I’m not making a clean break. I’m still advising a few graduate students. I’m still editing a major journal. I’ll still attend conferences. I hope to be invited to campuses to speak about my work to students, faculty, and community members.
But I turned in my final set of grades. I received my final university paycheck. My business card now lists my profession as “writer,” and my Twitter profile notes that I am a “recovering academic.”
So when I saw the opinion piece in last Sunday’s New York Times headlined “What’s the Point of a Professor?” I read it both as a commentary on the changing nature of academia and as an opportunity to reflect on what I’ve observed as my 30-year teaching career comes to an end.
In his piece, Mark Bauerlein describes the norm for students at U.S. colleges and universities: “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.” Bauerlein notes that this is a major shift from past decades, and places the blame on a campus culture that defines students as customers, on professors’ research responsibilities, and on students who see higher education as a process of certification rather than education: “When college is more about career than ideas, when paychecks matter more than wisdom, the role of professors changes.”
There was pushback on these arguments in subsequent comments. An instructor pointed out that many factors differentiate idyllic college experiences of the past from today’s reality. Three out of four college professors today are adjunct faculty. Class sizes continue to grow, economic factors impinge, and online classes proliferate. A student at Barnard College spoke for undergraduates who continue to seek inspirational mentors. A philosophy professor noted that even in a “classroom filled with tweeting, texting-obsessed young minds” there will be a subset of students who want the professor to “engage them in self-reflection, to refine their communication skills, and to assure them that the next 50 years of their working and personal lives will require these talents if they are to have meaning and value.”
So a few reflections as I leave the job of professing …
There have undoubtedly been huge changes during my three decades as a university professor, but many of these shifts can be seen as double-edged swords with regard to student engagement. College has become more accessible to a wider swath of society. It is hard to deny the importance of this expanding opportunity, but it also means that my students from 30 years ago were – on average – better prepared for intellectual engagement than students today. Technology can steal the attention of students, but can also facilitate exciting means of connection with the professor and each other via discussion boards and social media. And though many students are now more focused on employment opportunities than on abstract intellectual pursuits, this real-world awareness can lead to productive discussions.
Context matters. Over the years, I have noticed differences in student engagement at the various schools I’ve taught at – Michigan State, Arizona State, University of Kansas, and Texas A&M. There are also differences depending on class level and topic area. But I noticed an even larger difference last week when I visited a class at my daughter’s school, Carleton College, a liberal arts college in Northfield, Minnesota. I was used to a mixed bag of attentiveness from my recent years at ASU. But at Carleton, students were highly engaged, asked great questions, and there wasn’t an electronic screen in sight.
The professor matters. Over the years, I’ve been a pretty good undergraduate teacher. Better in some classes than in others. But never great. I was always more comfortable – and I think more effective – in graduate seminars and in mentoring relationships. Oh, but I’ve been in awe of many undergraduate instructors. Those that connect and excite in large lectures and small discussions. Those that encourage creativity and community participation. Those who are most vital in the classroom company of 20-year-olds. Sadly, in recent years, these instructors are often the adjuncts who are treated so poorly by the university system.
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One of my Facebook friends posted Mark Baurlein’s New York Times opinion piece on his wall. The first comment under the post was from another (recently retired) friend who said “I think we came through a golden era of ‘professing’ that is becoming a challenge to replicate under changing institutional values.” In many ways, I agree, and I don’t want to downplay the economic, structural, and institutional challenges facing higher education. However, I also believe we should be careful about the “golden age” label. Yes, it is crucial to preserve intellectual engagement. But we need to remember that the style of engagement we value from our past is but one version of learning.