Mark Bauerlein’s latest piece in the New York Times, “What’s the Point of a Professor?” is too much of a troll to take too seriously. He’s just complaining about the “kids today” in college and how they are all so much more interested in careers and so not interested in sitting at the feet of master professors in order to build a personal philosophy of life, the universe, and everything.
For a more direct response to the problems of Bauerlein’s take on things, I direct you to two very smart blog posts.
- “Kids Today: A Response to Mark Bauerlein” by Matt “Confessions of a Community College Dean” Reed, where Reed points out (among other things) that higher education is supposed to be about students and not professors and that Bauerlein’s ideal of students being “enthralled” by their professors is “creepy, patriarchal, and wrong.”
- “I Will Not Be Lectured To. I’m Too Busy Teaching.” by Kevin “The Tattooed Professor” Gannon, where Gannon takes on assumptions about what both students and faculty look like.
I especially appreciate Gannon’s critique because he is highlighting one of the problems I see with a lot of the writing about MOOCs and/or the future of higher education– people like Kevin Carey in The End of College, and also like David Noble in his critique of what I would describe as “traditional online courses,” Digital Diploma Mills.
Without going into a lot of detail now, I think Bauerlein, Carey, Noble, etc. are assuming as “the norm” that every other institution deviates from in one fashion or another is a big flagship state university or a famous Ivy league school– you know, the kinds of places that show up in the “top 20 universities in the world” lists. The fact of the matter is though that by definition, the vast vast VAST majority of community colleges, colleges, and universities are not “elite,” and the students and faculty at these places are similar but not the same as the students/faculty you find at elite institutions.
So while Bauerlein and Carey both assume that professors are “pointless” and not needed because they don’t teach much and/or are self-consumed with their research, Gannon goes to great length to explain the extremes of teaching and student involvement at the school where he works, Grand View University (he cheekily describes it as the Harvard of East Des Moines), where the teachings loads are high and the hands-on work with the small student body is extreme.
Anyway, go read those blog posts– smart stuff and I agree with both of them. But I wanted to take a slightly different view with Bauerlein’s essay and take up two things he brings up, more or less indirectly, that have to do with face to face interactions.
In reference to the “reverence” he had for his professors way back when, Bauerlein writes:
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.
(and a little later and lamenting the present, he writes)
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.
I sort of understand what Bauerlein is talking about here. When I was an undergraduate back in the mid-1980s, I remember similar crowds of students in the halls in the English-Philosophy Building at the University of Iowa, students waiting to catch professors with some sort of question or advising issue before or after a class or during office hours. I also remember having to stand in line with hundreds of others for literally hours outside of a building on Iowa’s campus (I forget which one) when it was time to register for courses for the following term. Similarly, I’ve noticed the quietness of the hallways around my office nowadays even in the middle of the busiest part of the week.
However, I have a different interpretation than Bauerlein regarding the cause of these crowded (and now empty) hallways: it’s not “the kids today;” it’s the intertubes.
When I was an undergraduate (which was probably about the time Bauerlein was an undergrad), there was no such thing as emailing a professor or even calling them on the phone and leaving a voicemail message. If you needed to talk to your professor for any reason, you had to show up in person. That was your only option. Before I registered for classes, I had to get my advisor’s signature on a form which I would then have with me while standing in that line to wait for my turn to register for classes. Of course, none of this is the case anymore. Only the most surly and cranky of professors don’t answer emails from their students, and I’m willing to bet that most of those faculty will at least listen to their voicemail. And for better or worse, students don’t need anyone’s signature to register for classes and, obviously, that’s all done online nowadays.
In other words, I really don’t think students were more eager to be faculty “disciples” way back when, so willing that they were happy to show up to office hours. Rather, students were hanging around waiting for their professors back then didn’t have an alternative. This is why I think the current practice of office hours– a practice that is actually mandated by the faculty contract here at EMU, by the way– is silly, and it’s why I prefer to meet with students and colleagues by appointment.
For the most part, email and the like instead of meeting a professor face to face out of class works fine. Sure, it makes the time I have to spend in my school office a little more lonely, but it’s dramatically more convenient for everyone. There are two situations where I insist students and I actually interact and meet in the same time and place, and it’s similar to what Bauerlein describes:
Since the early 2000s, I have made students visit my office every other week with a rough draft of an essay. We appraise and revise the prose, sentence by sentence. I ask for a clearer idea or a better verb; I circle a misplaced modifier and wait as they make the fix.
I still believe in this kind of one-on-one, “tutoring” work with students. When I teach first year writing (which isn’t often enough, unfortunately), I always require students to come meet me in my office during the first two weeks of class for a five or ten minute meeting. All we do is chat a bit. Why bother? Because a lot of the first year students we have at EMU are not like the disciples Bauerlein seeks and they need to see that meeting a professor’s in his or her office is not anything to worry about.
And I also still insist on working with students one on one with their writing projects, though on revisions rather than on rough drafts. Besides the fact that I am certain that I have more students than Bauerlein does (and I am certain my schedule is much more cushy than what Gannon describes in his blog post), I think revision is the more important teaching moment. I’ll even have these kinds of face-to-face/real-time exchanges with online students via Skype.
So again, on those two minor issues, I can see how Bauerlein sorta/kinda has a point. Sorta.