Professors Have A Point

Here is the original essay by Mark Bauerlein published Sunday, May 9th, “What’s the Point of a Professor?” I encourage all to read first, then reread, if necessary.

Subtitle: Education is a Shared Responsibility

Perhaps Mark was working against a word-count limit, explaining the gaping holes in some of the comments made. I’d like to let him off the hook a little if essay real estate was a premium. Otherwise, I need to address some of his notions.

I’m not convinced students aren’t interested in us as thinker and mentors. This has not been my experience.

But while they’re content with teachers, students aren’t much interested in them as thinkers and mentors. They enroll in courses and complete assignments, but further engagement is minimal.

My experience has been students desire being exposed to real problems, seeing how those problems were resolved, and then being given similar issues and then being challenged to resolve. Of course, in full disclosure, my department is small, we have about 50 majors or so. I have a fair amount of contact time.

I spend time each week in our university library. I sit in the library coffee shop or at one of the study tables and work and eavesdrop. Mark is correct, technically, but so am I. His comment allows for the vagaries of student behavior. Sitting in the library I hear the gamut, from “Professor X is too demanding,” to “Professor Y really makes you think about stuff,” to “Professor Z doesn’t seem to give a damn.”

One measure of interest in what professors believe, what wisdom they possess apart from the content of the course, is interaction outside of class.

This is sort of no-brainer. Given a 50-minute class, we have only so much time to cover material. I am not a fan of Professor TimeWaster who spends 30 minutes talking about how they interact with their cat when they should be discussing the finer points of the Mongol Invasions or somesuch. Given 50 minutes of class versus interaction outside the classroom, one can nearly safely assume the quality of content may increase. The bigger problem here is, who has the time to devote to more class time outside of normal class time for all those students interested in having more class time? Even if the professor was willing to engage in additional lectures beyond those required a number of questions arise. Do students have time to attend? Do these extra lectures count towards formal instruction and are quizzed and examined as such? If these extra lectures are captured on media for the non-attending student, is the content imparted still a component of the overall course? Does the student have time to watch additional content? If Professor Blue provides X number of hours of extra lectures, and Professor Green provides X number of hours of extra lectures, and Professor Yellow provides X number of hours of extra lectures then precisely how many hours of classes has the student enrolled in? I am guessing these extra lectures will not be included in the course catalog yet built into the syllabus, cloaking the actual number of contact hours from administrators and from students. The effect could have serious repercussions upon a student’s ability to effectively study for a semester’s worth of courses.

See, this extra contact was all well-and-good in the days when class sizes were relatively small, and people could earn real living wages sans college degree, and before the days of social media, of teachers with Facebook pages, Twitter accounts, and, of course, email. Faculty often entertained students in their homes, or in campus common areas. Some still do, but the atmosphere for these interactions has changed considerably.

Faculty have to be cautious about having students in their homes for legal and liability concerns. If alcohol is consumed and a student is involved in an accident on the way home, that is a problem. If alcohol is consumed in the presence of minors, that could be a problem. Fraternization between faculty and students, while it happens, makes for some real headaches for chairs, deans, and university lawyers. There are solutions. Use a coffee shop. Use a conference room at the library. Sit outside on the steps of a building. Small upper-level classes are good for this; large lower-level classes not so much.

Richard Feyman’s books include many accounts of his interacting with students outside of class. Go back even further in time, and read the biographies of any one in physics, Einstein, Bohr, pretty much anyone. They essentially sat in their professor’s homes for their courses. How cool would that be? Sitting in Einstein’s house, or Bohr’s house, getting a lecture on physics? Times have changed in many ways and outside of working on Ph.D, I’m not sure many faculty have the time to sit around chatting.

For a majority of undergraduates, beyond the two and a half hours per week in class, contact ranges from negligible to nonexistent. In their first year, 33 percent of students report that they never talk with professors outside of class, while 42 percent do so only sometimes. Seniors lower that disengagement rate only a bit, with 25 percent never talking to professors, and 40 percent sometimes.

I have a gripe about this comment, but I have to couple it with a comment Mark makes later:

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.

First, of all, let’s dispel the notion of being a “moral authority.” I’m not sure I understand what he means by this. I know what a “moral authority” amounts to, I’m just not sure I lecture this way. And, if a professor is telling people what to think instead of coaching them on ways of thinking, the professor may have an issue. In my world geography classes, we definitely touch upon some topics which I feel strongly about, which I feel little moral ambiguity exists, like human trafficking and child slave labor, and putting weapons in the hands of children. However, there are other topics, like children working versus education, cash crops versus food crops, which don’t weigh the same in my mind.

Now, before you get bent out of shape about my “children working” comment let me clarify. I am opposed to sweatshops. However, as a young boy, I worked on my grandfather’s farm each summer. I know many people who worked on farms and did chores as children. I don’t see a problem with this; I developed a decent work ethic from learning, helping, and being responsible. There are some people who see even these activities as bad.

I don’t perceive myself as a moral authority, more of a epistemic authority. I like to enjoin my students with some reading material, give them time to contemplate, and then discuss. At times I play Devil’s Advocate, as some real world situations are alien to U.S. residents. Thus, I would rather leave the moral implications for the students to explore.

These two comments when taken together really bother me. I interpret these two comments to essentially abrogate the student from any responsibility to participant in their own learning experience. That students do not come to my office is not my responsibility. That 100% of the responsibility of engaging students rests upon professors ignores at least 50% of the educational ecosystem from consideration. I recently resigned from a local community college for thinking similar to this. My former employer implemented an employment policy making me responsible for my students submitting their course evaluations. Notices come in this form:

“Dear Mr. Busby, you are receiving this notification as your class has registered less than a 50% submission rate for course evaluations. As you know, two consecutive semesters of submission rates below 50% result in your contract not being renewed. Please encourage your students to submit course evaluations if you would like to continue employment with us.”

First and foremost, college students are people, and not just any people, but adults seeking a higher education, not simply chasing a vocation, but desirous of having their minds flexed and stretched. My opening classes typically begin with me stating something like this:

“Yes, you are students, but you are also people, most of you are humans, near as I can smell, and are ADULTS. Do I have any high school students present? Sometimes, they sneak in. When you enter into this classroom you are still ADULTS and when you leave, you will hopefully still remain an ADULT. You are not a child. I don’t especially care what mommy or daddy says. As an ADULT, you have responsibilities, like reading my syllabus, reading my course announcements, and showing up. This is my JOB; your education should be your JOB. Put into practice good habits today so you will have them ready when you graduate.”

Bauerlein’s premise seems to undermine my philosophy about education being a shared responsibility. Students show up not expecting to learn but prepared to learn. That means doing the homework, reading the material, watching videos, and asking questions. I bring content, students bring their minds, and content, when applicable.

Education is shared responsibility. Why do I have to explain this?!

Bauerlein’s premise not only undermined my philosophy of education being a shared responsibility but now, due to his New York Time venue, he has fed all of the PolitiTrolls who seek to demonize professors and the academic side of Higher Education. He has stood up essentially within the auditorium of educators and stated, “Yes, it’s my fault and my peers fault you students have no interest in learning,” I call bullshit on that.

Yes, students are distracted. Their fault, not mine. They are adults; they make the choice to be distracted. They make the choice to involved themselves in silly transitory issues, boyfriends, girlfriends, fraternity and sorority rushes and social events, and every other non-academic event under the sun. I do caution them. I do tell them about distractions. I advise them to focus on academics, “work to your own advantage, be selfish with your time. Few people care about your success as much as you,” and minimize the negative influences in their lives. Not my problem, not my responsibility, and I hold them accountable when I need to.

Furthermore, several politicians have voiced opposition to professors and essentially academics, in generally, recently. Governor Scott Walker (WI-R) has been the poster child for attacking academia. To those ranks I can add Gov. Bobby Jindal (LA-R) and Illinois State senator Bill Brady (R-Bloomington). Senator Brady even has a plan to privatize higher education in Illinois. Media chronically reports politicization of research. (HuffPost, 4/29/13) Notice a trend? You should. And, you should be worried about privatization of knowledge, too. But, I’ll leave “Privatization of Knowledge” for another post. Lucky you 🙂

Geography is an excellent and fun and invigorating discipline. To be a decent geographer one must be open and receptive to new ideas, ideas from other fields and disciplines. People often ask me how I know about some topic. “You’re a geographer; how do you know about snakes?” Because snakes have a habitat, the habitat is based on soil, climate, proximity to water, energy sources like mice, and all of those have a place. Place is geography. Boom. And, snakes are cool. Geography helps keep my eyes open, to provide a unique perspective, a breadth of perspectives. I personally borrow from my peers, and my peers include nearly anyone I think has a good idea. That peer might be a student, a fellow faculty member, my mom – in other words, another Human.

Education is a shared responsibility.


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