Mark Bauerlein, “What’s the Point of a Professor?” New York Times [Sunday Review] (5/10/2015) [Link]
Tonight I’m adding another name to my “Marie Antoinette list,” a growing catalogue of scholars who teach at elite American institutions, have access to the megaphone of the most powerful media outlets, and imagine that their experiences with service, teaching and research are typical of contemporary academia. From the ivy-clad heights of their virtual Versailleses these dainty opinion-leaders launch their diagnostic manifestos like so many white-paper airplanes, hoping either to solve all the problems with academia at one blow, or if not, then to console us in the midst of the apocalyptic catastrophe that is American Higher Education.
Some random meme involving a professor, a grade, and the words entitled and opinion. Source: Pinterest. Click for full size.
This time the honor falls on Mark Bauerlein, a professor of English at Emory whose Sunday Review essay in today’s New York Times manages once again to exemplify the myopia and elitism that characterize these types of flotsam.
Initially, I was definitely drawn to Bauerlein’s piece. The subtitle—or web-card teaser-line—that I saw on Facebook led me immediately to read the article, and subsequently to re-post it myself:
“We used to be mentors and moral authorities. Now we just hand out A’s.”
If ever anything was, that line is click-bait for professors teaching in today’s academy. Isn’t it true that grade-inflation rules the day now? Isn’t it true that this reality reflects a professional and economic landscape that has changed academia for the worse? Professors used to be authorities; now we’re employees, service providers even. Students used to be eager young minds, or disciples; now they are customers. Colleges and universities used to be institutions dedicated to the search for the truth, but now they are corporate-style businesses competitively selling credit hours, preferably with A’s attached to them.
Yes, students want those easy A’s. We’ve all fielded the emails from students who fumble through most of the semester, skipping classes and assignments, and spacing out when they show up, only to inform us at the 13th hour that they “really need an A in this course.” We’ve also dealt with honors students who can’t abide earning a mere A- in your class, and complain when you are just being honest and holding them to high standards. Having just been through another semester (a particularly rough one indeed, for me), these kinds of concerns were foremost on my mind as I contemplated Bauerlein’s essay.
Within the first two paragraphs, Bauerlein substantiates his claim about giving out A’s with a chilling statistic: “In 1960, only 15 percent of grades were in the ‘A’ range, but now the rate is 43 percent, making ‘A’ the most common grade by far.” A bit later he shares another startling statistic. In the 1960’s, the vast majority of college students said they were there to ‘develop a meaningful philosophy of life,’ whereas today the vast majority are hoping to improve their finances. These statistics support the general perception that what college really is has shifted in our time. It has moved away from where it was formerly, a meritocratic pursuit of wisdom, truth, and excellence, to a new mission of vending credentials and easy-peasy affirmations of participation.
So, with such things in mind, I shared the piece immediately, expressing only one misgiving. “Personally I’m not sure about the value of having ‘developing a meaningful philosophy of life’ as a goal for higher education, though,” I wrote.
Later on, I was helped by others to see what I hadn’t noticed at first.
Bauerlein’s essay is a classic example of an elitist blaming vast systemic trends on the individual moral failings of contemporary professors and students. The basic thrust of Bauerlein’s piece is not at all about the problem of the leveling out of standards, or the structural forces that have put such great pressure on students and teachers to flatten out the grade curves and push them towards the A’s.
It’s an essay that blames the students themselves for not seeking out their professors as moral and philosophical authorities and models. And it portions some of the blame to professors too, since they allegedly no longer make themselves available to students in this role. What we should be doing, Bauerlein argues, is forcibly asserting the right of PhDs to act as arbiters of meaningful philosophies of life.
And you know what, all these ideas are frankly ridiculous.
First, my friend Pat pointed out that Bauerlein is the author of the unpleasantly titled The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (Or, Don ‘t Trust Anyone Under 30), in which, back in 2009, Bauerlein vented at book-length about the shortcomings of his allegedly dumb students. Ugh.
Next my friend Rob (and later Pat too) passed on a virally transmitted blog-rant by one Kevin Gannon, a professor of History at Grand View University in Iowa, entitled simply: “I will not be lectured to. I’m too busy teaching.” In it, Gannon destroys Bauerlein.
This essay must simply be read. He says everything critical that should be said about this pathetic essay.
Feeling chastened and sheepish, I realized a bit belatedly that in Mark Bauerlein I had yet another Jacques Berlinerblau, a member of the Marie Antoinette set.
“Let them be mentors,” Bauerlein says, supposing that all the thousands of professors he cannot see have lost their way. We are no longer modeling intellectual and academic excellence for our students, he supposes, or forming lasting relationships with them, or sharing with them the struggle to forge something meaningful out of all this chaos. What a load of crap.
In retrospect, I wish I had seen past the compelling statistics about grade inflation, to notice the blatant student- and professor-shaming in this piece. Oh well, lessons learned. This is what friends are for.
When you get right down to it, Gannon is absolutely correct about this and many other points:
This is academic classism, pure and simple. In its shallow portrait of student attitudes and naive calls for professors to be moral authorities and fearsome minds, Bauerlein ignores what is happening outside the walls of his tiny elite cloister, perched amongst the ivy and resting comfortably on scads of tuition dollars and a jumbo-sized endowment.
Later, defending my choice to repost the article, I mentioned I also appreciate that Bauerlein advocates using individual conferences with students to help restablish his lost paradise when faculty mentorship mattered. As a pedagogical tool, that’s something I’ve been coming to as well. But when it comes right down to it, that’s all Bauerlein’s got.
His advice to professors is only this: that since students aren’t battering down our doors to receive our wisdom outside of class, we should make them come talk to us about their papers.
This is the right solution to the wrong problem. (It is a good solution to the problem of how to communicate clearly to students what professional expectations there are for their written work. It will do nothing to foster the creation of disciples who respect professorial moral authority. As if that was really a good thing.)
Hey, professors gripe. We gripe about students, administration, and the world at large. We do make our observations about the so-called “entitlement mentality” of undergraduates (but I think we should stop doing that), and we complain about the corporitization of the universities (maybe we should do more of that), and about the sidelining of the humanities and the liberal arts in the great quest for “relevance.” Please excuse us, forgive us, for these unpleasant habits. Grading papers is hard work.
Be that as it is, no matter what, we should always remember this: we are here for the students, and they are here for us. We work together, and we work from where we are. The vast majority of us are working our tails off. We’re not failing to do our best. We’re not missing out on opportunities to be more. That romantic bullshit? You dreamt that up in your library carrell while I was prepping for my 4-4 load, dude.
Now I probably am not Gannon, knocking on the door of a student who hasn’t been to class in a few days. But that’s only because I’m too busy teaching the ones who bother to show up, and they don’t pay me enough to chase after every lost sheep. But I do spend many hours each term in face to face mentoring with students, in office hours and in the halls, and via new technologies, and of course, in class. This is what we do. This whole thing is a process. It’s something organic and unfolding. And, yes, for the love of Pete, we matter “or whatevs” (to paraphrase Gannon).