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Opening College Doors To Cults?

I don’t like teaching;
I don’t like students;
I don’t know their faces;
I don’t know their names.
I don’t like service;
I don’t like advising;
I don’t like playing
Departmental games
My at-risk students
Go unsupported
A fully expected,
If tragic, result—
We must do something
That costs me nothing:
Let’s outsource the problem
And call in a cult.

Marshall Poe, writing in The Atlantic, suggests that Colleges Should Teach Religion to Their Students. You see, teachers and administrators are in loco parentis, and some of us are far more loco than parentis.

I used to teach at a big land-grant university in Midwest. In that capacity, I did what most professors do. A third of my job was research, a third was teaching, and a third was service (committee work and such). I was a very conscientious researcher, a somewhat conscientious teacher, and avoided service whenever I could. I do not think I was unusual in this regard. Most professors at big universities love research, are lukewarm about teaching, and loathe service. This is why they are always after sabbaticals. They want to write books, not teach undergraduates or serve on curriculum committees.

It should come as no surprise, then, when I tell you that I did not know my undergraduates very well. I taught a “two-two” load, meaning two courses a semester. One of those was a tiny graduate seminar, meaning no undergraduates. Each of my undergraduate courses met for about two hours a week, three at the outside. On average, then, I saw my undergraduates for four to six hours a week one semester and for two to four hours a week in the other. When I say “saw,” I mean exactly that. Typically, I stood at a lectern and lectured to them. I never really interacted with them. They were just faces. Of course, being a somewhat conscientious teacher, I invited them to my office hours. They almost never came, and I knew they wouldn’t. Again, I would say that my experience with undergraduates was fairly typical.

The “False Consensus Effect” is a real thing. Poe knows he paints a horrible picture of a university professor, so to make himself look better in comparison, he claims that everyone else is just as bad. Poe makes me feel much better about Cuttlefish University, where even the most research-oriented profs actually do (or convincingly pretend to) give a rat’s ass about undergraduates. But (good news, everybody!) Poe was forced to do some undergraduate advising, where he found that for some unknown reason, these students were not being well served by their academic environment:

What I discovered was that many of the students I talked to were disappointed, confused, and lost. They were bright kids. Many of them had looked forward to going to the university all their lives. College was, in their imaginations, a sort of promised land, a place where you find your calling and get the skills necessary to pursue it. What they found, however, was not a promised land at all. To them, the college curriculum was a bewildering jumble of classes that led to nothing in particular. Take this, take that, it doesn’t really matter so long as it “counts” toward your major and graduation. They learned to pick classes not on the basis of interest or relevance, but simply because they fit nicely into their schedules. To them, campus life revolved around bread and circus. The university funded huge events—football games being the most important—in which drunkenness was the order of the day. One of my standard in-take questions came to be “Have you been arrested for public drunkenness?” To them, the prospect of graduating was terrifying. They knew that the university had not prepared them for any particular line of work. The answer to “What are you going to do next” was usually “Go to graduate school” or “Get a job.” What graduate school and what job didn’t matter; any would do.

I also learned that because they were adrift in so many ways, they suffered. It was not difficult to get them talking about their distress, probably because no one at the university had ever thought to inquire. There were those who drank too much and got into trouble. There were those who were full-blown alcoholics or drug addicts. There were those who were too depressed to go to classes. There were those who cut and starved themselves. There were those who thought of killing themselves and some who even tried. There were those who fought with their roommates. There were those who, having fought with their roommates, were in the hospital or homeless. And, more than anything else, there were those who said “Fuck it” and just dropped out.

So he championed major reforms, demanding that the undergraduates who pay the bills are treated with at least minimal standards of dignity. So he gave up. Sure, he reports his efforts at trying to get the university to change, but realized that doing the right thing would be difficult and expensive (read: unacceptable to a university filled with people who shared his priorities on the worth of undergraduates). So… ah! Genius!

One of the results of Poe’s sadly accurate description of undergraduate life is, college students are frequent targets of cult recruiters. Cults see a population adrift, and give them a rudder. Or an anchor, or maybe an outboard motor, whatever metaphor actually works. It’s a match made in heaven, or maybe hell, but religious groups are champing at the bit to be invited to get their hooks into these kids help these poor students, and Poe wants to open the doors wide and invite religious teachers–not religious studies teachers, but actual priests, pastors, rabbis, imams, elders, lamas, gurus, mullahs, chaplains, abbots, witches, medicine men, deacons, apostles, ayatollahs, and the like. Well, he actually mentions only three Abrahamic traditions and atheism, but once a state university opens the door to one, any sect can demand equal treatment, and if he wants some available for academic credit, then he is really proposing that every university employ a cadre of religious teachers of all conceivable denominations. To pass constitutional muster, it would have to be an open forum, independent of the percentage of adherents, subsidized by the university (and undergraduate tuition) as needed.

Because the alternative is fixing a system that treats undergraduates like an inconvenient side effect of the need to fund a research university.

(Ophelia’s take.)

Bleargh. » « Sale!


  1. Claire Ramsey says

    Thanks for this! In my career as university faculty I met lots of professors who were icky jerks who didn’t care about UGs or teaching (some of them no longer cared about research either).

    And I met lots of professors who were interested in UGs and liked them and got to know them. In the last few years of my career I VOLUNTEERED (yes, at a big huge research university w/lots of Nobel laureates) to teach freshman seminars (for no pay for that addition to my load) b/c I was curious about them. In particular I knew enough to know that they were not finished developing, not by a long shot, and I wanted to know how things looked to them. Mostly I wanted to know what they meant when they said that a course was “boring.” For a lot of them, boring = not about me. They are simply undeveloped. Marshall Poe’s article is kind of stupid, and possibly undeveloped. Piffle.

  2. Cuttlefish says

    One of my students, in class (a senior seminar) this past Monday, absolutely made my semester, saying “they should make this a required course for everybody their first semester of college!”, because of this class’s unique and practical advice. My goal is to change the world through my students, or rather to give them the tools to change their world most effectively and most fruitfully. Anyone who has access to this generation and voluntarily turns his back… gives up any right to complain.

    Next semester, I am teaching introductory cuttlefishology again, for the first time in a few years. I have always liked teaching intro, and look forward to it. We are so incredibly privileged to be trusted with the education of… our future. It behooves us to, unlike Poe, not fuck it up.

  3. Al Dente says

    Next semester, I am teaching introductory cuttlefishology

    Will your lectures be in rhyming couplets or blank verse?

  4. rnilsson says

    Funny, my beer bottles have a text on the bottom: “Please open other end”.
    Not much help though. Maybe if I’d’a been a Poefessor …

  5. says

    Wow. I’ve been teaching at an undergraduate institution for 30+ years and my reaction to Poe’s quoted second paragraph was “This person should not be teaching, he’s a effing jerk”

    My typical load is 3 or 4 courses per semester (although to be fair I do less than “1/3 rd research”). By the time they graduate, I know my students well. We’ve built some mutual trust and respect. Poe reminds me of something a colleague of mine used to say jokingly: “This would be a great job if it wasn’t for the students”. Students do not exist as an inconvenient funding stream.


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