Which is More Difficult? Being a Student or a Professor?

With the new semester starting, I’ve had a lot of interactions with students as of late. Some are returning familiar faces, others are new faces that (in some situations) are new to college completely. They’re all undergraduates, taking 5 or so classes at one time, and many are trying to earn the highest possible grades in those classes.

The voice of the people - left for me on my office door from two students in Learning & Memory
The voice of the people – left for me on my office door from two students in Learning & Memory

It’s interesting to me to think about the roles and responsibilities in academia. The semester sees me shuffling from class to class, preparing lectures and activities, and of course grading. I spend several hours a week cruising around classrooms, telling jokes that my students mercifully laugh at, and making observations about my field and the material I’m presenting. In some cases I need to keep the conversation going for 75 minutes, or at the least direct attention toward an activity or video if I decide to rest my voice. I then retreat to my office, where I answer emails, respond to texts, post more bad jokes online (that my friends mercifully “like”), and grade assignments and exams. I also take time to work on research, follow-up with students and colleagues, and attend meetings.

Students have a similar routine – they move about classes, copiously write what professors like me say, download notes, skim textbooks (or even “read textbooks deeply” on occasion), and juggle requirements along with a myriad of campus activities, jobs, families, and friends.

In my mind it is debatable who has the more difficult job. For example, most of my effort is front-loaded into the semester. I can begin preparing classes months in advance if I like, where my students need to react as material is thrown at them – taking exams when I dictate, covering material that they’ve only had (in the best case scenario) 8 weeks to learn. I’ve learned the same material for over 10 years – so it’s no wonder I consider the exam questions “no brainers” – they came from my brain!

And at least when I do have to learn new material, I can fit it into my head’s schemas of information better than what my student’s face – they’re learning 5 new courses of content each semester with little to no overlap. What I learn from 3 journal articles may very easily overlap central concepts. How much overlap is there between, say, psychology and chemistry? Maybe 5%.

So I try to stay away from the easy way out – I don’t let myself think I have it harder just because I had to do 99% of the talking during the semester, or because I had to grade 50 exams whereas my students only had to take 1. It might be a long trek for me, but the path seems to be rockier for them.

Then again I may be wrong… wouldn’t be the first time! What do you think – is it harder to be a professor or a student?

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