The Fate of the College Teacher
When I was in Wichita the other weekend, I gave my talk about how Dante saved my life, and then took questions from the audience. A young woman who looked like an older undergraduate, or perhaps a young graduate student, asked me why I trusted anything Dante said, since he used his poem to get revenge, of a sort, on the people who had wronged him in life. She called Dante a “sociopath.”
I didn’t understand her question. It seemed so … ridiculous that I didn’t know how to answer it. I had just spent an hour talking about the spiritual grandeur and moral depth of the Commedia, and how it transformed my life, and she wanted to know how I could take any of that seriously because Dante was cross with the people who exiled him. Where do you even begin with that?
I assume I handled the question badly. I don’t remember what I said to her. Probably something like, “Of course Dante was wrathful in this poem. He was a living, breathing human being! The saints weren’t perfect either; they were holy.” Mostly, I’m guessing I just stammered, floored by the pettiness of the point she was making.
After the talk, a young professor who observed how rattled I was by the question took me aside and said, “You need to know that that is how Dante is taught in universities today.” He was not endorsing it by any means; he seemed to be saying, “See what we are up against?”
I thought of that young teacher’s remarks when I read this great essay by Georgetown professor Jacques Berlinerblau, from the Chronicle of Higher Education. Berlinerblau says that surprisingly few of his undergraduates aspire to become professors themselves. The miserable job market for humanities professors is a big part of it, he says, but there are other reasons. What nobody can plausibly deny, he says, is that the humanities professoriate is in free fall. Excerpt:
Like the downfall of an empire, the collapse of something as complex as the professoriate defies simple monocausal analysis. There is, undoubtedly, a multitude of factors that account for our plight. Many are beyond our control and culpability, like decreased public funding for higher education and America’s inveterate anti-intellectualism.
That said, we can and should be held accountable for all sorts of inanities. If the nation’s humanities faculty consulted a life coach, even a representative of that peppy and platitudinous guild would conclude that we have made some bad decisions. It was not unwarranted to pose political questions in our research. We erred, however, in politicizing inquiry to the extent that we did. There is nothing wrong with importing theory into studies of literature, art, cinema, and so forth. It was ill-advised to bring so much theory—and almost always the same dense and ideologically tinctured brand of it—to bear on our vast canon of texts and traditions.
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.
Berlinerblau talks about the perverse “publish or perish” culture, and its offshoots. He talks about his own rise in academia, and how the higher he rose, the fewer classes he had to teach. For an outsider like me, it’s completely bizarre. The professors I remember from my undergraduate years — and there were few of them — were those who imparted to me passion for knowledge. They were the professors who made me believe that the wisdom they shared with us was vital to living a meaningful life.
The absolute height of my four years in college was sitting with three of my friends from Prof. Greg Schufreider’s Existentialism class, studying for the final at a table in a restaurant that is no longer there: The Gumbo Place. We four sophomores were so deeply into our Kierkegaard, our Nietzsche, our Jaspers and our Sartre that night that we were untouchable. At one point, I looked around the restaurant, and everyone was staring at us — and not in a mean way, not at all. What they saw was four young minds absolutely on fire for knowledge. God, that was a great night. Schufreider showed us what philosophy could be, what it could do for us. I have no idea if he has published widely in his field. I don’t know what happened to my three companions from that class. But I would bet my paycheck that every one of those men, whatever they are doing today, remember that class, and remember the night we studied together for the final.
So, when I read Berlinerblau’s discussion about what being a college professor is really like, it is very, very discouraging. I would want to go into academia to be a Schufreider. Wouldn’t you? It’s not an either-or proposition; you can be a good teacher and publish in your field. But this model in which the professor advances his career by shedding the experience of classroom teaching reminds me of the Churchmen dunned by Dante in Paradiso IX. The poet says that the leadership class of the Church focuses on mastering canon law (“the Decretals”) so it can use the law to manipulate power; it has forgotten the entire point of the faith, which is to proclaim the Good News:
For it the Gospels and the lofty doctors
are neglected and the Decretals alone are studied,
as is readily apparent from their margins.
‘To it, the pope and his cardinals devote themselves,
without a single thought for Nazareth,
where Gabriel spread out his wings.
If Berlinerblau is right, humanities professors have given up on the Good News. No wonder their religion is dying. Whoever taught that young woman in Wichita that the most important thing to know about Dante is that he was a “sociopath” who cannot be trusted is a wormtongue. Berlinerblau again:
When forlorn A.B.D.’s in the humanities ask me for advice, I recommend that they think in terms of “teach or perish.” Society will always need skilled transmitters of knowledge. But another peer-reviewed article on the “circulation of Enlightenment triumphalism” in Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles, not so much. Don’t get me wrong. Tess stands among the most spectacular fictions ever composed in English. It shouldn’t live on only in the sepulcher of a scholarly journal. Its afterlife should be experienced in the minds of students, their awe for the novel’s innumerable charms ignited by a professor. That Tess’s fate is linked to our own is a probability I won’t address here.
If all the dour reflections above are accurate—if they are half-accurate—we will need to rethink our priorities and core concerns. The kindergarten instructor, I surmise, likes those little tykes, thinks they’re cute. I have met seventh-grade teachers who reveal to me why they work in middle schools: They are mesmerized by the dorky majesty that is the mind of a child age 11 or 12. In this spirit, I submit a re-visioning of an American college professor’s job description: The successful candidate will be skilled in, and passionately devoted to, teaching and mentoring 18- to 22-year-olds, as well as those in other age groups. Additionally, she or he will show promise as an original and creative researcher.
I’ve said in this space several times that I owe an unpayable debt to the Dante scholars Bill Cook and Ron Herzman for opening up the Commedia to me in their terrific audio course. Those men know how to teach. You can hear in their voice how much passion they have for their subject, and how eager they are to show you what they see. I am no teacher, and I certainly don’t have the self-discipline to be a scholar. But when my Dante book comes out later this year, please know that the passion I poured into it, to communicate how my wondrous encounter with the poetry of Dante Alighieri saved me from darkness, is partly something I pass on from them.
My oldest son will be leaving for college in three years. If he chooses to study in a field having anything to do with the humanities, I am going to insist that he goes to a college that values good teaching. I want him to first experience the humanities not as dispiriting acts of Bartleby-like beetling among the Decretals, sussing out sociopaths among the so-called Greats, but rather as a shepherd gazing into the night sky above Nazareth and seeing an archangel spread his wings.
UPDATE: A reader writes:
I’m not in any way in an advanced position in the academy like the author of the piece you linked to in the Chronicle. I’m actually coming from the opposite direction as a graduate student about to finish up my second year in doctoral studies in American history. But I had a few thoughts on your post today, a post with which I largely agree.
One of my frustrations in graduate school (and I’m in one of the most leftist history departments in the country, I would think) is that it often seems the only way to make your academic work relevant is if it has some sort of overtly political slant to it. (The anxiety, btw, in the leftist academy today, at least from where I sit, is the result of an overbearing realization that most of their work has almost no political significance, aside from a few outliers who break into a popular audience.) This political way of estimating value goes a long way toward constructing research projects in certain ways and foreclosing other kinds of projects. As Christopher Shannon put it (and you in your post did today), this narrow political imperative has a way of stifling creative intellectual thought.
Another thing is that, as far as teaching is concerned, there’s a pretty palpable sense of disdain that many academics feel toward undergraduate students. They find them mostly frustrating, difficult, and sometimes offensive. At least this is what I’ve seen from many professors at the state school where I study. This is an extension, I think, of a provincialism on the part of humanities academics. These are leftists who, by and large, do not understand the rest of America and who often resort to pathologizing them. It was Christopher Lasch a long time ago who diagnosed one condition of the intellectual as a resentment of middle class life. I think that diagnosis still holds true.
Finally, you are right about teaching. A necessary part of cultural renewal will be the construction and maintenance of institutions of learning where professors care for their students, mentor them, and put their intellectual energies into the classroom–all of this in the context of some coherent community. But, I would hasten to add, research and teaching should not be pitted against one another in a zero-sum game. They are both necessary.
One more point: as I transition to work on my dissertation and will, after its completion, move into the job market in the next few years, I keep thinking about the institution I would want to work in. My thoughts keep returning to the private, Christian college as a place where my work could be meaningful. I guess I’m getting a bit frustrated by the place I’m in right now, but the big state schools can often be so Hobbesian that it’s little wonder that the lecture halls are stubborn and difficult places to work.