April 12, 2017

Professor, who are you?


Who is my professor? That is one of the not-great mysteries of American undergraduate education. It’s a not-great mystery because students rarely seek the answer. They don’t find professors remotely mysterious. They could just as well go to their reward without having devoted as much as one independent thought to some over-thirty rando lecturing them about “discursivities.”

There is, however, one instance in which students are acutely curious about professorial identity. When an instructor fails to appear for class, undergraduates swing into action and discuss among themselves whether and when they can leave. Although traditions vary from institution to institution, the typical protocol goes like this: before they exit the classroom they must wait ten minutes for an adjunct, fifteen for a full professor.

My informants report that these tense deliberations about the “late rule” always conclude after nine minutes. Bounding down the stairs on their way out of class, the students continue their disagreements about whether the instructor is an adjunct or a full professor, but in a spirit of civic engagement and good cheer.

Other than that, college kids have little interest in figuring out who’s who within the academic pecking order. They wouldn’t know a provost from a post-doc, an emeritus from an adjunct. Much of this has to do with the fact that the professor-student encounter has in recent decades become increasingly transactional. Students take a class in order to attain credits. Students take a class because of a specific subject. The coruscating intellect of a savant, her bravura riffs, her hot takes on the latest news, I regret to say, are not usually the reason students take a class.

As for us liberal arts professors, we increasingly don’t know who we are either. Used to be that a philosopher or sociologist or art historian had a certain dignity, a standing within the comity of professions.  Sure, we weren’t wealthy like those folks sitting on the Board of Trustees in their banker stripes. But the institution of tenure endowed us with lifetime job security — security that we converted into the currency of extreme condescension. We pranced around the quad for a few decades mouthing the following: You, Mr. Banker Man, will live large, devalue knowledge(s), and one day run afoul of the SEC; we, by contrast, will master our texts, publish our articles, smarten up a few generations of youth, and glide into a cozy 401K-endowed retirement, our souls gilded by the wisdom we gleaned along the way.

Well, it’s hard for us to maintain that lofty narrative anymore. American professors have experienced a crisis of employment unlike any seen in the recent history of higher education. The institution of tenure has fallen into disrepair. The reasonably paying, lifetime jobs that once were a scholar’s recompense for nearly two decades of study, research, and publication have gone the way of music videos. When a tenure-track position does open up, hundreds, even thousands, of PhDs will send in their hefty CVs. Those who don’t snag the job will labor as what are called “adjuncts” or “contingent faculty.”

So who are we in 2017? A broke-down palace. A guild of “haves” (the twenty-five percent or so of professors on the tenure line), and “have nots” (all the rest, numbering more than one million people). Scholars so stressed by the demand to produce research that we couldn’t focus on undergraduate education even if we wanted to. Experts lecturing about “discursivities” to an indifferent crowd.



Jacques Berlinerblau teaches at Georgetown University, has written many books, and is an editor for the journal Philip Roth Studies. His newest book, Campus Confidential: How College Works, or Doesn’t, for Professors, Parents, and Students was published by Melville House in June 2017. Follow him on Twitter!