Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Jacques Barzun, teacher

Educator, professor, or teacher: which shall it be?

At best the title of teacher is suspect. I notice that on their passports and elsewhere, many of my academic colleagues put down their occupation as Professor. Anything to raise the tone: a professor is to a teacher what a cesspool technician is to a plumber. Anything to enlarge the scope: not long ago, I joined a club which described its membership as made up of Authors, Artists, and Amateurs — an excellent reason for joining. Conceive my disappointment when I found that the classifications had broken down and I was now entered as an Educator. Doubtless we shall have to keep the old pugilistic title of Professor, though I cannot think of Dante in Hell coming upon Brunetto Latini, and exclaiming, “Why, Professor!” But we can and must get rid of “Educator.” Imagine the daily predicament: someone asks, “What do you do?” — “I profess and I educate.” It is unspeakable and absurd.

Jacques Barzun, Teacher in America (Boston: Little, Brown, 1945).
If you teach: What do you call yourself? What do you ask your students to call you?

[“Cesspool technician” reminds me of Ed Norton’s self-description in a Honeymooners episode: “I’m an engineer in subterranean sanitation.” The club is no doubt the Century Association, “an association of over two thousand authors, artists, and amateurs of letters and the fine arts.“ Dante says to Brunetto Latini, “Siete voi qui, ser Brunetto?” [Ser Brunetto, are you here?] (Inferno XV.30). An explanation: “The title ser (the second element in messer, cf. French monsieur) placed before Brunetto Latini’s first name is a sign of respect, as is the use of in the Italian text of the formal pronoun voi”: Anthony Oldcorn, in the notes to Stanley Lombardo’s translation of the Inferno (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2009). Jacques Barzun will be 104 on November 30. And if you’re wondering why it’s How to e-mail a professor: professor is the word I thought students would search for.]

Update, November 18: Just out, a biography by Michael Murray: Jacques Barzun: Portrait of a Mind (Savannah: Frederic C. Beil, 2011).

comments: 5

jw said...

To me "teacher" is the generic term that encompasses many things; "professor" implies teaching at a college or university. When my students email, they typically call me Professor but occasionally call me by my first name. Since I teach at a church-based university, a student will occasionally call me "Brother" (which is standard for all men in the LDS church). I do not give direction to my students about it, but let them either use their best judgement or stew in their own indecision.

When my son was younger, I explained to him that the word "professor" derived from the French term meaning "one who shovels manure." While not etymologically accurate, it is a pretty good job description sometimes.

Elaine said...

I usually wrote 'Special Education Teacher' on forms; now I write, 'Broken-down old special education teacher' as I'm retired. My students called me Mrs. W a lot of the time, as 'WALL-eye-zer' was hard to master. At the rehab hospital, all teachers and aides went by 'Miss --' (this is the Mid-South, so 'Miss' has less to do with marital status and more to do with respect.)

Leo Wong said...

For more about Barzun, read Michael Murray's biography of him, Jacques Barzun: Portrait of a Mind, published last week by Frederic C. Beil

Matt Thomas said...

Renewed my passport earlier this year. I put down teacher. It's a perfectly honorable designation. Socrates and Jesus were teachers.

Anonymous said...

I used to frequent Barzun then I sobered up. Taught me quite a Leszun...