The Role of Professors in Students’ Lives


In “What’s the Point of a Professor?“, an opinion piece in The New York Times, Emory University English professor Mark Bauerlein laments the current role of professors. In the past, “students looked to professors for moral and worldly understanding.” Now, “finding meaning and making money have traded places.” In the past, “you couldn’t walk down the row of faculty offices without stepping over the outstretched legs of English majors lining up for consultations.” Now, “in the English department, only one in eight doors was open, and barely a half dozen of the department’s 1,400 majors waited for a chance to speak.” In the past, undergraduates would go through a stage of development during which a “learned mind enthralled them and they progressed toward a fuller identity through admiration of and struggle with a role model.” Now, “students don’t lie in bed mulling over what we said. They have no urge to become disciples.”

Oh, the glorious past—the glorious, selectively remembered, and far-from-universal past.

It would be easy to see Bauerlein’s remarks as elitist naïve declinism, too focused on the professor’s apparent loss of status. But… perhaps also we can use them as a prompt for a discussion about the role of the professor in the lives of undergraduates. There is certainly a possibility that research pressures and teaching burdens might get in the way of finding the time to connect with students, inspiring them, getting them to take ideas seriously, and showing them the value of the life of the mind.

Bauerlein meets with his students (he has 16-18 of them, according to this interview) “every other week with a rough draft of an essay.” How much time do you spend with your undergraduate students outside of class? Would spending more time with them make a difference? And what kind of difference would we be wanting to make? In an age in which MOOCs and other forms of distance learning are on the rise, and the view of higher education as corporate training is more common, is this how professors should explain (part of) their value? More generally, is there some part of the ideal of the professor—and perhaps especially the philosophy professor—that we are not paying sufficient attention to?

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Brandon Boesch
Brandon Boesch
6 years ago

Here’s an attempt to give an account of what I valued from my undergraduate professors.

The biggest benefit, I think, that my undergraduate philosophy professors offered me was helping me to think seriously and deeply about things, to help initiate me into a way of living which is considered and thoughtful and attentive to certain features. This did not occur only in class, though, because there are lots of things to consider deeply beyond particular topics of classes (metaphysics, ethics, etc.). My undergraduate professors (not only from philosophy, but also biology and Spanish and even some professors from fields I didn’t major in, like English) helped me (and many other students) to enter more deeply into each of these fields as a way of living: biology professors inviting students to join in research, a Spanish professor inviting groups of students to come eat genuine Puerto Rican food at her house, stopping by an English professor’s office to discuss some short stories he thought I’d like, or a philosophy professor inviting a group of students over to his house to watch good films and discuss them for philosophical (and aesthetic) value.

It seems to me that at least part of what was going on in each of these examples (and in most of my student-professor relationships) was an initiation into a way of living which is attentive to certain features of the world. The Spanish professor helped me to be more attentive to certain cultural features, immersing myself more deeply into the language I was studying; the biologist helped me to be aware of biological questions and issues which were pertinent to our area of the country; the philosopher helped me to ask deep questions about my own way of living and deep questions about the natures of things.

This is something that is valuable even when students do not advance in these fields. Even though I am pursuing my PhD in philosophy, I am still able (to some extent or other) to be attentive to questions of biology and the cultural importance of Spanish and Spanish-speaking peoples. The same is true for those who are on the corporate-training track. It is (I think) surely of value to all students to be able to be attentive throughout their lives to philosophical, ethical, biological, cultural, aesthetic (etc.) questions.

I should note that I attended a small college for undergrad, so my experiences might be due to that fact. But I think at least some of this can happen even at larger research universities. As a graduate instructor, this is somewhat true, but it is certainly more difficult. But I’d be interested to hear from others with more experience on this.

At any rate, this is what I take to be of value from my professors (along with their help in building up knowledge more specifically related to the fields) and it’s one of the reasons I decided to pursue a career in academia.Report

Anonymous Undergrad
Anonymous Undergrad
6 years ago

Speaking for my university (though I assume what I’m about to say is prevalent on the national level), I have increasingly noticed that more and more students are not here for an education, rather a means to an end (i.e. a degree and GPA for the sake of employment).

The emphasis (on the part of students) has shifted from wanting to learn, grow, and discover to putting oneself in a position to make money. This entails caring less about the actual material and more about the final grade that shows up on the transcript. Even when students take the time to meet with their professors, it almost always pertains in some way to the grade; there is very little outside engagement on the part of students with intent to take away any sort of inspiration or life lessons. Such things are secondary to the material goals set for us (whether they be self-imposed or put fourth by others and then adopted).

On a brighter note, the philosophy department at my university seems to be a last bastion of sorts for sharing inspiration and wisdom. I am not alone in taking the time to meet with my professors and discuss important things, things which may or (more often) may not be related to any upcoming grade. We have only an undergraduate philosophy program, so my peers and I are afforded the luxury of building relationships with our professors, and said relationships are certainly enriching.

Perhaps philosophy (at least at my university) has maintained this enriching relationship between professors and students because our (students’) futures are so open-ended; yes we can go to graduate school or law school, but we can also do a myriad of other things, namely those things which we are passionate about. Our education prepares us not for some specific career, but rather any chosen career and, more broadly, life itself. We have many possible avenues to walk and trails to blaze; our education thus becomes more important because more than just a grade, we need to grow, discover, and be inspired in order to set fourth on our path, whatever it may be.

My fellow philosophy majors and I actively engage with our professors not only because we share a love for the material (whether it be Grice and Kripke or Heidegger and Beauvoir), but because we are excited (and a little scared!) about the possibilities for our future, and we know that we’ll benefit from conversing with these very open and learned individuals whom we are fortunate enough to call our professors.Report

Anonymous Undergrad
Anonymous Undergrad
6 years ago

It is also worthy to note that I have gotten different sorts of value from professors outside the philosophy department as well. I’ve had European professors for Italian and English, and they brought with them a new (and refreshing) perspective on not only life in America (and the absurdities of it), but life in general. This value is not tied to the material, it came from having humble exchanges with the class and not being afraid to get sidetracked for five minutes. In these cases, the value was not incurred by waiting for consultation during office hours, rather a less rigid and by-the-book style of teaching; there was less of a devout adherence to course material for the entirety of class (as is more common from American professors) and more openness toward talking about more practical (and generally more interesting) things. Similarly, anthropology professors have instilled the notion of understanding various perspectives as of utmost importance for understanding situations holistically.

I suppose the moral of the story is that it is okay for professors to take the game-face off now and then and simply talk with students as a (humbly) more experienced individual.Report

Adam Omelianchuk
Adam Omelianchuk
6 years ago

In general, I am inspired by professors who demonstrate their skill at their craft before my eyes. Part of what made them successful at this was setting up the context in which their craft makes sense, and then skillfully showing how to work it out. That is, they were able to make thousands of hours of practice become visible in one moment. I’ve been in several kinds of classrooms (trade school, religious studies, and philosophy) and witnessed how this works. For philosophy professors, I am always inspired by the way one senses the dialectic of an argument, isolates its key assumption(s) and then deploys an elegant criticism of it in memorable turns of phrase. A lot of this comes down to communication and writing and speaking well, something that is very, very hard to do in philosophy. When a professor does it right, it really is memorizing; it motivates me to become a philosopher.Report

Nick Byrd
6 years ago

Would spending more time with them make a difference?

I get the sense the many would want to say respond affirmatively to this. Many professors talk about office hours as if they have some kind of unique value over and above class interactions and feedback on assignments. I find myself wanting to agree with this, but my own undergraduate experience challenges this.

I worked 25+ hours per week as an undergraduate, so it was pretty difficult to find time to meet with professors. I basically never met with any professors during my four years. Also, most class discussions were superficial (e.g., the professor asking what s/he thought were provocative questions) or unfruitful (e.g., summarizing the assigned reading) and the I received almost no feedback on my assignments — so I encountered little incentive or apparent need to meet with professors. But about halfway through my undergrad experience I encountered a professor that finally challenged my thinking in class discussions and in feedback on my assignments.

It is worth noting that this professor was both outstandingly encouraging and unconventionally honest. (I am increasingly impressed by the former; I involuntarily cringe when read some of my undergraduate papers and recall some of the comments I made in class; how could someone countenance such folly with positivity?!). Don’t get me wrong, the professor did not hold back criticism or feedback. The professor would promptly point out the error(s) in students’ comments during class discussion or give more senior students an opportunity to do so — it usually resulted in some sort of teaching moment. And all of my papers were full of annotations that explained my errors, highlighted opportunities for improvement, and suggested further reading. Most students responded to this feedback and encouragement with a strong motivation to improve and read/write more carefully.

The professor was in the philosophy department and I found that this professor’s feedback and encouragement more rewarding than the professor’s from my own majors, so I ended up changing my major to philosophy.

So even though I never talked with the professor outside of class, I quickly found philosophy, and certain philosophy courses, to be outstandingly rewarding, and this seemed to be the result of the result of the feedback and encouragement I received in class and on assignments. (This is all based on upon fallible memories, of course).

TLDR: I am not yet convinced that spending more time with students outside of class will necessarily make a difference. Rather, I think that making the best of one’s class time and one’s feedback can be more than enough to accomplish the highest education objectives.Report

Julinna Oxley
Julinna Oxley
6 years ago

I’ve found that the students who consider me a mentor or inspiring role model are those who I’ve opened up to on a more personal level. This doesn’t necessarily take a lot of time (though it could), but it does require a degree of vulnerability that many of us are reluctant to share with students, especially undergraduates. I’m more open now than I used to be about ‘personal issues’ (both mine and students’, both in the classroom and outside it) and try to show students the value of thinking philosophically about real life problems. Sometimes students need creative and philosophical thinking about how to deal with alcoholic parents, divorcing parents, health issues, financial problems, or even getting arrested, just as much as they need tutoring on their papers. So I try to connect with them in this way, both philosophically and personally. I would think that the academic mentoring relationship Bauerlein describes, and the personal mentoring relationship we sometimes have opportunity to cultivate, are equally important roles that professors play in students’ lives.Report

Avi
Avi
6 years ago

As an undergraduate in the U.S. thirty years ago, I often spent late afternoons wandering from one professor’s office to another, engaging in conversation about myriad things. I also enjoyed joining with groups of students and one or two professors for dinner or drinks. I probably learned more about philosophy outside the classroom in these hours of conversations among interested students and professors than I did inside of any classroom as an undergraduate. I also decided to pursue a career as a professor because of the quality of my professors’ lives into which I had a glimpse. As a young professor myself in the Northeast at a private research university and at a liberal arts college from the nineties through 2008, I carried on this tradition, frequently conversing with students about philosophy and many other topics. I also took groups of former students out for dinner occasionally. At the Midwestern liberal arts college where I currently teach, no student ever comes to my office hours except in the rare case of a grade complaint. Perhaps students are focussed entirely on careers in this dismal economy. Perhaps it’s a regional thing. Perhaps am I older and less approachable. Perhaps students are less mature and/or more friendly with their “cool” parents than previous generations and so less likely to reach out to professors for advice and mentoring. I also would think twice before engaging in any personal conversation with a female undergraduate for fear of arousing suspicions (I reflect the heteronormative assumptions of the society whose members would judge me on this). If my experience is typical nowadays, something valuable has been lost.Report

Kate Norlock
Kate Norlock
6 years ago

I got the most — there’s no other word for it — surprising!, and lovely card from a former student today, thanking me in particular for teaching charitability to others’ views. Now, I value the principle of charity highly, and I think about it a lot, but I’ve often thought that I really don’t teach it as I ought to, and I was certain that I’m not explicitly endorsing it in class as a thing my students ought to do. So today, I find myself thinking that the role of a professor just may not be that predictable. I didn’t know I was teaching what the student learned. I wish we did something perfectly measurable and predictable and quantifiable, for the sake of explaining our role to administrators and politicians. But how to explain that our role is not completely foreseeable?Report

J
J
6 years ago

There is also the more strong arm approach. Don’t ask the students to want something they don’t want, but make it a requirement. This, of course, makes more work for the teacher/prof, but I find it helpful to simply cancel a class session, and set up times to meet with each individual student to track their progress in the course. This allows the face to face opportunity to get to know students individually, which is the first step, I think, in forming the kind of relationship this post referenced.Report