One of several of Phil’s blogs that I was able to enjoy from (ahem) sunny Kona was the December 19 “Season’s Greetings,” which linked the columns about the Seven Deadly Sins of Professors and Students by Thomas H. Benton that appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education (conveniently subtitled by Phil “Students Suck” and “Professors Suck”). I saw much that I recognized in both columns, from whiny, rude students who feel entitled to top grades regardless of the quality of their work to professors who feel wholly similar senses of entitlement once they get tenure and getting rid of them is too expensive for most schools. Stupid students and insensitive professors—I suspect these complaints date back to Oxenforde and Cantebrigge and probably back to Plato’s Academy (or was it Aristotle’s Academy and Plato’s Lyceum? Can’t remember).
Moreover, I’m sure I have been both—the rude, self-centered, smart-ass student and the supercilious, unhelpful professor. It all depends on perspective, after all–what stage of life one is at how others perceive one’s actions. My family background most decidedly did not prepare me for a career of sensitive nurturing, accommodation, understanding, and empathy. No, culturally and psychologically it was more like boot camp: standards were high, verbal sparring and warfare state of the art, and omnidirectional challenge constant—absolutely CONSTANT—and verbal whips and scorns liberally applied. Whatever you’re doing, are you going to do it, or not? You call THAT doing it? Plus, I’ve a brother two years older: we love each other dearly, but how much gentle accommodation and nurturing do you think we showed each other growing up? Please. “Nice,” to me, is a four-letter word. So from the time I entered college, I was usually the wild man in the room, generating more heat than light, but tolerated for my commitment and energy and…kamikaze approach. A friend in my doctoral program once told me I would be the most ruthless professor ever because I was the most ruthless student he ever met (apologies if I’ve used this one already). I don’t know if he meant it completely as a compliment, but I certainly took it that way.
It is highly ironic, then, that I of all curmudgeonly people find myself at an institution where, for the most part, the students show respect. The professors (I’m thinking especially of the ones I know best, in the School of Music) are total diehards, putting in all kinds of extra hours recruiting and maintaining contacts, and doing All-State Band and Weekend for Strings and run-outs and tours and scholarship and service and so on… basically, musical Green Berets. The students can tend toward entitlement—they’re late adolescents after all; some of this is biological—but for the most part are educable, usually because they just need to understand that they will be held responsible for everything they do, not just their instrument or favorite ensemble. Diehardism, which I wrote of some time ago in this space, rubs off. I still wonder, though, that people don’t get in my face, either in class or outside it (Why not, for God’s sake? Don’t I deserve it? Didn’t I do it constantly to my professors?), and they do nice little things—e.g., a student for whom I wrote some letters of recommendation to graduate schools left me a gift card for the local coffee shop with thanks and a Happy Holidays greeting. I mean, I always laughed at Merle Haggard’s “Okie from Muskogee”—“and students still respect the campus dean”—but I of all people have found myself at just such a place. It puts me on my guard; is some other cosmic flyswatter winding up to let me have it?
Our problems are from without: state attitudes, niggardliness of the taxpayer regarding higher education (49th nationwide per-student expenditure, I read in today’s paper), and so forth. A cold, hard look at the students and faculty, though, shows that while it is certainly not Utopia, it ain’t too damned bad, and I feel a little guilty, reading Benton’s articles, about all the academic stereotypes I do NOT see in my daily professional life. I talk to colleagues, including at more prestigious institutions, and it is very different from my experience. I write this in part as a self-reminder, in part to testify against the stereotypes: the dissonances remain, but music without dissonance is a unison, which is utterly unsatisfying, as is similar agreement in politics, culture, intellectual thought, religion, personality, anything.
For a long time—because I come from an academic family, and have witnessed the whole career trajectory—I have been conscious about not letting myself become resentful, because it is an academic pattern I find very unattractive. Professorial burnout can be in some measure defensed by remaining active in one’s discipline, welcoming changes in teaching assignments, experimenting with different service activities…shaking it up, in other words. As for the predictable student complaints, clear expectations in the syllabi and modeling of standards can do away with most and provide a strong defense against the ones that still emerge occasionally. A good deal, though, has to do not with the students, but with the prof’s mindset: staying renewed, (yea verily) idealistic, energetic. Ultimately, we’re all on the same playing field.
It’s the New Year, colleagues (from first-year students on up): let the games begin!