Why do Professors feel berated when surrounded by brilliant students
Submission by University of California's Physics Professor Richard Muller on the subject matter of discourse "Do Professors feel berated when surrounded by brilliant students? reads encouraging and deserving public review
Professor Muller says: I have always strived to surround myself with students and colleagues who are more intelligent than I am.
It started when I was a graduate student, and I had just convinced Luis Alvarez to be my thesis advisor. He was so smart, so knowledgeable, so quick that he intimidated almost everyone around him. I discovered that most other faculty avoided him, and students would disappear into an office when he approached. I made a decision that I would benefit so much from learning as much as I could from him, that I would never worry about feeling stupid or ignorant. My attitude was, he is so much smarter than me that it is an honor and a privilege just to have him talk to me. I had a little imaginary switch on the top of my head, and when I began feeling intimidated, I just reached up and turned it off. It was my ego switch. It worked. I now say that everything of importance I know in physics I learned from Luis Alvarez. (The most important things are how to choose problems to work on; how to pursue them; how to leverage the vast knowledge of all who came before; how to not miss something important; how to know when to quit working on something; how to generate new ideas in physics.) To my amazement, Alvarez and I grew very close. He was a frustrated teacher, and all his potentially best students avoided him -- except for me. He turned out to be very kind and generous, and yet he could still be intimidating.
I now have a former student working for me, full time, who is more intelligent than I am. I am intimidated now and then, but it is such a wonderful experience that I would never give it up. Together we move ahead in science at many times the rate that either of us could go by ourselves. He knows he is more intelligent than I am -- but I think he finds I bring other important elements to the collaboration. (Mostly things I had learned from Luis Alvarez.)
Intelligent students in the classroom are wonderful to experience. It is very rewarding to have a student who learns quickly. One of my happiest moments as a teacher was when I did what I thought was a poor job at teaching a concept in physics, and afterwards a student came up to me, asked some questions that made it clear he had understood and learned. I realized that I didn't have to be perfect; that students are intelligent, and it was sometimes sufficient for me to be a catalyst.
For 34 years I was a member of Jason, a group of scientists who worked every summer on national security problems. I recall that when I joined I was the youngest member (there were about 40 others), and I remember feeling intimidated. I also remember thinking, what a most wonderful education this is going to be! And it was.
So yes, I sometimes do get intimidated by others who are more intelligent than I am. But I've learned to seek out ongoing relationships with such people. It provides the best kind of ongoing education.
Which professor in your school would think has the same charisma as Prof. Muller or those that you think are contrary to his camp?
Written by Alex Barry
Published on 1/2/2020 5:52:48 AM