I distinctly recall the first day of graduate school. Some of my classmates knew the field’s top-tier journals, the term “anonymous peer reviewing,” and each professor’s research area of expertise. I was a neophyte with raw, analytical skills, no publications, a healthy ego and a desire to teach at a small, liberal arts college, much like my alma mater. I soon learned my discipline – the jargon, the journals and the gossip.
I honed my writing skills, and, more important, my thinking skills. Yet for all the merits of graduate school, even the premier one from which I was graduated, I left disappointed and ambivalent about the process. I took some classes with engaged, brilliant and dedicated professors, but I also attended more than a few seminars with detached scholars who thought of students as distractions from their labs and research. They were famous, but they could not teach, even their own research.
Like many other graduate students, I slogged through the bad, and made the most of the good. I got the job at the liberal arts college, where I received tenure, and even served as a department chair (a burden, not an honor, I tell you). I now want out.
Why? Because I fear that I have become the archetypical professor whom I did not want to become.
Don’t get me wrong. I still prepare my lectures and judging from the teacher evaluations, I know that I make students better thinkers. The classroom give-and-take produces a high that cannot be easily described or imitated. Even more, I love doing research. Sitting with pen and book in hand, or typing after months of textual analysis, is a rare joy. You mean I get paid to think? About ideas that inspire me? And I can read other research it, and dissect its merits? This gig is too good to be true.
After too many years at this job (I am in my mid-40s), I have grown to question higher education in ways that cannot be rectified by a new syllabus, or a sabbatical, or, heaven forbid, a conference roundtable. No, my troubles with this treasured profession are both broad and deep, and they begin with a fervent belief that most of today’s college students, especially those that come to college straight from high school, are unnecessarily coddled. Professors and administrators seek to “nurture” and “engage” and they are doing so at the expense of teaching. The result: a discernable and precipitous decline in the quality of college students. More of them come to campus with dreadful study habits. Too few of them read for pleasure. Too many drink and smoke excessively. They are terribly ill-prepared for four years of hard work, and most dangerously, they do not think that college should be arduous. Instead they perceive college as an overnight recreation center in which they exercise, eat, and in between playing extracurricular sports, they carry books around. If a professor is lucky, the books are being skimmed hours before class.
How do I know that my concerns are not unique to my employer, or my classroom? My students are brutally honest – they tell me with candor and without shame that their peers think of college as a four year cruise without a destination.
No doubt these students deserve some blame for their lethargy, but some culpability lies with their professors, and the administrators who ostensibly but unsuccessfully provide vision and direction. Today’s faculty and administrators capitulate to students’ demands in innumerable ways. They hold classes outside on sunny days, not really caring if there is no blackboard, or if the students are admiring each other instead of the texts to be dissected. They encourage students to think of college as a “comfortable” and “supportive” community, not as a means to acquire necessary skills. Far too many of my colleagues are dialing in – showing up late, popping in videos during class, assigning group projects, or sitting in a circle and asking students how they feel. Why they have abandoned classroom rigor is something that only they can answer. But one answer is simple – students flock to these popular classes, probably because they cater to the students’ worst sensibilities. Homework is minimal, or sometimes optional. Surprise quizzes are considered unfair. Late assignments are not failed. Some grades are even negotiable.
Such a pedagogy runs counter to the school, undergraduate and graduate training that I received, but it is openly embraced by nervous administrators who encourage faculty members to be innovative, experimental and experiential. They speak openly about pandering to student demands, but opt not to use the word “pander,” employing instead the curious and the trendy phrase “student empowerment.” I prefer to empower them with reading skills. But such a mission is considered old-fashioned. Maybe I should attend a seminar (don’t worry, the college will pay for it) titled “Technology in the classroom” or “Innovative pedagogies in the 21st century.” I pass.
Grade inflation is rampant. Students think of a “B minus” as an F. I constantly get criticized for grading too harshly, even though I find my mean grade point average has risen over the past decade. A “C” to today's student is unfathomable. “Professor, I am on scholarship. How can you give me a C?” I remind them that I do not “give’” grades, but such semantics are lost on the student who yearns for an A at any cost. I tell them that I got Bs and Cs and I never complained, because I knew I deserved them. They do not believe me. (Maybe I should post my undergraduate and graduate transcripts on my office door?)
Grades did not matter to me because I believed in the superiority of my professor’s judgment. I recall questioning a professor’s grade – once and only once, only after I showed the assignment and his comments to a senior who lived down the hall. She advised me to speak to the professor. I did. The professor had made a simple calculating mistake, and apologized for his error. We remain friends to this day.
Today’s students are not questioning the logic behind the grades; They are questioning why their grades in my class are lower than in their other classes. Down the hall, those same students can get an A- by putting in three hours of work a week. How do I know? The students tell me, candidly, and without shame or the slightest pangs of guilt. To them, this disparity just doesn’t seem fair, and is the fault of the tougher grader.
Higher education for too many undergraduates at too many liberal arts colleges has become a puffy sofa nestled with down pillows. For a few bucks and in a few hours, students can take a test and learn that they are language disabled, or mathematically disabled, or for a few bucks more, both. Students increasingly ask me during advising sessions if a class is tough or hard, or if the professor assigns a lot of reading, because they need to “lighten their load.” “I want to take a class with Professor So-And-So. I have a lot on my mind, and I don’t want to stress out.” “Don’t worry,” I say, “you won’t.”
This comfy zone of mediocrity extends beyond the classroom. “Student life” largely serves to debilitate the notion of a genuine, deliberative, academic community. Rather than fuel cerebral discussions with activities for the mind, resident advisors and their adult supervisors plan activities that redefine anti-intellectualism. There is Sensitivity Day, Tolerance Day, and Wear [insert color here] Day, and a host of other events that are aimed at “inspiring.” Dorm life is supposed to be cool, fun and engaging. For me, it was simply a place to sleep.
My faculty colleagues rarely complain about their daily lives, or about the state of higher education. To the contrary, they feed the mindset that all students are exceptional by awarding high grades, honors and special prizes to the intellectually inferior. These faculty also yearn to be comfortable. How? By immersing themselves in trivial pursuits, like how many members should serve in the faculty senate, or whether serving on the Education Policy Committee should be determined by a simple majority, or a run-off election.
Intellectual sparring (dare I use the term) about ideas – among students and faculty – has been replaced by one-sided, partisan drivel (for example, Obama = admirable. McCain = terrible and, for the record, I will be voting for Obama). While it would be easy to blame a liberal bias among faculty for this groupthink, it should be noted that this simple world of good and bad pervades the world around us. On radio, television and the Internet, ideological pundits scream at one another with vitriol and fervor. My partisan colleagues are universally National Public Radio listeners. They do not hear the other side, so it is easy to demonize the other side. Their students are listening, and sadly think of conservatism in its many forms as horrific. Worse still, they now conflate liberal passion and advocacy with justice, and by default, analytic rigor and reason. They do not weigh evidence, or take note of pro, cons, costs or benefits. Doing so would be to admit that there are merits to positions they do not hold. To acknowledge that their ideology is imperfect is the first step towards compromise, or in their overused, precious phrase, “selling out."
Their idealism, of course, is a work in progress. Nonprofit employment is admirable, but doing the same work for a for-profit corporation (with health care and retirement benefits) is deemed suspicious. Yet when college is completed, too many graduates have trouble finding work. The economy is rough, and even rougher for math-disabled, language-disabled, ideologically-driven, emotive students who do not read for pleasure. Should they take, say, an accounting course, or Shakespeare, either of which would test or push their comfort zones? Their hearts say yes, but the problem is that these classes meet early in the morning (Shakespeare at 8:30 am? C’mon!), when hangovers are to be nursed and sleepy minds are not to be awakened. Besides, rumor is that the Shakespeare professor is a tough grader.
Working at a small college is no easy task. We professors oftentimes work without research assistants. We have heavy teaching loads, and we grade our own assignments. Endowments are low, and so too are salaries and research funding. But hard work need not be depressing, and rather than become depressed, I have learned after almost 20 years that I am woefully ill-suited for today’s classroom.
Will I miss some of my colleagues? Sure. They have a remarkable ability to enjoy their craft, but I have great difficulty believing that I am making a significant difference in the lives of my students. Are my peers aware students are skimming the reading? Yes. They have figured out that getting emotionally invested in the student body is both taxing and fruitless. Instead they enjoy their autonomy and the bucolic campus life without a second thought, or with a deeply imbued cognitive dissonance that I have not yet embraced.
I will not miss all of them. Simply put, too many are intellectually lazy. Many of my colleagues think of the day they receive tenure as the last official day they have to produce research. They consider research as a burden, not as a labor of love that complements teaching.
As for the students, I know that I’ll miss the good ones. Any good professor treasures the joy of seeing in a student’s eyes the “ah-ha – now I get it” moment. It cannot be replicated, nor can it be easily described. It is sadly ever increasingly rare. In fact I think I am doing a genuine service to the better students by leaving. I cannot in good conscience dumb down a lecture, knowing full well that the gifted and talented have read four chapters beyond the syllabus, and that they are not being sufficiently challenged.
I am ready to move on – perhaps for a career where deadlines are honored, ideas are exchanged and gimmicks and fads are routinely avoided because they distract from advancing the mission of gaining and sharing knowledge. Yes, it is time to find another line of work, where I can enjoy the fruits of my labor, even if I realize that the grass is grayer, if not greener, elsewhere.
John Smith is the pseudonym of a professor at a liberal arts college. He asked to remain anonymous because he is continuing to teach while he is job-hunting and doesn't want his comments to reflect on his institution.