You say “professorial” like it’s a bad thing

Phil Ford

One of the great perennial academic-blogging topics is the effect that student evaluations have on their professors. It's worth noting that the practice of mandatory, anonymous student evals for every course is a post-1960s phenomenon, and it seems to me that one of its effects has been to kill off a certain kind of professorial persona — the Prussian-officer type, harsh, judging, and peremptory, the kind of professor who brooks no opposition and whom students hate and fear. No professor who has come up the ranks in the age of student evals can afford to maintain this kind of posture. Professors who are mindful of student evaluations have learned to reconcile their professional sense of standards with a more informal, empathetic, feel-your-pain kind of teaching and to invent new classroom personas and strategies. Which brings me to Friday's presidential debate.   

I talked to my Mom, who lives in Canada, and found that she had been as tense about the debate as we were. People around the world are following the presidential election with bated breath, and most of them, it seems, are rooting for Obama. Sarah Silverman says Obama is "probably our last hope of ending this country's reputation as assholes of the universe," which is certainly how my Mom sees it, but she was worried that McCain came off better in the debate — tougher, more forceful, landing more punches. But as the post-debate polling has made clear, it was exactly because of this that McCain came off worse to American voters. A lot of pundits have noticed that something seems to be working for Democrats in 2008 that baffled and exasperated them in 2000. Back then, all the pundits and political professionals agreed that Gore "won" by nailing Bush on the issues again and again, but Gore actually lost with the voters because he kept sighing and rolling his eyes when Bush responded. This seemed an incredibly superficial reason to prefer one candidate over the other, but as media analysts from McLuhan on down have pointed out, potential voters pay less attention to the message than the medium — the way things are said, rather than what things are said. People personalize performative gestures:

Mr. Bush’s biggest boost among married mothers might have come unwittingly from Mr. Gore. In a focus group of Democrats, Republicans and undecided voters assembled by ABC to watch the debate, the women deemed Mr. Gore obnoxious and arrogant.

All those sighs and eye rolls! Married women know those sighs all too well. They have heard them from their husbands and know they are meant as condescending putdowns.

In Friday's debate McCain looked stiff with anger and refused to look Obama in the eye. Obama, by contrast, not only looked his opponent in the eye but opened his body profile to him, gesturing courteously towards McCain even as he landed his own shots. Apparently, the thing that viewers really hated was when McCain would say that Obama "doesn't understand" this or that. Again, Obama's approach was the opposite: he began his counter-arguments by outlining the points on which he was in agreement with McCain. So if Gore in 2000 reminded women of their overbearing first husbands, what archetypal role did McCain fill? Who else but that contemptuous prick of a professor everyone can remember from their college days? You know who I'm talking about: the guy who asks you a question and then cuts you off and says "let's hear from someone who knows what he's talking about"; the guy who cannot stand disagreement or argument and cuts dissenters down to size by ridiculing their knowledge; the guy who says, in effect, that only someone with a Ph.D. and has spent a geological age in academia has the standing to speak. This is the kind of guy for whom knowledge is privilege, and privilege is to be protected from the likes of you.

Professors like this are deeply, seriously hated. And if any professor is so stupid as to come on with this kind of attitude in a class, their students will make them suffer for it in the evaluations. I simply cannot imagine any halfway clued-in academic of my generation thinking they could get away acting like this. And they don't; as the older generations retire, this Prussian-officer type of professor has come to exist largely in movies, where they play the role Margaret Dumont played for the Marx Brothers — the dowager under whose ample bottom the whoopie cushion is always to be slipped.

Obama, on the other hand, managed to near-perfection a recognizable type of professorial persona that has been adapted to handle the post-student-eval landscape. In beginning his own arguments by saying "I agree with John that . . ." he reminded me of the clever and tactful professor whose student has said something he wishes to correct. You don't say "no, that's wrong," much less say "no, you're naive to think so." (Much much less "no, HE'S naive to think so," as if the student didn't even deserve to be acknowledged in the second person.) You begin by finding the part that might be useful, the kernel of truth or insight, however small, that you can work with, and you work with it. You make the student your conversational companion and make his contribution a thread you weave into the class discussion. And if you're keeping it real and trying to lead your students to some point or proposition that you hold to be more right that others, you work constantly to channel the class discussion towards it without shutting down the opposing point of view. You amend the opposition, you gloss it, you inflect it, you co-opt it, but you don't try to crush it, because that doesn't work. Bend, don't break; move, don't stick; water wears away the stone.

It's worth noting that Obama is actually a former professor. True, he didn't have a very long academic career, though it has certainly stuck to him — it's something that's supposed to prove that he's an "elitist," I suppose. When pundits go on about his "professorial" demeanor they don't mean it as a compliment, but maybe they should. Our students are often prickly and defensive because they're anxious: they're in a situation where what's between their ears will be judged, and in front of their friends to boot. They are Americans, which means they want, more than anything, to improve themselves, to get ahead in life, and in America these days that means education. When they come into our classes it is always a fraught situation, and managing the tension of that situation requires considerable skill and poise — a lesson that Obama seems to have learned. 

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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4 Responses to You say “professorial” like it’s a bad thing

  1. Kyle Lynch says:

    After the debate I spent the next 90 minutes watching a few channels; eager to gauge the pundits’ reaction. I forget who or on which channel, but someone called Obama elitist and professorial because he repeatedly referred to McCain as John instead of Sen. McCain. I found this surprising because I saw it as a collegial gesture. She, however, saw Obama as that demeaning professor on a perch. What she made of McCain’s charges of “naivete,” I do not know. Strength and confidence, I suppose.
    I bet it’s fair to say that most viewers made up their minds before the debate (pundits and myself included). This would explain such multiple viewpoints. Moments where you wonder if they watched the same debate. But if people already have Obama typecast as a liberal elite, then there really shouldn’t be much surprise.
    This makes me search for my own biases. I suppose I already saw McCain as out of touch panderer, and now after the debate this view is strengthened as an out of touch old man who lectures down. But there were one or two times where he surprised me as being reasonable.
    I’ll be lenient and stop blathering. I usually don’t talk politics with strangers. I had these thoughts kicking around since Friday night and there’s the result. Thinking aloud 😉

  2. Chuck Karish says:

    Acknowledging areas of agreement with one’s opponent isn’t just feel-good pandering to those who will grade your teaching. It’s a very powerful rhetorical device. If you don’t point out areas of agreement listeners who agree with both of you in those areas may count those points as supporting your opponent’s argument but not yours.

  3. mark says:

    Damn, Phil, you’re right, great angle to look at the debate. I was looking at it as a boxing match, which Obama won on points, but not by many. BTW, I only liked Gore after he lost, it was like he became somebody else.

  4. Phil Ford says:

    Comment deleted. Feel free to rephrase in such a way as not to hustle your own site. Comment spam is not welcome.

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