Two Alternate Academic Models

The professor and the practitioner.


October 14, 2015

Academics weren’t always called professors.

Earlier in time, professors were those who openly expressed their religious beliefs or who were members of a religious order.

It was not until the fifteenth century that English-speakers began to use the term to describe those who taught in certain disciplines, at first divinity and, then, increasingly, the sciences. The honorific title (e.g. Professor Kingsfield) did not enter the language until the 18th century.

By the twentieth century, a professor was someone who taught at a college or university and who combined teaching with scholarly research. In practice, however, much of a professor’s time was devoted to other responsibilities, especially various kinds of evaluation: Of student performance, to be sure, but also reviewing grant proposals, scholarly articles, and book manuscripts.

Yet even today, traces of an older conception of professor rooted in religion persist. That is, professors are those who profess: who claim and publicly convey special knowledge and insight.

It is noteworthy that in literary texts of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, professors were often contrasted with practitioners. Indeed, the word “profess” was often associated with pretense and insincerity – much as popular media images of professors today tend toward the absent-minded, the overly cerebral, and the pedantic.

Might it be better if academics thought of themselves as practitioners rather than as professors? A practitioner is someone actively engaged in a discipline or a profession. Some, in fact do: We increasingly speak about Research Professors, Teaching Professors, and Professors of the Practice.

To be sure, the term “practitioner” lacks the overtones of extreme intellectuality associated with the professoriate. But the word professorial also connotes an airy abstraction and a starchy self-absorption that often contributes to distance from students.

In contrast, a practitioner is by definition a doer who can therefore stand as a role model of someone skilled in the practice of a craft.

By embracing the role of extreme practitioner, faculty members are encouraged to rethink their role – and their teaching -- in innovative ways: Not as lecturers but, rather, as problem solvers  and answer formulators

Recently, Doug Walercz , Vice President for Planning, Research, and Assessment at Essex County College, and Michael Feldstein, co-Publisher of e-Literate, offered an impassioned defense of the traditional lecture as a multidimensional learning experience that motivates students to learn, divides and organizes complex subjects into manageable and accessible units, presents an overarching narrative that synthesizes disparate content, and provides an expert perspective upon key controversies and unresolved questions. Precisely because it takes place live and in person, a powerful lecture provides students with structure, uses a mixture of humor, anecdote, and narrative to sustain students’ attention, and carries an emotional impact and wealth of content that are difficult to duplicate in any other format.

It can be magical to witness a lecture that combines a compelling argument with verbal eloquence, pointed examples, and a brilliant take on complex realities. Yet lectures make up far too much of the learning experience, upward of 70 percent for many students. And while lectures can provide an example of analysis, reasoning, synthesis, and interpretation, and can convey information and reinforce essential facts in a highly efficient manner, they tend to do little to help students construct their own mental models, to learn how to argue thoughtfully, or to hone their ability to formulate and solve problems.

My take-away is that students would benefit greatly from an approach to instructional design that involves a constructivist epistemology and a metacognitive approach that builds on the notion of instructor as practitioner. Such an approach problematizes the material. It identifies gaps in knowledge, conflicting pieces of evidence, and a variety of methodological approaches. It places students in an active role in mapping knowledge, making judgments, and devising generalizations.

One example stands out in my mind. Forty years ago, a student interrupted a lecture by Edmund S. Morgan, the great historian of colonial America, and asked why so many colonists in Jamestown starved to death when birds flocked in the skies, game abounded in the forests, and the rivers teemed with fish. Instead of providing an off-the-cuff answer, Professor Morgan saw this as a historical problem that needed to be solved. He shared the extant evidence and only then provided his own interpretation which emphasized the disease-ridden water supply and the lethargy of the colonists, too many of whom were gentlemen (who by definition did no work) and the servants that gentlemen needed. In short, he problematized the issue, gave his students the opportunity to resolve it for themselves, and served as a real-life role model of a practicing professional.

With the professorship under  attack, with the growing reliance on adjuncts, and with the increase in unionization among graduate students, the time for a redefinition of the professor might be ripe. Or, conversely, perhaps it is time to hunker down and make sure that the role remains special and that the public better understands what professors  do. My own view is that just as Edmund Morgan demonstrated, professors need not transform themselves into engineers or inventors; instead, they might see themselves as problem solvers, whatever the discipline.

Steven Mintz is Executive Director of the University of Texas System's Institute for Transformational Learning and Professor of History at the University of Texas at Austin. Harvard University Press just published his latest book, The Prime of Life: A History of Modern Adulthood.

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