Tag: Pedagogy

Bauerlein says, ‘Let them be mentors’

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.

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).

Does the First Amendment Protect Student Papers?

The following rant is in response to a report by Eugene Volokh from this past Friday’s Washington Post: Court allows First Amendment claim based on alleged professor retaliation for paper ‘harshly critical of … lesbianism’.

In brief, the facts of the case are this: a professor assigns a paper reviewing a film on the theme of lesbianism (Desert Hearts, by Donna Deitch, 1985); the student writes an apparently offensive paper expressing opinions about the film and lesbianism (n.b. I have not seen the paper); the professor refuses to grade the paper, and instead advises the student to drop the class; the student does so, but then sues, alleging a violation of her first amendment rights. The District Court of New Mexico agrees to hear the case.

A screen shot of the court’s
opinion allowing the case to proceed.

At this point in the case, the court has stated blatantly: “The Court concludes that the allegations of Plaintiff’s FAC are sufficient to make out a plausible case that Defendants violated Plaintiff’s First Amendment rights by subjecting Plaintiff to restrictions on speech that were not reasonably related to legitimate pedagogic concerns.”

I owe notice of this interesting article to the facebook feed of Craig Martin, a professor of Religious Studies at St. Thomas Aquinas College.

Basically, Martin’s views are similar to my own: he states that he typically doesn’t “invite student opinions” but rather asks “them to think like … the scholars [he assigns].” I do the same. Perhaps we hope that this distinction will protect us from having to deal with noxious opinions that are uninformed by scholarly practices. But I’m not sure it’s entirely adequate, since sometimes our work requires us to confront students who fail to meet standards precisely by expressing opinions (that we may not have asked for) in an unscholarly (or even obnoxiously expressed) manner; and sometimes students don’t like what we do in helping them learn to think like scholars.

So we may still have to deal with students who feel that their first amendment rights are being squashed, even if we just ask them to think like the scholars we assign.

Except that we, Craig and I, actually don’t have to worry about First Amendment issues. We don’t need to worry because we are at private schools and aren’t considered government employees. State University professors, however, they are on the hook here. Do they have special responsibilities to their students that private professors do not?

In spite of the fact that this court case will never affect my own practice, because I work at a private university, I personally find the situation troubling on multiple levels. I believe it’s worth raising questions about and commenting on the problems posed by the case. Maybe it can help us think more clearly about “free speech” in the college classroom.

In the excerpt of the ruling printed by Volokh (I recommend you read it), the court makes the following assumptions or claims:

  1. A state university professor’s classroom is considered a semi-public space.
  2. A state university professor’s actions can be considered actions taken by the government.
  3. A student’s opinions expressed in a paper can be considered protected public speech.
  4. Student speech in the classroom setting or in papers can only be limited by this government representative if there are “legitimate pedagogic concerns.”
  5. Otherise, a student should be free to express any views they choose in a classroom, and is indeed entitled to that privilege regardless of a professor’s views.

I find much to complain about here.

  • First, is the professor really just a stand in for the government? I think not. This is too simplistic. The professor is not hired directly by the government and doesn’t directly represent the government, but rather represents an academic field of study as a disciplinary expert. She or he is a contract employee of the government who has a specific task to accomplish vis a vis the students in his or her class with respect to providing instruction and training in that discipline. This is different than being “the government.”
  • Is the classroom a semi-public space? First, I want to reject the notion of “semi-public” as being a confused concept. But in any case, the answer is no. The classroom is a space of relationship between a disciplinary master or doctor and a limited number of novices who have been granted access to that space. Their access to the relationship is based on certain qualifications, such as admission to a school or program. Student novices are welcome in a class so long as they respect the relationship they have entered into. Their presence in a course is largely voluntary. The relationship between a particular student and a particular professor in a particular classroom is entered into on a voluntary basis; even in a required class the relationship is technically voluntary, since admission to the school and program and particular course of study were all sought voluntarily. When you decide to enter college or go to university, you are volunteering to play that game of being the novice in a master’s workshop. This is apprenticeship and the partners are not equal.
  • Should student self-expression in a college level course be thought of as a form of public, and thus protected speech? Again, I think not. The role of the novice is to engage in the work and practice assigned by the master. All activities related to the course are pedagogic in nature, including all student discussions and forms of self-expression in class. Everything the student says or does is subject to evaluation according to disciplinary standards. The bottom line is that, although a class may even be a training ground for citizenship and self-expression, ultimately, the classroom is not a “forum.” On campuses, we actually do have public “fora,” (the plural of forum is fora) on various topics, and we usually term them as such. As in, “come to tomorrow’s forum on the middle east peace process.” If there is a “forum” on an issue, we ask for people to gather, discuss, and share opinions. But in the classroom the standard is a bit different. We don’t put “psychology” or “biology” up for a forum style discussion. In any case, each professor will have to decide for her or himself concerning what format of student engagement and participation in class works best for training students in whatever disciplinary conventions are being taught. The students won’t decide. The professor will. There’s a power differential there and that difference matters.
  • Furthermore, we must observe that in the context of the college-level course student papers are usually the furthest thing from “public” speech. In point of fact, under law, student papers are considered to be PRIVATE speech. Papers are private academic records which are governed by FERPA, the Federal Educational Rights and Privacy Act. Only a student can make a paper public; submitting a paper to a professor does not turn it into public speech. FERPA protects the privacy of papers (and, for that matter, classroom discussion).
  • The “legal” analysis I offered in the last bullet point also applies to a more common sense or pragmatic assessment of what a paper is. Papers simply aren’t public as we commonly understand that term. Typically (although “legitimate pedagogic concerns” can alter this practice considerably), the only people who ever see a student paper are the student and the professor. If a professor receives a privately written and communicated paper, reads it privately, reaches a private conclusion about the paper’s merits, and then expresses those conclusions to the student privately, how is this in any way a case of public speech? It is private speech.
  • Not only is the paper private rather than public—as a speech-act whatever is written in a paper has not been prevented or restricted. The paper is the paper. Now, after the student’s act of speech is completed, it’s the professor’s turn to speak. And so, the paper the student writes will be evaluated. In this particular case, the paper was evaluated verbally, not with a letter grade. Let’s look schematically at the speech event, the facts of what happened. An assignment was issued. Standards of assessment were communicated (we hope; they always should be). Then the student wrote; i.e. the student expressed herself or himself. The student’s speech was unimpeded; there was no restriction on their act of “speech;” no physical or psychological constraint was imposed. Only, one hopes, the student would limit herself according the disciplinary standards she should have been learning. She would accept that there are consequences for the manner in which one expresses oneself, and that those consequences are context dependent. Once the paper has been written and submitted, the professor then reacts to the paper from a position of authority and greater power. Now, how the professor reacts matters. It is an enormous responsibility. Indeed, it is possible that in the case referred to by Pompeo vs. University of New Mexico, the professor may not have handled her responsibility well; but that is another matter. When a paper is evaluated, the student may not like how the professor reacts, but, if you are told that your paper is wrong, or bad, or out of line, or offensive or unacceptable in some way, it does not mean that your first amendment rights have been violated.
  • Therefore, in this case, logically, the only possible way we could speak about the student having had their first amendment rights denied would be the fact that the student was asked to drop the class. Does the student possess a general “right” to express her opinions in that class? If so, they were abridged. But this is pure foolishness. First of all, being a registered student in a college level class is a privilege, not a right. Second, a student’s speech in that class is not public, as I stated above, or as it would be in a true forum. Third, speech in a class is never free in the sense of being free of conventions, limitations, evaluation or standards of decorum. These vary widely depending on the discipline and the professor. They aren’t to be set in a courtroom. Students just have to adapt to what they find in the classrooms they enter. Finally, she dropped the class voluntarily. She could have stayed in the class, and accepted the evaluations as they were offered. How is voluntary withdrawal from a course at the professor’s suggestion a violation of a right to free speech? It makes no sense.

Finally, there is a word that needs to be said here. Somebody has to say it and it might as well be me. That word is entitlement. In some ways, by accepting this lawsuit, the court appears to endorse the “entitlement mentality” that so many professors claim today’s college students exhibit. We see students all the time who apparently think they are entitled to be in our classrooms. Students seem to think they are entitled to receive good grades. They seem to feel entitled to take tests and quizzes whenever it is convenient for them. They want to be able to email their professors about anything at any time, and they expect immediate replies. They feel entitled to their opinions, and ways of expressing themselves, and don’t want to be questioned. They feel entitled to be themselves regardless of whatever standards the professors and society demands of them. This is their time. They are entitled to study any subject in any way they want. They are paying customers. They paid their tuition, and are essentially buying credit hours towards a degree.

Well, I obviously reject all of that. All that it seems necessary to say about the “entitlement mentality” is that students may indeed be customers or clients, but many of them may have misunderstood what they are paying for. Strictly speaking, what the university student is paying for is an opportunity to work. They pay to work with experts who will practice critical engagement with their efforts at learning mastery of disciplinary subjects. They are paying for critical feedback (grades and evaluation, including evaluation of their opinions, or at least, the manner in which their opinions are expressed and argued for). The rest, all the work, is up to them. They pay, but are not entitled to anything other than what they earn within the agonistic context of classroom instruction and disciplined personal study.

On an “Evangelical” Introduction to the New Testament

Thanks to Academia.edu, and and a standing search alert set for “New Testament Studies” on Google, I stumbled onto the following book review today:

Chris Stevens, Review of Hagner, Donald Alfred. The New Testament: A Historical and Theological Introduction. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2012. Journal of Greco-Roman Christianity and Judaism 10 (2014) R19-R23. Article uploaded to Academia.edu. https://www.academia.edu/8490881/ Accessed 10/2/2014.

Reading over it, I found the review pretty bland and uninformative. The reviewer offers a number of observations about the form of the text, none of which sound particularly distinctive or interesting. What I did notice was that the reviewer praises the textbook as evangelical and conservative in orientation. Other than that, he basically says, “it’s an Introductory textbook to the New Testament.” That’s not actually a quote from the review. But you get the picture.

So, the review itself was a tosser. And furthermore, for me, the textbook under review was a non-starter. In my most recent trip through my introductory course (Spring 2014), I abandoned any use of any textbook, with mixed results. The reviewer and my readers will instantly recognize my own alignment within the field of Biblical studies when I say that formerly I used Bart Ehrman. I would use him again, too, if I ever returned to using an Introductory textbook. So you see, I’m not really shopping for a textbook, and in any case I would not normally consider this one.

Screenshot 2014-10-02 23.16.37

So, I should have just moved on, right? Yes.

Nevertheless the review got me asking a lot of questions, some of which are making me uncomfortable.

It starts with these ones: what elements exactly make a textbook offering an “Introduction to the New Testament” into an “evangelical” textbook? When a reviewer refers to the textbook as offering “conservative” positions on questions of New Testament scholarship, what positions exactly are entailed? What advantages or disadvantages of such an orientation and of such positions are assumed by the the reviewer?

What differential is being assumed within the review by using this category of classification of New Testament Introductions? How does the review itself construct alternatives? What does the reviewer assume about the elements and positions of a non-Evangelical textbook?

I do believe that a close reading of the review itself would let me answer a lot of these questions, or point out directions to take in answering them, but I can’t (or won’t) embark on such a critical reading of it at the moment, not only because I would first have to stop myself from listing the 100 other questions that keep running through my head, but because, as I write this, I start to wonder whether I should think more clearly about my own context, as the questioner of the reviewer.

I care about this review more than others might, probably, because I myself teach Introductory courses on Biblical literature to undergraduates. Also, I teach in an historically Baptist private liberal arts college, to students who are largely sociologically or self-described as “evangelical.” Like the textbook.

I think what troubles me about the review is that it speaks so plainly, without detail, and feels no need to justify or explain its own interest in an “evangelical” textbook, as opposed to some other unnamed kind. It troubles me as well that the reviewer doesn’t even take up the book’s own self-categorization, as “Historical and Theological,” or attempt to parse how that fits with his characterization of it as “evangelical.”

Moreover, the descriptor “evangelical” troubles me as a term applied to a textbook. The label “evangelical” is a limiter; it implies that certain questions about the subject have been already settled by a prior authority. An evangelical introduction is necessarily indoctrination. Imagine adding the term “evangelical” as a descriptor for any other introductory textbook used in other subjects at the college or university level: evangelical psychology, biology, chemistry, history, sociology, political science, English, business, etc. No self respecting parent would want to pay for a college education that promises to give their children an evangelical introduction to mathematics.

I should stop, but still, another more troubling question haunts me. Is this label “evangelical,” when applied to a typical Introduction to the New Testament, in fact superfluous? Is it possible that any course of study that focuses on introducing students to the ins and outs of the canonical writings of early Christians (“the New Testament”) ultimately represents what could fairly be called an “evangelical” position?

To wit: so many Introductory textbooks in New Testament study are mere surveys of the content of a canon. What purpose other than an “evangelical” one is there in introducing students to that particular body of literature?

In other words: is introduction to the New Testament an inherently theological topic, destined always for further refinement or limitation by descriptions of theological premises—as evangelical, catholic, orthodox, gnostic, heterodox, secular, atheist, etc.?

Can any “Introduction to the New Testament,” whether it is literary, historical, or theological, be justified on any other than some emic grounds? Are there etic grounds?

Can Introduction to the Early Christian Writings instead be done, for instance, as critical study of religion?

I’m not sure I can or I want to answer all these questions, and it disturbs me.

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