Sunday, May 10, 2015

Students and Professors

Depressing little essay by Mark Bauerlein about the declining quality and quantity of interactions between students and professors outside of class. If his numbers are right, students spend less time talking to their professors than they used to, and are much less likely to look toward professors for mentoring or guidance.

This has set me thinking about my own experiences in this vein. My interactions with students outside the classroom in recent years have been minimal, but then I have been an adjunct, teaching only about one course every other year. It occurs to me that the biggest loss to students in the adjunct system is here: I think I teach my courses at least as well as the average full-time professor, and because I have never burned out my enthusiasm remains high, but outside of class I am never around and students never get to know me. Back in 1995 I taught full time for a year at what was then Mary Washington College, and I had lengthy conversations with two students who were interested in what I was teaching. If I taught full time I assume I would have more such interactions.

But when you get down to it I am frankly embarrassed by the whole notion of imparting wisdom to young people. The only careers I know anything about are college teaching and cultural resource management. The academic world is in a dismal state as far as job prospects are concerned, and suffers besides from deep intellectual and moral confusion, and the only advice I would give about it is to do something else. CRM is a strange beast, sometimes intellectually interesting but often not, sometimes rewarding but often completely pointless, and most people who have spent long careers in it have had to bounce between multiple companies and jobs. Plus it was created by Congress in a single law, completely unintentionally, and one day the Cruz administration might just abolish the whole business overnight; most Americans wouldn't notice. I have no idea how to go about getting a professional job; I got my first job in archaeology thanks to a tip from a guy who, it turned out, was hoping to hit on my girlfriend while I was out of town. It seems to me that such strokes of luck are key to many people's careers, and I even once met a professional career counselor who was writing a book called "Career Serendipity" about exactly this phenomenon. All I can say is that most smart, educated people seem to somehow end up with middle class jobs eventually.

I think I know a lot more by now about relationships and love and sex and so on than any 20-year-old. But the main thing I have learned is that people vary enormously in all these areas, which makes every relationship unique and every path through a life of loving unique, and that coming to understand these things through experience is one of the best things about life anyway, so far be it from me to short circuit it for anyone. The journey is much more the point than the destination.

I have come to various tentative conclusions about our place in the universe, but since so many people seem to find them depressing, I have no interest in converting anyone to them.

I have strong political beliefs, but one of them is that people choose their political beliefs mainly for emotional reasons, or as a matter of group identity, so I doubt many people are really very persuadable, and anyway I am dubious that it is a professor's job to politically indoctrinate his or her students. Education ought to be valuable no matter what your politics, and a sense that professors are mainly embarked on a political mission is one of the things that has undermined support for higher education among Americans taxpayers and politicians.

So while I am happy to talk to anyone young or old about life, I am not sure it would be a good idea for anyone to look to me as a role model. I think in this I am pretty typical for a person of my generation; it seems to me that the main thing my friends offer as general advice to the young is, "don't do what I did."


John said...

I spoke to my sister, a professor at a liberal arts college, about this. She says her students ask her for advice all the time, and she gives it freely. So not everybody feels like I do.

G. Verloren said...

The practical upshot of professors being less of mentor figures for students is that there's less cronyism, nepotism, and egotism floating around.

From everything I've heard and read about famous college professors of the 20th century, many of them were pretty elitist and full of themselves, and their most successful students in terms of career placement and advancement tended to be the biggest sycophants and social movers, who were able to name drop and flatter their way to employment. As the old saying goes, "It's not what you know, it's who you know."

There's also the consideration that professors are no longer the titans of knowledge they once were - they no longer have strong monopolies on the information they teach. Technology has given students access to other high quality sources, for even the most esoteric of subjects. Where before a mystified student would have no clue where to even begin looking for answers to certain questions and could only turn to their personally knowledgeable professors for such knowledge, now they can simply ask a search engine or an online encyclopedia for help, and at least get pointed in the right direction to enquire further on their own.

So perhaps professors are less deeply connected to their students these days because students are more independent than ever before? With all the benefits and detriments that may bring?