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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