Monday, May 11, 2015

Mark Bauerlein on professors and students

Mark Bauerlein, writing in The New York Times:

One measure of interest in what professors believe, what wisdom they possess apart from the content of the course, is interaction outside of class. It’s often during incidental conversations held after the bell rings and away from the demands of the syllabus that the transfer of insight begins and a student’s emulation grows. Students e-mail teachers all the time — why walk across campus when you can fire a note from your room? — but those queries are too curt for genuine mentoring. We need face time.
Bauerlein’s description of alienation and isolation in present-day academia — few office doors open, few students waiting to speak to profs — rings true for me. His picture of the way things were in the 1980s — “you couldn’t walk down the row of faculty offices without stepping over the outstretched legs of English majors lining up for consultations” — is less convincing. As a grad student in the early 1980s, always around an English department, I certainly never saw anything like that. And Bauerlein’s contention that students saw their professors as figures to emulate — “students looked to professors for moral and worldly understanding” — seems to me true only in a limited way. A student more likely looked to one professor, or two. As I wrote in a 2006 post, several fellow undergrads and I wanted to be James P. Doyle, to be able to read (that is, interpret) poetry as he did. While I found many other profs deserving of deep respect and affection, I’m quite sure that I never thought of them as guides to life. But they were great guides to medieval philosophy, the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, the nineteenth-century novel, and so on.

One change in academic life that Bauerlein fails to mention: the rising number of adjunct instructors. It’s difficult for students to line up for office hours when there’s no office. An office shared by half a dozen instructors hardly makes for a congenial setting for life lessons. An adjunct instructor racing from one campus to another may not have time to stop and chat. And looking to an adjunct instructor for worldly understanding seems like a contradiction in terms.

To my mind, the importance of Bauerlein’s essay (right now the most e-mailed item at the Times) lies in its implicit acknowledgement of the value of what I have come to call real-presence education. Face time.

Two related posts
The gold standard, haircuts, and everyone else
How to talk to a professor

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