What is the Place of the Professor?

Over the weekend, the following tweet circulated around the science twitter-web:

I think that some of us can empathize with the tweet, having been on the receiving end of emails that start with “HeY! Whats up dude?!?!?!” or having tried to deal with the academic fallout from a wild weekend that led to missing an important midterm. As a professor, I love the topic I teach. I think it’s important and applicable to my students’ future careers and I want to see students develop a passion for it too. I want to see them impress me with how much they’re learning. But, most of the objection to the tweet seemed to come not from the notion that students should try to impress faculty, but from the analogy that a professor is a boss.  Folks seemed to object to the business-i-fication of academia…

There’s no doubt in my mind that the shift toward modeling academia after industry is hurting it. There was an article in Slate over the weekend about how changes in contracts and collective bargaining at the University of Wisconsin (an institution nearGif or Jig.gif and dear to my heart) have hurt the faculty and cost the university millions.  Higher learning has to be financially sustainable, but shifting universities to a for-profit model is not necessarily in the best interest of the public they serve.

Several folks responded to the tweet by saying that we’re not business people, we’re teachers. That’s true, and yet it doesn’t seem like enough. I’ve struggled over the last few years with how to own this, but to describe professors as simply teachers doesn’t seem to encompass all that we do. We’re also caretakers of people on the cusp of a critical transition point.  As a mother, I think a lot about this.

This is the first time most of our students have lived away from home. They not only come to our universities for course work, but most of these students are also learning to deal with life for the first time.  They’re away from their parents and support systems. Many are having to work to support themselves for the first time. I hear my colleagues sometimes remark at the inability of students to thrive in these environments, but I can’t seem to forget that we’re asking two very difficult things of them – we’re asking them to learn in a more rigorous environment and to do it while also truly learning to “adult.”

My office is in a hallway and the university has recently put rows of benches along the walls. There is one right outside my office door. Students come and sit. Sometimes they talk on their phones to their parents. Sometimes they cry. Sometimes they don’t feel well. Sometimes they need a tissue or a Band-Aid and the things that you can do for them are more than giving them some bit of knowledge. Of course they’re adults, but they’re also people’s children that are away from home for the first time.

I’ve been thinking about these issues lately because it seems as though my university has a lot of resources for students who are dealing with emotional, psychological, physical, and other issues/crises. That said, I’m not sure that students always know that these resources are available to them and I often find myself trying to counsel students toward them and also wishing they had come to me sooner. I think in many cases, students see faculty as simply teachers, or even sometimes as “bosses” and that really hinders our ability to help them when they get into trouble.

halloween costumeSome folks commented that they didn’t care if students came to class in onesies or Halloween costumes, as long as they were learning the material. I appreciate the sentiment, but I don’t know that this is fair to them either. I like to see myself as a mentor of facilitator that prepares them for their next step. We can teach them the academic knowledge they need, while also teaching them the professional norms and expectations that others will have for them when they leave the university to engage with the world. we can also help them navigate a complicated university system to get help when they need it.  This makes us more than simply teachers of information and more like guides.

And definitely not bosses.

Disclaimer: I want to be very clear that any details provided in this post and any others are not meant to describe my experiences with or identify any particular student. There are thousands of them here and my intent is only to broadly describe my own experiences. 

3 thoughts on “What is the Place of the Professor?

  1. After a lifetime in martial arts, I think the term “sensei” makes the most sense. While the easy interpretation is “teacher” it was always explained to me as “one who has come before you on the path.” With this comes an obligation to help those who are coming after you…this can mean traditional teaching but it can also mean the mentoring and nurturing that you are describing in your post.


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