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.