This essay was originally posted on The Tattooed Professor. It has been re-printed with permission.
By Kevin Gannon
I was having a really good day today; recovering from post-semester burnout, recharging the batteries–all in all, getting to my Happy Place. But then I read Mark Bauerlein’s Op-ed in today’s New York Times, and now I’m all irritated. “What’s the Point of a Professor?” Bauerlein asks; he then goes on to tell us, basically, “not much.” And who’s responsible for this lamentable state of affairs, you might wonder? Well–there’s students, for one. In today’s consumerist and career-over-true-education society, they just don’t engage with professors outside of the classroom transaction. “They have no urge to become disciples,” according to Bauerlein. Why don’t they want to become disciples? Well, colleagues, there’s where it becomes our fault, too:
Sadly, professors pressed for research time don’t want them, either. As a result, most undergraduates never know that stage of development when a learned mind enthralled them and they progressed toward a fuller identity through admiration of and struggle with a role model
Who even realizes they want to become an acolyte of a rock-star professor if they never get to the right “stage of development?” College seems to be reduced, in this view, to a several-year series of rote careerist transactions between infantilized students and disinterested professors. Gone are the halcyon days of yore when professors dispensed wisdom to adoring throngs of geek-groupies, never to return. O THE POOR CHILDREN.
Here’s the thing: I. Am. So. Done. with being lectured to by academics from elite institutions about how I–and many others in similar career arcs–am somehow failing students, the liberal arts, other faculty, civil society, western civilization, the Cleveland Indians, or any other institution that has fallen on hard times. And I’m really hacked off when that scolding comes from obliviously pretentious Older White Male Professors who come across less as committed to education and more like committed to telling the rest of us how we don’t do things nearly as well as they did In My Day. Hell, Bauerlein’s column has it all: the reminiscing about crowded hallways in the UCLA English Department as every student was lined up to learn at the knee of some senior don, the obligatory paean to faculty as moral authority, even a Todd Gitlin shout-out. Now, Bauerlein wants us to see him as understanding. I get it, he seems to say, students are more occupied and distracted than they were in previous years. (And more stupid, if you go by the glib assertion in his most well-known book’s title.) They need more guidance, to be steered toward the things they don’t know that they don’t know. Help them help themselves by being a beacon of the humanities. And that’s where the corporate university and its consumed-by-research faculty have failed them, he concludes:
You can’t become a moral authority if you rarely challenge students in class and engage them beyond it. If we professors do not do that, the course is not an induction of eager minds into an enlarging vision. It is a requirement to fulfill. Only our assistance with assignments matters. When it comes to students, we shall have only one authority: the grades we give. We become not a fearsome mind or a moral light, a role model or inspiration. We become accreditors.
It would be easy to characterize this as a grumpy old man’s lament, a “kids these days” monologue that we all have heard from the should-have-retired-six-years-ago colleague in the coffee room. I could just make a “get off my lawn” joke and be done with it. I could take his wish for 1960s-style profs to gather disciples and compare it to Donald Sutherland’s lecherous professor character in Animal House. It’s all low-hanging fruit.
But my problem with Bauerlein’s essay is deeper. His argument is based on shallow archetypes and anecdotal assumptions; it renders simplistic matters that are actually much more complex, and confuses correlation with causation. It is one of a larger genre of student- and faculty-shaming jeremiads that have emerged in recent months, written by established, tenured scholars at elite R-1 institutions (Emory,in Bauerlein’s case), affecting a faux-benevolent tone to chastise all of us for not “doing it right.”
It’s easy to tell your colleagues that they’re too engaged in research, and not enough with students, when you teach at an institution that has a 2-2 (maximum) class load and ample support for research. It’s easy for someone at Princeton to tell us we’re doing conferences wrong because they go to so many that all the annoying things that happen there run together after a while. Oh, they wail, if only our academia was like it Used To Be.
This is academic classism, pure and simple. In its shallow portrait of student attitudes and naive calls for professors to be moral authorities and fearsome minds, Bauerlein ignores what is happening outside the walls of his tiny elite cloister, perched amongst the ivy and resting comfortably on scads of tuition dollars and a jumbo-sized endowment. “What’s the point of a professor,” he asks? Let me tell you one answer.
In my Tiny Liberal Arts College With Professional Programs Too, a professor teaches four (sometimes more) classes a semester. These professors also advise anywhere from 10 to 40 students (unlike large, R1 institutions, we do not use professional or departmental advisors). They sponsor and advise student organizations. Our one-person Theatre Department runs four productions a year, our two-person Music Department sponsors a pep band and a choir that travels across the US and over to Europe, guided and mentored (and chaperoned, and checked into their hostels) by their professors. These professors will knock on a dorm room door if one of their students has missed several classes and is in jeopardy of being on academic probation (this may or may not have been someone who looked remarkably like me). These professors are on the hospital floor for 8-hour clinicals with a cohort of 19-year-old Nursing majors. They help find translators for a Bosnian student’s parents (who don’t speak English) to open up a bank account in town. They sit through interminable afternoon meetings and then teach a three-hour Social Work seminar two nights a week. These professors go to their student’s graduation parties, they get thank-you cards from grateful students (and relieved parents*), they go to former students’ weddings, they are invited to law school commencements for former advisees.They take students who don’t think they’ll ever understand Foucault or Hayden White and help them get admitted to a top graduate program a year later. They tell students who have been told they’re less-than all of their lives that they are capable, and that they can do this thing. And then many of those students go on to do that thing. And as Director of our Teaching Center, I can personally attest to the fact that they TEACH THE SHIT OUT OF THEIR FIELDS in the classroom. Oh, and we still write articles and books and speak at conferences.
We. Have. A. Point.
Moreover, our students know it.
Now, I’m not at Harvard (though I am at the Harvard of East Des Moines). But my experiences echo most of the faculty out there, many of whom are adjunct or non-tenure track. We teach heavy loads, are still expected to produce scholarly work, and often have even heavier service requirements given the type of institutions in which we labor. We are not just teachers, but mentors, advisors, life coaches, confidants, chaperones, and more to our students. This may not match the idealized picture of eager undergraduates waiting outside the Lit prof’s door, ready for a stimulating gab session on Modernism. But that vision’s a pipe dream for 98% of faculty and students on American college campuses, and I wonder if reminiscences of such idealized settings haven’t gotten more romanticized by those less pleased about today. Just because our mentorship, our “moral authority,”** and our inspiration don’t take place in a gothic building where even the ivy has ivy doesn’t mean they’re not happening. Ouracademia is one where both students and faculty are pulled in myriad directions by both personal and professional commitments. Remarkably, in spite of all that, professors in this academia matter urgently, deeply, and personally to a majority of our students in one way or another. For some, we are an intellectual inspiration. For others, we listen when others don’t, or affirm where others haven’t. For others, we open doors that they didn’t know existed. For professors to have this kind of “a point” in the environment in which we and our students find ourselves is testament to us and them. But it’s being ignored in much of the discourse surrounding higher education of late, because it isn’t happening where elite academics are looking. And that’s a damn shame.
So if you’re a Tenured Erudite Professor teaching a course per term at an elite school, and you’re of a mind to write a piece about how academia’s doing it wrong, let me give you some advice. There’s plenty wrong with higher ed, no one’s doubting that, but don’t miss the target. Don’t distract from the real work that needs to be done by pedantically lecturing at the people actually doing it. Don’t begin with an idealized example and then scorn any deviations from it. Life is messier outside the campus fence; teach the students you have instead of pining for the ones you want. Use your privileged position and voice for what we really need in order for professors to matter: condemn the adjunctification of higher education. Hell, treat your own adjunct faculty with fairness and dignity. (Do you know their names? Are you sure?) Help open the faculty ranks to those who may not have taken their Ph.D.s from an ivy–I promise, we can do cool things, too. Argue for a return of public and political respect for our colleges and universities, and the funding that goes with it. Advocate for the less-privileged; these 4-4 loads don’t leave much time for writing national op-eds. Lobby your administration to embrace financial empowerment programs for students. Be a part of building the spaces (literal and figurative) on your campus where students and faculty can be present with one another in a variety of ways (including, if necessary, online). Recognize that your perceptions may embed privileged assumptions that are alien to many current and potential students–and faculty! Help the rest of us do the work that is ours to do in today’s difficult climate.
Or, tell us to get off of your lawn. Whatevs.
*One time, an advisee’s mom made me an apple pie for helping her son get back on track for graduation. It was awesome.
**I would argue “empathetic legitimacy”gets at what we want much better than “moral authority,” which for me carries overtones of conformism and rigidity rather than modeling the truly oopen and capacious nature of the life of the mind.2