A Professor Professes about the Profession

Perhaps I’m just nostalgic for a better age, an age that might not have happened in the first place, but from what I have observed about the teaching profession in higher education recently it would seem that the university professor is becoming an increasingly less respected profession. It’s no surprise that intellectuals in the United States are looked upon as elitist and out of touch with reality. The anti-intellectualism in this country runs deep. Rick Santorum’s recent labeling of President Obama as a “snob” based upon the President’s views that all Americans should have a college degree is, I believe, symptomatic of a large number of American viewpoints.

A few years ago I was working at the restaurant my in-laws own in the small town of Deposit, New York. A regular customer remarked, “College professors are ruining our youth.” The customer had no idea that I was a university professor and I kept my mouth shut on the subject. The remark was telling. A very large number of Americans think that university professors are really liberal, pot smoking, sex-starved deviants who are out to corrupt the youth. Well, some of that is true; most of us are liberal, ex-pot smoking thinkers who want to change the way the youth of America thinks. We ask our students to question everything.

It’s troubling enough that a large number of Americans are this so small minded when it comes to how they characterize professors, but more troubling still is that a great number of staff employed at colleges and universities across the country feel the same way. At the three colleges I have taught in my short career I have encountered an alarming degree of negative sentiment on the part of staff when it comes to how they view professors. Most of the staff I have encountered (some very nice people, I should add) resent all of the “time off” professors seem to get. First of all, when we have “time off” it’s usually because we are either grading the enormous amount of papers we get every week, prepping for classes, and working on that book, without which our careers will be over. In fact, one book is no longer enough. And God-forbid if the university professor does manage to get his or her book accepted by a university press that does not meet the standards of the tenure committee. This is how outrageous the game has become.

The profession of teaching in higher education is also under siege. We spend far too much time defending what we do in and out of the classroom than actually preparing for our classes. The assault of the assessment movement on university teaching not only threatens the idea of academic freedom, but it threatens the quality of what goes on in the classroom by switching the focus from learning to accountability. The increasing number of universities and colleges making use of adjunct teaching also threatens what goes on in the classroom, and as a result, what comes out of that classroom.

Perhaps most troubling is the shift from learning for the sake of learning to a more “skills” based education. That is, do students come out of a four-year university with the skills to make it in the work world? This in itself is not really a bad idea, but I fear that the administrators in higher education have caved in when it comes to sacrificing the idea of a classical, humanities based education for a much more specialized education. In short, and with the exception of only those elite schools with stellar reputations and huge endowments, higher education is following a more community college-like curriculum plan that forces students to become increasingly specialized.

Heidegger states: “What is most thought-provoking in our thought-provoking age is that we are still not thinking.” Thinking in the way that Heidegger defines it just isn’t a value in higher education any longer. That type of meditative thinking has been replaced by a skill-based thinking. Critical thinking is a much-used buzzword. Critical thinking skills are important and I believe that the best way to prepare students for critical thinking is to engage them in learning as such. In other words, we teach students how to learn. This qualitative learning is part of the siege professors find themselves combating. We claim to value critical thinking but we go about promoting it in the most shallow level imaginable.

I count myself very lucky to be paid to do what I love, and to have managed to secure a job at a university I like in a desirable part of the country. We go into this profession not for the money (anyone who goes into teaching for the money should not be a teacher), but for the lifestyle. Teaching affords us more time to think, more time to be with our families, and more time to contribute to society in what we feel is a positive and constructive way, despite the small-mindedness of many Americans when it comes to their views on what university professors do or don’t do.

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2 thoughts on “A Professor Professes about the Profession

  1. I am misty-eyed reading this, as I just withdrew from my graduate program because I felt I was not learning for the sake of learning, but learning towards a specific end, which left so much to be desired. The average student is more interested in being marketable than they are about growing and acquiring knowledge, and our nation’s sentiment reflects and reinforces this.

    While I understand furthering one’s career, being locked into a program, a school, that values and grades based on career-application and not the progression of intellectualism is tragic to me. While you may feel like the ghost of professors past, I feel I too am a dying breed.

    • I understand your frustration. There were at least a dozen times I thought about leaving my own Ph.D. program, but decided not to out of spite! In any case, one does not necessarily need to be enrolled in a degree program to continue learning. Keep reading, keep thinking, and keep questioning.

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