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Notre Dame students from professors’ eyes

Sean Long, Nora O'Sullivan and Emily de Araujo | Tuesday, December 10, 2013

What do our professors think of us?
We all have experiences where a professor remarks, “Notre Dame students are…” or “Notre Dame students always…” We often dispel these remarks as off-the-cuff, but one story last spring stood out.
I used to ask freshmen how they liked Notre Dame, but what I stopped asking was “Why?” When I asked them how they liked ND, they’d respond,
“I love it here, it’s great!”
When I asked them “Why?,” they’d say,
“I’ve never been at a place with so many people just like me.”

For three months, we interviewed professors to understand the heart of this question. We wanted to write a profile of Notre Dame students, especially those in liberal arts, from their professors’ eyes. To accomplish this, we interviewed 14 faculty members within the College of Arts and Letters – from tenured deans to first-year professors, from multiple disciplines and backgrounds – with the aspiration to create a forum where professors serve as constructive critics of Notre Dame liberal arts students.  While we limited the profile’s scope to the College of Arts and Letters, we believe the results offer informative lessons for the entire student body.
After more than 10 hours of faculty discussions – anonymous, to allow candid feedback – we offer three conclusions. In our research, we did not ask professors to agree or disagree with statements. Rather, we asked broader questions, such as “If you could change anything about Notre Dame students, what would it be?” and noted overarching trends.
First, students are overcommitted, often at the expense of their ability to engage intellectually. More than three in five faculty members used “overcommitted” or a similar word to describe students, sometimes characterized as a tool to distract them from “thinking.”
“I also think it’s a distraction. Busy is a distraction. We do that to distract ourselves from things we don’t want to think about,” one professor concluded.  
Second, unprompted, 46 percent of professors mentioned students’ desires for structure inside and outside the classroom. This relates to more than half (54 percent) of faculty that used “dutiful” or “diligent” to describe students – the notion students “want to know what they need to do well and then they do that.” Another professor recalled, “At my previous university, all anyone ever wanted was for you to raise an interesting question. At Notre Dame, we want things to be clear, precise and manageable.”
Finally, nearly 70 percent of professors noted students are reluctant to challenge peers and professors for fear of standing out in the tight-knit “Notre Dame community.” Roughly four in five students identify as Catholic, three in four are white and most arrive at Notre Dame from a middle or upper-middle-class upbringing. Mia Lillis’s column, (“Hard Mode,” Dec. 5) touches on this when she states, “The Frosh-O T-shirts disappeared after a few days, but the uniform of campus did not.” We champion the Notre Dame community, but many argue the shadow of this is that campus solidarity makes students reluctant to stand out.  
We conclude with a vignette to show that these results, while critical, are also hopeful. When teaching a seminar during his first two years at Notre Dame, one professor described a “switch” that turns off with students. The first year, the seminar with first-semester freshmen evoked emotional debate on divisive issues, ranging from the death penalty to abortion. However, when teaching the same seminar the next fall to sophomores, something changed. The students did not engage. “Something happened that made them listen but not talk,” the professor stated. “That’s terrible. … It was my first two years here. I think that’s not an atypical experience.”
This anecdote demonstrates our assumption that these tendencies are cultivated, not inherent, in Notre Dame students. We discovered practices to counter these trends, like having an undergraduate ask the first question at visitor lectures, assigning students to Yes/No roles on a divisive question to begin a semester and promoting creative thinking through a brief “imagination activity” to end each class. We conclude this is largely not a “people problem,” but a situational problem that warrants small and doable changes.
Now, why should students care? Professors have an outside vantage point into students’ intellectual lives replicated by few others. We compare ourselves to one another, but professors – who have taught at peer institutions from Georgetown to Harvard – provide context. We, students and professors, should cultivate awareness that this perception exists and provoke dialogue about how our Notre Dame community can grow together.

Sean Long is a junior living in St. Edward’s Hall. He can be contacted at [email protected]
Nora O’Sullivan is a junior living in Lyons Hall. She can be contacted at [email protected]
Emily de Araujo is a senior living off campus. She can be reached at [email protected]
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not
necessarily those of The Observer.