Teach AND perish.

A little earlier today, some nice folks at the Chronicle (not the same ones who occasionally pay me money to write stuff) temporarily opened up a new locked article called “Teach or Perish.”  Thanks to the wonders of my university’s universal subscription for that publication, I can still quote it:

But no decision we ever made could have been more catastrophic than this one: Somewhere along the way, we spiritually and emotionally disengaged from teaching and mentoring students. The decision—which certainly hasn’t ingratiated us to the job-seeking generation—has resulted in one whopper of a contradiction. While teaching undergraduates is, normally, a large part of a professor’s job, success in our field is correlated with a professor’s ability to avoid teaching undergraduates.

[emphasis in original]

That’s not a completely insane sentiment.  Perhaps it’s true at Harvard or somewhere like that.  But then I came to the last line of the author’s biography:

This semester he is teaching one course, “Philip Roth: Fiction About Fiction.”

In case you’re wondering, it’s not the idea of teaching a course about Philip Roth that bothers me.

Inevitably, that’s the part I tweeted when I first read it. Yet the ensuing discussion there reminded me that something else about that article that bothered me before I got to the very end.  Stretching my mind all the way back to this morning, I remember thinking “Who do you think you’re calling ‘disengaged?'” when I read the part I just quoted.  Then during that Twitter discussion, I remembered the awful sinking feeling I had last semester trying to stay engaged while teaching four courses and keeping up with my research agenda.

That’s when it hit me: This may be the worst example of academic victim-blaming that I’ve ever seen.  No faculty anywhere ever asked for the humanities to become a political football.  No public university professor in their right minds ever asked for Republican state legislatures to cut university funding to itty-bitty pieces.  No contingent faculty, even the extremely rare ones who actually do teach out of “love,” prefer having to teach five or six classes each semester in order to survive.  Yet the paragraph that I quoted above (which is basically the crux of the whole essay), pretty much suggests that everything is the professoriate’s fault because we gave up on teaching.

So says the guy teaching one course this semester.

Come to think of it, weren’t we all supposed to let the MOOCs take over because all those superprofessors at elite universities were the best teachers available?  Heads they win. Tails we lose.  This is Frank Heppner, Professor Emeritus of Biology at the University of Rhode Island:

Things like TED and MOOCS are great for expanding the exposure of great teachers, but nobody watching those broadcasts has the feeling that the lecturer is talking to THEM. So, in the new world of large class college teaching where there is scant opportunity for students to be personally exposed to experienced, motivating teachers, how are we going to INSPIRE students, especially the non-traditional ones?

We could start by not assigning any professor, anywhere no matter what their level of employment more than three courses per semester and pay every last one of them a competitive, living wage.  Then cap every last class, online or otherwise, at thirty students, no matter what the discipline.

What’s that you say?  That’s not “efficient?”  Well, then can you at least stop blaming professors for giving up on teaching then?  We didn’t create these conditions, yet we’re the ones who have to face their effects every single working day.

Posted by Jonathan Rees

Professor of History, Colorado State University - Pueblo.

2 comments

Yeah, well the privilege of this particular author doesn’t mean his argument is wrong.

I’ve been teaching a four-four for the past decade. I have perished. My research agenda has died along with any hope of recognition by the profession. I managed to earn tenure on the basis of teaching, my service work in assessment and accreditation (ie by doing the things my senior colleagues hated and despised but needed doing) and the slender promise of a publication that fell apart later on.

Now I am desperately trying to pump re-animator fluid into lifeless husk of my dissertation. At this point the best I can hope for is to wring a couple of articles out of it and submit them to some third tier journals so I can go up for full professor.

I squandered my research potential by working hard at being a good teacher and trying to offer interesting classes to my students. No monograph no glory. I consider myself a burnout and a failure… albeit a failure with tenure and who can’t be fired.

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