I’m going to need a bigger throne, then


I’ve finished up my semester here, and now the NY Times tells me I’ve failed. My students didn’t revere me. They didn’t look at me as their moral guide. They have no desire to become my disciples. Gosh.

It hasn’t always been this way. “I revered many of my teachers,” Todd Gitlin said when we met at the New York Public Library last month. He’s a respected professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia, but in the 1960s he was a fiery working-class kid at Harvard before becoming president of Students for a Democratic Society.

I’ve been doing everything wrong. Next fall, I’m stomping into the classroom and demanding reverence, goddamnit.

Naturally, students looked to professors for moral and worldly understanding. Since then, though, finding meaning and making money have traded places. The first has plummeted to 45 percent; the second has soared to 82 percent.

I teach cell biology and genetics. I have a lot of material to cover and too little time to do it in. Now I have to lecture them on morality, too?

Most of my students aren’t in it for the money, either — yes, they’d like to get a reasonable job once they’re done here, and that seems like a good and practical desire, but they’re largely here because they like biology. If you want to go after the money-makers, go lecture the business schools.

We may be 50-year-olds at the front of the room with decades of reading, writing, travel, archives or labs under our belts, with 80 courses taught, but students don’t lie in bed mulling over what we said. They have no urge to become disciples.

I don’t even…I don’t run a cult of personality here. I know my students put in late hours trying to understand genetics or biochemistry or developmental biology — I hope like hell they aren’t lying up late pondering me. What is wrong with this guy? Is he pining for the days of tweed jackets with patches at the elbow, a pipe, a desk, and a power structure that required his underlings to suck up to him? Because that was great for old professors’ egos, but not so great for learning.

Fortunately, the Tattooed Professor offers a great rebuttal.

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.

The NY Times ought to run that. Those are the real problems, not the lack of sufficient reverence among our students.

Here’s another good response, which looks at the NYT’s terrible past record on writing about higher ed. It seems Harvard is the only college in America, with a few expensive satellites here and there.

If an Elite R1 prof wants to take to the NYT to tell other elite R1 profs that they should concentrate more on teaching, please proceed. If you feel like writing an essay that punches down at the rest of us in any way, or worst doesn’t seem to recognize that the rest of us even exist, that there’s any kind of academic experience outside your own, just keep it to yourself.


  1. Larry says

    Look to profs for moral guidance? WTF? Besides, it would have looked funny for a class of EE undergrads studying electric fields to be standing on their desks reciting “O Captain, my Captain”. No, reverence was not a word I would have used in reference to my professors.

  2. says

    Now that my algebra students know the quadratic formula and my calculus students can compute a Maclaurin series, I feel confident that they will be my devoted acolytes forever (at least until I finish writing the recommendations they need for scholarships and admission to transfer institutions).

  3. says

    You’d be surprised. I don’t think I revered any of my lecturers, but even now I sometimes think ‘am I approaching this problem honestly? Is this something Katja or Steve (my lecturers in German Expressionism and symbolic logic, respectively) would do?’ It’s definitely not your job to be a moral paradigm, but teenagers are going to look up to you anyway.

  4. blf says

    Or course yer doing it “wrong”. Yer a icky gooey thingy “perfressor” who says he is “studying” zebras stuffed into a fishbowel. Why? Not clear, but probably has something to do with peas. Like that god-botherer Mendel, albeit to give credit due, he was at least torturing the peas.

    So, how to fix things and gain disciples?

    (1) Walking on water is a traditional trick.
    (2) Turning water — Tip: remove the zebras, poo, peas, and other disgusting bits first — into wine usually impresses the rubes. Also makes it easy to increase your tithing fees, especially after they drunk some of the wine.
    (3) Tithe, of course. With threats of eternal zebra-in-fishbowelnation if the full amount isn’t paid on time.
    (4) Slaves. (In addition to your graduate students, of course…) Accept ’em in lieu of tithes, use ’em (to clean out the zerba / fishbowels, e.g,); sell ’em before they start to empathize with the zebras (or worse, the peas)…

  5. blf says

    Blast! My@4 was accidently posted before I’d finished writing / editing it to my satisfaction. I blame poopyhead’s disciples, who clearly involved the Spell of Rong Klick, probably assisted by the Scroll of Uncooperative Mouse.

  6. Radium Coyote says

    This whole notion of “Ivy Tower is better” has dogged me ever since I got my A.S. at a community college. Education-wise, am I better served by a professor who had to battle his way into a teaching position at the University Behind Raley’s, or a smug tenured jerk at Prestigious U whose career goals are not wholly focused on education? Many variables concerning the student aside, I made out better at the community college than I did at the university.

  7. anteprepro says

    Somebody’s got a bit of a messiah complex. The only other option I can imagine is that “Columbia” was an odd typo for “Liberty”, as that is the only setting where I could understand being perplexed at not having students fawning over you, expecting moral guidance from you, and becoming sycophantic, obsessed followers of Dear Teacher. But no matter how you slice it, they have mistook higher education for cult indoctrination. Odd.

  8. slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says

    They have no urge to become disciples.

    sp~~ splh~~ Did he really just use that word? Was thata kind of metafor that just flew over my head?
    Is there a a TARDIS this guy just traveled from the Medieval in?
    another song pops in to my imagination: Tull’s “Living in the Past”
    Even when I was a little kid (not as far back as Medieval) my teachers taught me HOW To Do stuff, not just WHAT To Do. I disagree that disciples would be taught that way. The goal was always to make the Students exceed the Teachers. Disciples are expected just the opposite of that.
    This writers nostALGIA, is “pining for the past (when things were better, before progress happened)”
    in conclusion (FWIW), I had a few profs that I sincerely respected above all others, but I don’t think that counts as “reverence”. I guess they were doin it wrong too, or I was just too self absorbed (bein a whippersnapper) to _revere_ a high level prof who taught me so much.

  9. frog says

    There aren’t enough facepalms in the world for that NYTimes op-ed.

    Back in the dark ages, when I was in college, I wanted three things from my profs:

    1. Know my fucking name.
    2. Know what the hell you’re talking about.
    3. Enjoy your subject enough to engage the enthusiasm of your students.

    Point 1 was a serious failure in large lecture hall 101-level courses at the large, highly respected university I started at and dropped out of after 3 years. It was not a problem in the slightest at the community college where I rebooted my return to school, because they strictly limited class sizes.

    Point 2 is, in my experience, completely unrelated to the quality of the institution. There are bullshit artists and beneficiaries of nepotism or fraternal ties all over the place. There are also really good academics and teachers all over the place. (Note: “good academic” is not the same as “good teacher.” Those are two entirely different skills, and may or may not reside in the same human being.)

    Point 3, again, was unrelated to the institution. I found it was somewhat related to the students. At the CC, when I sat in the front and asked questions and initiated engagement, adjuncts and profs who were worn down by years of passive, unresponsive students would come alive and bring their A-game. (Most of the time. A few were too far gone.) There was somewhat less of this at Big Respected Institution, though that could have been a function of class size.

    Other students may learn better in different settings. But one thing I think is true: for your average undergrad, the quality of one’s education isn’t really related to the quality of the school. (To a point. I doubt there’s a good education to be had from a diploma mill.) More important is matching the student to the learning style, and their goals to the goals of the school.

  10. ragdish says

    For any moral guidance, I know that pre-med students in Biology have to acknowledge the the painful truth:

    4.0 and go
    But not below
    3.9 then end of the line

    Indeed, hearkening back to those undergrad days in Organic Chem class, I recall the painful morals put forth by the prof on the first day of class:

    “Look to the ight of you. Look to the left of you. One of you three will fail”

  11. AlexanderZ says

    Shorter NY Times: …the problem with kids (and their professors) these days…

    Other than that, a few points:
    1. The writer is a warped little authoritarian. Students have never, ever, revered their teacher. Feared them? Yes (in the days where both bodily harm was allowed and a teacher could have destroyed a students life with just a word). Groveled in front of them when the need arose? Yes. But never revered them, even though some teachers were well liked by some students, some of the time.
    How do I know this? From my 90 year old grand-aunt who was in the teaching profession her entire life. According to her the lack of any genuine respect and the students’ view of education as (among other things) a means to an end was present even during Stalin’s time, when teachers were supposed to be moral guides.

    2. Is it possible that the real reason that more students aspire to a better financial position today is due to the over-capitalization of modern (and USA in particular) society? Or the ever increasing cost of higher education in the USA and the overwhelming and crippling debt it imposes on the students? Or the over saturation of higher education which means you now need a degree to flip burgers at McDonald’s? Perhaps the average student is a bit smarter than Mr. Bauerlein thinks.

    3. Mark Bauerlein is an English professor. That’s a bit surprising because I wonder how many of his students majored in English in order to get the Big Buck$. What I’m not surprised about is that he is the author of the 2008 book, The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (Or, Don’t Trust Anyone Under 30).
    In other words he’s a professional troll and a moronic curmudgeon. But what else could you expect from a libertarian?

  12. AlexanderZ says

    blf #4

    Not clear, but probably has something to do with peas

    Peas?! I thought it all had something to do with ’em jeans thingies I keep hearing about.

  13. says

    but students don’t lie in bed mulling over what we said. They have no urge to become disciples.

    Goodness, someone has an ego in need of feeding. It seems the good Prof was unable to figure out that teaching English is not the best route to disciples. For that, theology is a good bet.

  14. yazikus says

    At the CC, when I sat in the front and asked questions and initiated engagement, adjuncts and profs who were worn down by years of passive, unresponsive students would come alive and bring their A-game.

    Yes, this! I loved seeing their faces come alive when they realized someone was paying attention and thinking. I understand why people want to come from an elite university, it should mean something, right? But I don’t think it means much, other than the fact that some people start out with more resources than others.

  15. cicely says

    My students didn’t revere me. They didn’t look at me as their moral guide. They have no desire to become my disciples.

    Just as well.
    Somehow, “Acts of the Apostles of P.Z. Myers” just doesn’t scream “Sophisticated Theology”.

  16. moarscienceplz says

    I think the NY Times should practice a little moral guidance among themselves before worrying about other people.

  17. NitricAcid says

    Hmmm….if I had money for a research program, I probably could have snagged one or two disciples, actually. But they wouldn’t have looked to me for moral guidance, just chemical guidance. And the occasional exchange of interesting YouTube videos.

  18. frog says

    yazikus@14: And the funny thing is, sometimes they’re the same profs! My history 102 adjunct at the CC was also a prof at Very Prestigious Ivy. He would come down to teach this one class at night, once a week. My guess is that he liked having a class with a lot of older students, as night classes at a CC typically do.

    Same thing for an upper-level course I had in the city college that eventually gave me my degree. Prof from an Ivy (different from previous prof) moonlighting for this one course where he’s the leading expert.

    I wonder if they were just so glad to have small classes and students who wanted to learn, rather than a high proportion of entitled students.

  19. ZugTheMegasaurus says

    Revered? I don’t know about that, but there were several professors in college and law school who I looked up to and respected very much. I still talk about them and their ideas pretty regularly even today. But none of them know it. I never went to office hours because I thought it would bug them. I didn’t want to be in the group of a half-dozen people swarming the professor with questions at the end of class (especially when I didn’t really have anything to say).

    Know what I did? I went to the library and found everything they’d written and read it (often twice). I took as many classes of theirs that fit into my schedule as I could. One year, I even gave a book one of my professors had just published to my grandmother as a Christmas gift.

    But it wasn’t because they were a professor, or because there was some discipleship happening. It was because I was impressed by their mastery of the subject and wanted to be able to do that too. Frankly, that’s what the focus should be, not “my students don’t worship me enough.”

  20. NitricAcid says

    I loathe having entitled students. I had one student come up to me, slam her marked lab report down on my desk, and tell me that her mark of 16/20 was unacceptable, because she “always got top marks on her lab reports”. Showing her where she had skipped a required part, and answered some questions wrong did not change her opinion.

  21. futurechemist says

    I kind of get what the author is saying. Not about the reverence or authority, but about being frustrated with general student apathy. I teach intro level chem courses at a large university, and sometimes have classes of 400-500 students. I don’t care if students “like” or “revere” me, though it’s a perk if they enjoy my class. What I really want is to get them excited about the material. I find “generate student excitement” to be a lot harder than “teach the material”. Each term I’ll have a few eager students, but the majority of students are taking my classes because it’s a requirement of their major. Quite a few of them just want to get through the course and get a good grade. And in any given lecture, there’s a lot of seemingly blank faces staring back at me. The best student interactions have been with the students that come to my office hours frequently, where we’ll occasionally go off on a 10 minute tangent on how nutritional labels relate to what they’ve learned in class, or advice about applying to grad schools. But for every student who comes to my office hours, there are 5 who sit in the back of the classroom, never ask/answer questions, never come to my office, and essentially remain anonymous for the entire term.

    Then again, 15 years ago when I was sitting in these classes, I was 1 of the eager students, so I don’t remember how much apathy the general student body had and how it compares to today. I suspect it’s not that different.

  22. garnetstar says

    futurechemist, evey word you wrote is true. OTOH, I don’t actually have time to meet or be acquainted with my 600+ students every semester. Let alone have them revere me.

    I’m trying to imagine how to teach morality during my lectures on valence bond theory, but I am not succeeding.

    And, who has the time? It’s a race to get through everything they need to learn, let alone recruit disciples.

  23. garnetstar says

    yazikus @14, you are correct. You really have to attend an elite university to fully understand how hollow that label is. Any sort of quality education at the elites is just as hit-or-miss as it is in any other college. Really depends on which classes you take and which professor you get, and that goes for double at an elite place.

  24. Zmidponk says

    It hasn’t always been this way. “I revered many of my teachers,” Todd Gitlin said when we met at the New York Public Library last month.

    During my educational years, the people I learned the most from weren’t the ones that expected me to unquestioningly obey and revere them, but the ones that expected me to challenge them and tell them they were wrong. Most of the time, they weren’t wrong, but I learned a lot from them meeting that challenge and telling me where and how I had gone wrong, including, fairly often, not just that what they were teaching was correct, but why it was correct. In the end, I respected them, a lot, but I wouldn’t say I ‘revered’ them.

  25. anteprepro says

    futurechemist: If it makes you feel better and less frustrated, I was an “apathetic” student. I would never go to office hours and would only participate in a class if forced. But it doesn’t mean I didn’t pay attention or appreciate the teacher or what I was learning. Just shy, not social, afraid of crowds, not sure what the purpose of office hours even would be for me (since I generally understood the material and would feel uncomfortable just schmoozing for schmoozing’s sake) and overwhelmed with the little stresses of everyday life. And unlike other students I know, I wasn’t even juggling friendships, relationships, or a job at the time. I wouldn’t be too quick to dismiss the students that seem apathetic. They aren’t necessarily not getting it, or being lazy. They just might be like me and just be far more emotionally comfortable by being just another a face in the crowd. Or like other people I know with a lot of shit on their plate, who come to class to get information that they will digest later, and might not necessarily have the energy to be enthused about it, or the quick wit to process it on the spot.

    ( But I will admit that the laziness and apathy is there too! Saw that quite a bit as well. )

  26. azpaul3 says

    Now I have to lecture them on morality, too?

    Yes, of course. But not the kind of structured lecture you give from a syllabus. You lecture by example, how you react to situations, how you treat your students, the side comments all leaders, classroom or otherwise, make. In your specific case you have well known widely publicized opinions and I’m sure you get plenty of questions/challenges from your students. Whether you respond directly or with nothing more than “You are paying me good money to teach you biology so let’s get to the biology and take up this other when and if we have time,” you have just given a moral lesson.

    Reverence from your students is BS. Their respect for you is where their learning takes place. When the student respects the Prof, regardless of what you think you are teaching, your students will come away from your classes with more than just biology notes. You do not have to teach morality, Dr. M, you are teaching morality.

  27. khms says

    I’m somewhat surprised nobody seems to have picked up on this part:

    but in the 1960s he was a fiery working-class kid at Harvard before becoming president of Students for a Democratic Society.

    Hmm … the 1960s. What were those famous for again?

    The good prof seems to be one of those who preferred (what he saw as) the status quo ante.

  28. kaleberg says

    ragdish: “Look to the right of you. Look to the left of you. One of you three will fail”

    In computer science it’s different. It’s “Look to the right of you. Look to the left of you. You guys on the ends, rewrite your code.”

  29. reddiaperbaby1942 says

    This is an issue of genuine confusion. The problem is that journalists, like most people, didn’t study science in college; they probably majored in one of the liberal arts, most likely English. Professors, and academia in general, tend to be identified in the public discourse with the liberal arts and the social sciences, where such ethical debate is (sometimes) relevant. Academics in these fields also assume (in the sense of take upon themselves, not in the sense of hypothesize) a role of authority on such issues. This assumption is often quite unwarranted.
    Very few people think of “professors”, whether positively or negatively, in connection with the natural sciences, because they’ve had little if any exposure to them in the course of their education. If they had to take a science course, they chose the easiest one and did their best to forget everything they learnt as soon as possible.
    The gap between the two cultures is deeper, and more dangerous, than ever.

  30. David Marjanović says

    We may be 50-year-olds at the front of the room with decades of reading, writing, travel, archives or labs under our belts, with 80 courses taught, but students don’t lie in bed mulling over what we said. They have no urge to become disciples.

    Ew. Ew ew ew. Gross.


    Unattentive students in the lecture hall? I studied in a country where attendance at lectures is not compulsory. In order to be allowed to take the exam, you don’t need to have been on site ever before. Consequently, the students at the back of the hall who just quietly sit there and never ask questions are the ones who are paying attention; they’re not asking questions because they’ve either understood everything, or they expect someone else will ask within the next minute*, or they expect that you will get to it in a minute. The ones who’d rather sleep are sleeping – at home. The ones who learn better from the written word than from your lecture are doing that – at home too.

    * Sometimes I went to the professor’s desk at the end of a lecture just to hear other people’s questions and the answers.