Berlinerblau Puts Foot in Mouth

Cover of Berlinerblau, How to Be SecularA few weeks back, Jacques Berlinerblau, a professor at Georgetown and scholar of religion and secularism, tried to write a sweeping diagnostic piece about the problems facing academia today.  His angle? There has been a decline in enthusiasm for teaching among professors.

The article “Teach or Perish,” published in the Chronicle of Higher Education (1/19/2015), caused Berlinerblau to get his name inscribed onto my ever expanding list of highly privileged but myopic academics who woodenly assume that they can criticize the profession based on universalizing their own experience at elite institutions.  I refer to my copy of it as the Marie Antoinette list.  What do you think?

Berlinerblau’s column immediately provoked a strong negative reaction on social media and from bloggers. For example,  Jonathan Rees, in his More or Less Bunk blog, called it “the worst example of academic victim-blaming that I’ve ever seen” (“Teach AND Perish,” 1/19/2015).  In a subsequent issue, the Chronicle published a rather scathing letter to the editor from one Kathryn D. Blanchard of Alma College (“You Publish, We Perish,” 3/2/2015) in which she responded to Berlinerblau’s “basic claim” that professors have been forgetting that our work is all about teaching by asking:

In what universe is a Georgetown professor, currently teaching only one course, capable of speaking for “us,” the vast and diverse collection of people that is the American professoriate, most of whom are swimming in students?

I have written on this general subject before.  Just over a year ago my critical reaction to a similar rant from Wharton School professor Adam Grant (“On the Concept of Research and Teaching as Two Tracks,” 2/08/2015) became, for a short time, one of the most popular posts on this admittedly not very popular blog.

So I admit I’m not surprised to find the same myopia expressed again by Berlinerblau.  In fact, it’s almost delightful and cute, the way these privileged professors mistake their access to the media megaphone for actual or relevant insight.

A few days ago, Blanchard’s rebuke of Berlinerblau went viral, and after nodding my way through her cogent lament, I found myself, of course, going back to read the original piece.  It was both sobering and depressing, on multiple levels.  After investing my precious time in reading over it, I felt compelled to add my own notes on the piece to the record.

Berlinerblau is a charming writer who speaks eloquently to the despair of academics who have noticed (it’s hard not to notice) that we professors are not exactly sitting atop of social, financial or professional pillars anymore.  Rather, it feels like we are toiling in the fields, surrounded by evidence that the humanities and universities are collapsing around us.  Declining funding.  A tight job market.  MOOCs.  For-profit schools.  Online education.  And a lack of disciples who wish to become professors like us.

Berlinerblau writes:

We humanists are at an inflection point, careering down the steep gradient like terrified campers on a mammoth water slide. We accelerate into the bottomless future, arms flailing, mouths wide open, eyes closed, gowns streaming behind us. Where’d our caps go? How did it come to this? How did such an august body find itself in this undignified position?

Referring thus to the “collapse of… the professoriate” he offers a diagnosis of the “multitude of factors” that brought about this moment.

Besides the political and economic usual suspects, Berlinerblau hits the habits of professors themselves.  It is “bad decisions” on our part; “we erred … in politicizing inquiry;” “it was ill-advised to bring so much theory—and almost always the same dense and ideologically tinctured brand of it” into our studies.  Doesn’t it seem a stretch to blame so much on “politicization” and “theory”?  Seems like blaming the waves on the foam at the edge of the sea to me.

And then, inexplicably, improbably, myopically, hysterically, Berlinerblau claims that a larger issue is visible: “[s]omewhere along the way, we spiritually and emotionally disengaged from teaching and mentoring students.”

He goes on—I think I know what he means though I have no experience with it myself—arguing that what gets called “success” in academia is one’s ability to avoid teaching undergraduates.

So, on these terms, according to Berlinerblau, those of us who do teach, who do live this drudgery—it means that we are not successful.  Think on that! That is, of course, the substance of what galled Blanchard and led to her eloquent rebuttal to Berlinerblau.

Looking at Berlinerblau’s positioning of his own comments, he offers a micro CV, a brief history of his teaching responsibilities. He alleges that he understands the plight of those who are hired just to teach, as he himself went from days of adjuncting a 6-6 load, to later appointments at the university level with a 3-3, and ultimately, to the coveted 2-1; wishing to appear less elitist than he is, he defensively adds, “I have never been so garlanded in my field as to receive the 0-1 or the vaunted ‘double zero’—the mark of exemplary scholarly achievement.” And, one might presume, a disqualifying garland if you wish to speak to the profession of teaching.

We know what he means by “success.”  Yet, most of us American professors in tenured positions or on the tenure track, actually have a 4-4 load, as I do.  Most of us teaching in the hundreds or thousands of small private colleges of this country have basically noticed that we don’t get paid at all or tangibly rewarded much for our research.  And we receive little to no support in terms of time or money for it.  We get paid to teach and grade, and if we’re unlucky, we also face a pressure from administration and colleagues to continue a program of research, in spite of the lack of real support for it.  We, the ordinary professors who make up the vast majority of those engaged in our profession, and who teach between 25–40% of all courses in American colleges (the rest being taught mainly by the even worse off adjuncts and term instructors), we haven’t actually disengaged from teaching at all. Maybe we would if we could.  Who wouldn’t appreciate a slow-down in this hectic pace?  Teaching can be extremely difficult and depressing at times.

J.B. has his eyes on the elites, you could say.  His criticism is for them.  He almost satirizes them.  It’s almost funny. But actually, no.  He doesn’t know his readers. He claims to have been one of us, but he doesn’t know what it’s like to be in your forties, and facing 30 more years of the constant pressure of teaching a full load. He’s got a semester in which he teaches one course, writes myopic editorials for the Chronicle, and churns out liberal books on “secular studies” that specialize in theory-bashing, while we get out our red pens every morning.

Where Berlinerblau really goes wrong, it seems to me, is when he says things like: “we obviously went down that road as a guild—we just can’t remember when or how. Now we’re here. It may be too late to turn back.”

No.  We didn’t go down it as a guild.  What happened was that the guild, like society at large, got noticeably more divided into winners and losers.

Also like society, and apparently difficult for J.B. to grasp, it seems that this division isn’t a 50-50 split.  Rather, it mirrors the famous 1% / 99% split of our economy.  While those who have come to have more and more, those who have not are having even that taken from them… day after day.  Harvard’s endowment, ranked at #1 in 2014, exceeds 35 billion.  Georgetown’s endowment, ranked at 66, exceeds 1.4 billion.  Little Mars Hill University where I teach has about a 40 million dollar endowment; Sweet Briar College, with over $90 million in endowment, announced this week that it is closing its doors for good at the end of the semester.  How d’ya like them apples?  According to statistics calculated based on 2014 endowments of the top 853 institutions in the US and Canada, the average endowment was about 450 million, with the median at $90 million—over half the schools in America have endowments less than 0.25% the size of Harvard’s, or about 6% the size of Georgetown’s (source:  We’ve replicated America’s “winner take all” economy in our system of higher education.

Having thus articulated these tone-deaf and myopic thoughts on the state of our commitment to teaching, Berlinerblau gets back on track, I think, when he analyzes the (largely ‘conservative’) attack on the funding of public higher education, with McCrory’s awful defunding of UNC system schools at the heart of his critique. He correctly notices the looming threat of a corporatized tech-driven employment-outcomes focused takeover of higher education.  He strikes the target here, making his earlier missteps regrettable. This is a time of crisis and change in higher education; we all feel it. But the Titanic won’t stop sinking just because the first class passengers claim to be willing to change out of their spats and white ties.

One commentator on Berlinerblau’s piece (there were over 120 comments at the time of my reading) one self-styled “tsylvain,” mades some striking remarks about the shortcomings of this piece, and I will share them here by way of a finale.

  I guess I should feel flattered by this piece, which seems to value what I’m doing so much of the day. But I have to admit that Berlinerblau’s argument reminds me of a glowing tribute to rural life written by a city dweller. I realize that he once taught many classes per semester to undergrads, but he’s escaped all that now. He can teach one course on Philip Roth and forget the aspects of teaching required courses that drag one down and make one consider changing careers entirely (anything that doesn’t involve all those papers to grade, emails to answer, disinterested students to face for yet another class that they haven’t prepared for). For me, research in my area and the occasional rewards that come from that are aspects of my job that make the teaching grind (and it IS often a grind) worthwhile. He also forgets to mention how crucial staying engaged in research is to teaching at the college level. What kinds of courses does he envision a teaching-focused professoriate delivering?

Well said and asked.  I certainly find myself asking the same questions.  If my teaching load was lessened, I would certainly have more time for research, but also, for richer, fuller, more substantive teaching. Maybe the solution to the problems of higher education lies in a kind of more equitable distribution of the most precious resources available to professors: time for research, and time for instruction.  But, I fear, maybe not.

what do you think?

%d bloggers like this: