Wednesday, May 13, 2015

What's a Professor to Do?

A former doctoral classmate, a few years ahead of me at our alma mater, now teaches at Emory. He was one of the stars of the English Ph.D. program then, and it's no wonder he has continued as a commentator as well as critic of the system that has shifted, as younger generations seek cash back rather than wisdom accrued. His essay in Sunday's New York Times ranks #1 for "most e-mailed." He looks back to when students emulated professors, and they held them in awe. He was one of them, as was I. He reflects: "I saw the same thing in my time at the University of California, Los Angeles, in the early 1980s, when you couldn’t walk down the row of faculty offices without stepping over the outstretched legs of English majors lining up for consultations. First-year classes could be as large as 400, but by junior year you settled into a field and got to know a few professors well enough to chat with them regularly, and at length. We knew, and they knew, that these moments were the heart of liberal education."

His op-ed piece asks: "What's the Point of Being a Professor?" As face-time shrinks, the utilitarian function of professors grows. That's all we're good for, and in an era where not 18% as in 1960 but 43% of students earn an "A," why complain? Only 8% of students frequently hear “negative feedback about their academic work;" 61% report in a national survey he cites that their profs treat them as colleagues or as peers. I think of my older son's new alma mater, where all are on first-name basis.

I find it odd that the writer does not mention the related shift away from the four courses, two in Shakespeare, one Milton, one Chaucer, that distinguished English majors there until recently. In the Wall Street Journal, Heather Mac Donald asked if UCLA's humanities had forgotten their humanity. My former classmate at my M.A. program in Claremont told me that only four out of 52 colleges surveyed now require Shakespeare, which at my undergrad program was required for all in English. What replaced them at UCLA are courses in gender, race, and theory. I have no objection to these. But they fail to ground undergrads in literary tradition, which they can then challenge all they like.

He continues: "I returned to U.C.L.A. on a mild afternoon in February and found the hallways quiet and dim. Dozens of 20-year-olds strolled and chattered on the quad outside, but in the English department, only one in eight doors was open, and barely a half dozen of the department’s 1,400 majors waited for a chance to speak." When I was in Rolfe Hall, I don't recall the hordes my colleague did, but I did wait slumped on the linoleum outside an office, waiting my turn, in a time when we all carried enormous backpacks full of texts and notebooks, and kept slumped, reading on. I never developed a close relationship with any of my professors, keeping them at a distance in college and since, but I did get to house-sit a week for one of my diss. advisers when he went on vacation. I never addressed him or others on my committee as other than "Professor"-X, out of respect and habit.

I assume at my both my sons' colleges, that has changed. Perhaps as when children call parents of their friends by their first names, a lurch into informality that missed me, as discipline gave way to permissiveness outside my own circle. Now, in a career-driven mindset, the liberal arts, for the few still taking it. UCLA continues to have a very large English department compared to many of its sister institutions, as a proud "public Ivy." My fellow graduate avers: "When college is more about career than ideas, when paycheck matters more than wisdom, the role of professors changes. 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 assume he's closer to 60 than 50 by now, but the truth holds here.

With a bit of an emendation. I don't lord my august presence over my charges. Unlike those at elite institutions such as UCLA and Emory, my students are often vets, single moms, middle-aged folks downsized or out of a job, immigrants and first-generation strivers not attending college on the largess of well-off relatives or families abroad. I work with them, and I struggle--teaching a snippet of Greek culture or Impressionist art in one course, the Industrial Revolution and Neolithic progress in another. They sit, at night, tired out from days that may begin before dawn. I try my best, again. 

Often in this blog I remark if in somewhat occluded fashion about my own career. I've taught, thanks to adjunct and grad school work, far more than 80 courses. My full-time gig of nearly twenty years went from three 15-week terms of five courses each to eight-week terms averaging three courses, so I quail at doing the math. All I know is I've had some courses dozens and dozens of times by now. But I tinker with them, they get updated, and I update. One on technological culture from a humanities perspective has warped and woofed myriad ways since I started it in '97, while I teach Shakespeare somehow in less dramatic changes as I sneak a bit of the Bard into two weeks of an intro to lit class. 

My students are different from those my near-peer teaches. They can enter with a GED. They enroll for practical reasons rather than philosophical ones. A new marketing campaign addresses those who aren't trying to "find" themselves, but who already know what they want and how to get it is a degree. Still, last term, on a printout for submission online of a student's teaching evaluation, by whose scores we are rated in turn by deans, I did see "Best Proffesor Ever!" in ballpoint on a verification form.

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