Embarrassed to Ask, Dying to Know: What it Takes to Learn

Students support the fabric of the UC Irvine community: we are the initiators and beneficiaries of activism; the research, campus culture and so much more. Despite our sole purpose being to learn and mature academically, it is far too common that the academic relationship between students and faculty is distant, to say the least.

I am completely disheartened to say that I received more mis-information than information from those I have consulted on campus about the topic which I planned to write on: the governmental crisis in the Ukraine and how the UCI campus has reacted through student activism. The dialogue I shared with professors and other faculty left me discouraged, even outraged, by their conduct.

My experience as an undergraduate student journalist has taught me to form a thick skin; to protect myself against the disrespect I might receive as a reaction to my curiosity, my wonder  my passion to know and learn more.

It goes without question that UCI is host to a stunning community of professors hailing from all corners of our highly respected academic departments. They take part in unprecedented research, engage in profound global conversations and author groundbreaking publications. However, it is not in the DNA of a large research university to foster a need for interpersonal relationships with their students.

A professor in the global cultures department noted that when it comes to attending to a student’s questions and curiosities, paperwork, research and other formal academic processes are always the priority. Inciting a passion for the subject is simply not obtainable, given the limited student-and-professor collaboration. In my experience, even when open dialogue does exist, the interaction often turns sour.

Several students in a science course, for example, received an impersonal email from their professor after a midterm stating, ‘I will be sending a separate e-mail to people who score really low on this (ridiculously easy) exam with a suggestion to drop this course ASAP and/or reevaluate their approach to life.’  The students in this class found the email to be discouraging and unsupportive. One student, Julie Nguyen, stated she “felt really incompetent. [The] professor implied that if a student can’t succeed on a test, they might as well change their career path.”

In another instance, a highly-tenured professor from the UCI School of Law answered a question of mine via email with the below quote. Note that my question was as follows: “Why do you feel it is important for UC Irvine students to understand what is happening across the world [particularly in Ukraine], knowing that it does not directly effect them on a localized level?”

This professor’s answer? “Are you kidding me? ‘Doesn’t affect (your spelling is wrong) UCI students?” This professor went on to say that I have “asked a ridiculously broad question here” and asked if I have read up on WWII and WWI. Although the professor offered an incredible perspective on what could happen in Ukraine and in the world in the future, the answer was given only after being condescending toward the broad and innocent nature of my questions.

Yet another instance of negative interaction was through a phone call I had with a professor from a physical science department on campus. He had lived in Ukraine for nearly 35 years. When interviewed for his opinion on the general attitude of Ukrainians, given their intense political and social situations, he gave me one-word answers. When asked for further detail, this individual responded with a strong air of bitterness, patronizing me for my apparent lack of knowledge on this subject. It is completely understandable why the topic would be a sensitive one, but his conduct did not yield a learning opportunity, nor did it offer helpful insight that I could have shared with the rest of the UC Irvine community. His actions and that of other professors I have interacted with throughout my years here so far have not been conducive to a learning environment.

Tell me, how are we to foster a love for learning and a passion for our future careers, when our mentors treat others in this way? If we are the future of academia, how are we to grow in an environment that repeatedly condescends and measures us by the grade on our transcripts?

As students, I believe we shouldn’t stand for this. We have a right to ask questions, a right to speak with conviction and a right to make mistakes with the intention of correcting them in the future. We understand the privilege of knowledge and have faced far too many condescending conversations in the wake of simply wanting to know more, to achieve more; to improve. Professors on this campus should recognize their privilege of knowledge and specialization. Students strive to learn, and faculty should certainly strive to teach and inform as much as possible. I understand that research is a priority on this campus. But in due time, the research that they have done will be the foundation for our research and our responsibility.

What is the question we are all “embarrassed to ask” this week? It’s simple: “When?” When is it appropriate to condescend rather than inform? To turn away rather than relate? The answer: Never. Academic relationships and rich intellectual conversations must start now. Patience and consideration in this regard should absolutely be a priority.