior person at a relatively highly-rated place, and having experienced grad school and post-docs at elite places: in math, at least, the basic point is that we're all inadequate to really penetrate the most serious mysteries. Check. So, by the harshest standard, we all fail. Ok, so that's not such an interesting standard. In grad school at an elite place, it quickly became clear that an absolute novice could not interestingly or usefully "compete with" the decades-more-experienced faculty. Check. But the real point was that asking (inescapably naive) questions of such people was a terrific opportunity, which few people have. If ego were in play, it just diminished acquisition of critical, rare information. Bad.

My subsequent experience and observation: well, sure, people vary. Some people are quick, some are quick-but-shallow, some are slower, etc. Some are more ego-oriented, which I think impairs investigation of serious mathematical things, since, by this year, the low-hanging fruit that anyone cares about has been picked. So what remains is inevitably going to be less-immediately gratifying, etc.

In any case, smartness (or height, or handsomeness, or ...) is not a moral virtue. Plus, having a good head but not applying it, or having various perversely nonconstructive bad attitudes, is less effectual than having more modest brains but being focused and sincere (perhaps less ego-ful).

That is, what gets my respect involves not so much the individual's personal gifts, but how they use those gifts, that is, to advance mathematics in contrast to advancing just themselves. That kind of thing.

18

People say stupid stuff all the time, even 'top professors'. I believe that most professors would not judge you for asking a question about something you don't understand. Even if what you ask is silly.

If you feel shy about asking questions during lectures, visit the professor during office hours.

I can tell you from experience that professors usually will not remember what questions you asked, but they will remember that you asked questions. At the very least that shows that you are making an effort and they will probably view you in a more positive light than before.

Another thing to keep in mind: If you don't ask questions and do poorly in the class, the professor will probably think that you do not care about the class and that is why you did poorly. If you do poorly despite asking questions, the professor may think that you made an effort, and you deserve a better grade than the guy who didn't care.

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    A reasonable answer, but, in fact, I do remember what questions people ask. Memories vary. But, more to the point, yes, asking questions is always good. Asking no questions is not so good... unless by chance one magically does understand everything already. Better to ask silly/dumb questions than none, etc. – paul garrett Oct 27 '16 at 21:58
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Here's an anecdote from my own career. I just retired from a small, private, liberal arts school. At my school, most of the students think most of their math profs are geniuses (we're not). A few years back, I had a student who was originally a business major and had taken a business math course from my wife. He had done a fair job in her course and then decided he wanted to be a math major because he enjoyed it so much. He signed up for my calculus course and I figured we'll see how this goes. He took several more courses from me as well. He kept asking questions, silly ones in the beginning, but gradually more insightful. What more could I ask for than to see a student growing mathematically right in front of me? I had significant reservations about his prospects as a math major in the beginning, but I never let on to him. What I wanted to do was encourage him and help him as much as possible. The end result was that he was elected to the math honor society and I cannot tell you how proud I was for him when I got to hand him his membership certificate.

The moral to this story is pretty simple, and has been echoed by others in their answers and comments. I have never looked down on a student who was willing to try, even if they didn't get great marks. The ones who really irritated me were the ones who had discernable talent and didn't use it, or the ones who couldn't care less about the course.

In my experience, I have had but a handful of times when I thought that a professor or colloquiam speaker looked down on someone. After all, our job as professors is to inform our students and develop them, not to put them down.

  • What does "elected to math honor society" mean? Top X percent of mathematics students? – zyx Oct 31 '16 at 20:20
  • @zyx - He was elected to a national honorary mathematics society. The chapter at our school has more stringent requirements than the organization actually specifies. – Chris Leary Nov 1 '16 at 19:59
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Academia is as much about self-replication as about research or teaching. What professors privately value (and devalue) about their students correlates with what traits they value in themselves.

Different professors attained their positions through different relative proportions of ability, work, and other factors. Hard workers are likelier to want hard-working students, and to expect hard work from their students. Those who were seen, and see themselves, as having spectacular innate talent are likelier to value evidence of high natural ability in their students. Some people may have done a cold analysis that tells them it is optimal in their field to prefer people with a different mixture of skills, but more are looking for proteges who resemble their younger selves.

Because selection into academia demands high levels of many traits it is not always obvious how a particular professor sees themselves. A born superstar may also be a hard worker and value that aspect the most. But it is not so typical for a lazy genius to prefer hard workers, or vice versa.

The usual qualifiers apply. On the average / all else being equal / in my opinion and experience / exceptions exist / ...

10

A friend of mine got some advice from his dad that he passed on to me once.

Don't worry about what other people are thinking of you. Most people are mostly thinking about themselves.

I mean, each of us thinks that life's a movie and we're the star, and internally interprets everyone else's actions as part of the plot of our lives. But everybody else is doing the same thing.

To be more specific, many professors are introverts and may seem intimidating, but usually they are passionate about their discipline. It may be the one thing they love to talk about.

9

I think there is one important aspect missing in previous answers: as a professor, your resources are limited (resources meaning mostly time and money).

I don't know about other areas, but in math, independent of whether you are "top" or not, one can sometimes see people who would be actually better off changing their career. And I am not saying this to boast, or out of spite, in fact they may have my deepest respect for who they are (including how hard-working they are). Nevertheless, in (almost?) any kind of a job one needs a certain degree of efficiency. (Please note, that it does include many different aspects, i.a., if you like what you do. If you do not like something and get burned-out completely, then you become terribly inefficient.)

Thus, I would treat even the most stupid relevant question seriously and try to answer to the best of my ability, but I will get annoyed if I see signs of huge inefficiency. The reason is that I have other matters to attend. Situation would be different if I had any free time to spare, but the truth is there is always something else to do.

To give some examples of inefficiencies related to students asking questions:

  • students coming to ask a question despite the answer being easily available in some other way (say on the web), even without any special vocabulary (which I understand that the students might not know),
  • students coming with the very same question or making the very same error for the 42nd time,
  • one group of students asking more questions after getting enough answers to previous questions to get them started and some other group of students waiting with their questions wasting time just sitting in my office and not doing anything else.

Even if I get downvoted into oblivion, I hope it will get you an additional perspective.

  • Thanks! I am quite afraid that I fall into one of the three categories you listed, though... – Robert Oct 30 '16 at 4:44
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People are different. Talented people in academia are people too. Thus follows, some of these may not behave as one would expect, and any general answer like this one won't apply to all of them. Nevertheless here's an answer that focuses on the last sentence of your question:

People judge you when you leave an impression. Whenever you leave a new impression, that judgement changes. If you never open your mouth you will be judged, at best, as one of them many faceless people that are unimportant.

Whenever it doesn't matter if you're judged as unimportant or as stupid, open your mouth, because you've got nothing to lose.

Even better, if things go bad, and as a result people do think you're not as smart as they are, you can use the situation as a learning experience. If you never go through such learning experiences you will indeed not be as experienced/smart as others are.

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    +1, "People are different" is the correct answer. There is a reason why questions asking for personal anecdotes are usually closed on SE sites - the answers make a very convincing impression, but the impression is rarely an accurate representation of the truth. Sure, as an academic myself, I would love to think that the top people in science are not arrogant jerks, but the truth is that some of them are, while others are not. Answers which try to convince the reader otherwise are misleading. – rumtscho Oct 30 '16 at 12:58
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When I was a student, I will tell you frankly, I did not generally divide up my professors, instructors, TAs, and fellow students, into the "top brains", the "medium brains" and the "mediocre brains". I suppose I had some awareness of that in the background... but mainly I focused on how best to partner with each of them so as to optimize my progress in my studies. Each instructor is an individual, with strengths and weaknesses as a pedagogue. This approach is similar to going into a relationship with a medical provider with the attitude that the patient and the provider are going to work together toward a common goal.

Think about how it feels from the instructor's point of view. It is hard to help a student who doesn't interact with you!

There are more ways to interact with an instructor than just by asking questions. You can also make a comment, to let the instructor know what was most interesting for you, and what connections you were able to make between what was presented in class, and some other thing you have learned or noticed.

I hope this helps.

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The man who asks a question is a fool for a minute, the man who does not ask is a fool for life.

-Confucius(?)

Note: I debated removing this answer, but I really believe it strikes at the heart of OP's conundrum.

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    Your answer is fine except Confucius never said that. Please see the question on Chinese SE. (Actually, I doubt it's a Chinese proverb and I am a native Chinese speaker). I won't down vote this answer because downvoting should be done for bad answers. Your answer is not bad. – scaaahu Oct 28 '16 at 14:32
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    Thank you. Quotes are often misattributed! And I browsed your link, but I don't speak/read/write Chinese, so other than debunking the Confucius/Chinese origin I don't know what the correct source is. – James Oct 28 '16 at 14:51
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I am not saying that I am a smart person. (This is something that my colleagues say, which I know is not actually true in many cases). Anyway, as someone who is presumably on the other side of your argument, I have taught some courses to some students whose IQ levels were seemingly way below my expectations. I hope it is OK to share my personal experiences in here.

To be honest, I felt very uncomfortable at first to see that my students couldn't understand some trivial things and had a lot of trouble with some really easy concepts. One of my regrets is that at first I treated them in a humiliating way. And I often mocked their seemingly stupid questions. You know, I wasn't used to this and didn't know that humiliating others doesn't make you look smarter, but rather an a**hole. It took me some time to somehow get used to this and learn some manners.

Now let me tell you something, the more you learn, the more you realize that knowing something or being fast at learning something does not necessarily make you a better person. And if someone thinks that these talents give him/her the privilege to think high of himself/herself, the best thing you can do is to feel sorry for him/her. In my point of view, teaching to a person with lower IQ who is doing his best and struggling with easy concepts is way more enjoyable than teaching to a presumably smarter one. Note the key is to do your best, regardless of how fast you get things.

3

As a student, I got often shot down by professors for asking questions they called stupid. And more than once I had professors calling me stupid. Some might have been right.

What I like about SE is that you are encouraged to ask questions, but if you didn't do enough research to answer yourself then, you get down-voted. So, my advise to you, and to myself from 20 years ago, is to keep asking, ideally after you did a little research to find the answer yourself. The reason is you might not get the answer you are looking for, or maybe not even a good answer, but your own research combined with that, might be exactly what you wanted to know.

Sometimes, you may find out you were asking the wrong or irrelevant question and without asking it, you would have spent 3 months of research getting nowhere. What people think of you for asking might vary, but if you are in an academic environment, do take advantage of that. Ask both colleagues and professors.

It is often that someone who is a specialist in some field you are interested in would be more than happy to answer even absolute beginner questions if they realize you are really interested. As a general rule, however, people don't want to do your homework, or other academic chores for you, so for those you can only count on professor's office hours or your peers willingness to collaborate.

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Being stupid is not that bad; we were all stupid at some stage, and some of us are still stupid now. The professors were stupid as kids and are likely to get stupid if they survive till 100. That's how things go.

Use them while they are clever and you are stupid. Professors know to never underestimate a student. They are prepared for that. It's their job to teach you and answer your questions regardless how stupid you or your questions are.

Said that, as a student, you can typically only profit from asking. But, to be polite to the society that surrounds you, think over a question a bit harder before asking, simply not to lose the time of your environment.

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How long is the professor's career in the field? Decades?

How long is the student's career in the field? Years?

The true top professor (teacher, mentor) knows about this difference and take it to the account. They expect the student to know less than them and assess the student's performance with respect to the expected knowledge rather than their knowledge. Bad professors (teachers) use their (long gathered) knowledge to outclass people with shorter (time to gather the) knowledge.

Some students are slow to connect informations they are given. That does not make them dull. Some students tend to miss or forget some links. That does not make them dull either. True question is whether the student is interested in deeper knowledge of the subject.

If you want to be sure your ideas are true; if you want to know more you must ask.

You may think the question is dull (for the professor). But he may think of the question as "they are asking for A, because they do not know about B and C (are rlative to A) yet." And the response won't be "How do yo dare to ask that", but "That is good question" instead.

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