Yes But No But

Jonathan Bellman

A variety of interesting issues were raised by Phil’s
“Come-to-Jesus Talk” blog, which addressed the risks of entering doctoral programs for the wrong reasons (or even for the right ones), and by points raised in the comments section. Certainly, the quest for prestige and avoidance of economic responsibility are both disastrous reasons for entering a doctoral program.  As bad or worse is the common pattern of following the path of least resistance and marginal competence and ending up in a doctoral program as the next predictable step.  True; all true.  I don’t buy, however, the false opposition of teaching and research that emerged in the comments, especially
given the old saw about liberal arts institutions’ not requiring as much unnecessary
research from profs, and being more student-focused, or something. 

Herewith, first, a brief rebuttal.

The mythology has long been that liberal arts institutions have more of a mission of teaching, attention to students, and so on—excellent professors working with excellent young minds. Professors aren’t so centered upon their own research and can take more time nurturing students, supposedly; as John Ciardi put it, “A university is what a college becomes when the faculty loses interest in students.”  So, those with sufficient money can get this wonderful education, etc. etc.  For present purposes, we’re leaving the binge-drinking realities of many such places aside.

I taught at a pretty well funded, beautifully landscaped, old and elegant liberal arts school (student population: c. 2500) for two years, and I have also observed faculty from plenty of other such places and had the graduates of such institutions in my graduate degree programs.  Now, this should NOT be taken as a hatchet job on the institution I taught at: faculty were deeply committed and many wonderful things indeed happened there.  As a general pattern, though: when there is one vocalist, one piano teacher, one conductor, and maybe a few others, and they are the ones who are called upon to teach the academic classes also, what does that say about the academic quality?  Liberal arts schools have smaller departments, and people are forced to wear more hats.  That can be a good thing, but common sense tells us that the more varied the professional hats we wear, the poorer some of them are going to fit.  So if I’m the pianist and assistant dean, back from my sabbatical and nearing retirement from a career in which I have just l-o-v-e-d students, just how up-to-date and committed is my music history class going to be?  How engaged, informed, and vivid, and how good as preparation for further work?  Sure, maybe it will be all those things.  Maybe not, though; the administration has been pushing recruitment of nontraditional students recently, and the new gung-ho dean has been holding regular required seminars about evolving cultural change, and so I am really pulled in quite a few different directions…

Imagine how this plays out with the similarly small departments in the sciences, languages, and so on, especially given the way all disciplines are exploding and transforming themselves and the various ways real interdisciplinarity can work.  Small colleges have to bank on the assumption that a relatively small number of people can somehow be sufficient masters of the knowledge necessary for educating students in a wide variety of fields.  And the students are paying Stanford-type money for lovely green fields, an old chapel, musty traditions, and …what?

My parsimoniously funded regional state institution is the one in the state that has the professional education mission (started as a normal school over a century ago), and its faculty are characterized as “teacher-scholars,” in part to assure worried parents that, yeah, teaching is important and the rest of the world that, yeah, we’re up to date.  Of course, the balance between teaching and scholarship differs with each individual, and I’m sure we all meet this laudable goal with varied success. Administrative triple-talk and my own cynicism aside, though, I still consider the teacher-scholar to be the only possible model for a successful professor.  To educate and inspire one needs a wholehearted commitment to the give and take of the educational process, the exchange of ideas, the aha moments and the unexpected turns and byways that can open up.  That said, I’m going to dance far out on a limb and say that the level in an institution of higher education ought to be such that if you aren’t making your own independent contribution to the discipline, you aren’t really engaged enough to teach.  Sorry, but there it is.  What do you have to teach, otherwise?  “Well, since there’s a new edition of the Stolba text, I’ve had to learn some new pieces (for the entire year-long music history sequence), and it was time to make up a new exam, and of course revise all the page numbers on the syllabus…”  You have to be doing your own work in order to be engaged enough to properly expand upon a textbook, however good the book may be.  A professor is thus someone whose vocation consists of service to students and the disciplines alike, and each really does feed the other: the constant connection with students is a reminder of what the research is for (I don’t mean “teaching,” I mean people and minds) and the procession of new and ever-changing student populations is a constant goad to stay current, in disciplinary terms, and to make every last contribution one can before the lights go out.  Being a professor is a very different thing from just loving to teach without making your own disciplinary contribution, though, and the latter is (to my mind) incompatible with the level at which our institutions need to work.

As an aside: the only real price to pay is the yearly farewells.  Steel yourselves; those constitute a steep price indeed.  Many students stay in touch, though, and you gain an ever-expanding worldwide family.

I chime in with this personal reminder of what a professor ought to be and do because in addition to Phil’s stern, no-nonsense, but ultimately fair revelatin’ on the subject, the past year has seen a bumper crop of needlessly discouraging and misleading higher ed thought pieces, often written by emeriti or part-timers.  These combine deeply pessimistic views on the future of the academy (in the best of times a sober subject) with often moronic and untenable—but titillatingly provocative, from a journalistic standpoint—suggestions for reform.  These can be both boring and, to the impressionable, destructive.  It is true that the faint of heart may well be happier in more secure lines of work, whatever those might be in the current environment (I can’t resist a “good luck with that”). For the rest, though, who have found their bliss but are facing family skepticism and so on: SHUT UP AND GET BACK TO WORK.  Shoulder to the wheel, nose to the grindstone, eye on the goddammed ball.  (Compare the old Shaker saying: “Hands to work; hearts to God.”)  Whatever your choice, doubt-induced paralysis is a recipe for certain failure, and regret for the road not taken can be, in the long term, deeply destructive.  Sober warnings are valuable, but purveyors of despair make for wretched life coaches.

Two hours later. I have to acknowledge what faithful readers have already realized: last spring I recounted a visit to a liberal arts institution that, as I wrote, exemplified everything such an institution should be.  The students I met were motivated, independent, and well spoken, and their own thought was on a very high level.  The two faculty with whom I worked most closely, though, are not only deeply devoted to their students, they also maintain international professional careers, academic and performance, that would be the envy of anyone in a research institution or conservatory.  So these individuals would not be the chosen roll models for a person who wants to teach but not do much research or professional activity—the school defies my stereotype, in other words, but the relevant faculty likewise defy the oft-stated, research-unintensive stereotype of the Professor At A Liberal Arts Institution.

About jonathanbellman

Professor of Music History and Literature and Head of Academic Studies in Music at the University of Northern Colorado. Author, *The _Style Hongrois_ in the Music of Western Europe* (Northeastern University Press, 1993), *A Short Guide to Writing About Music* (2e, Longman, 2008), *Chopin's Polish Ballade: Op. 38 as Narrative of National Martyrdom* (Oxford University Press, 2010), Editor, *The Exotic in Western Music* (Northeastern University Press, 1998), author of bunches of articles and reviews and so on. Likes to play the piano, the mandolin, and even guitar sometimes. A. M. and Jo Winchester Distinguished Scholar at UNC, 2011.
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4 Responses to Yes But No But

  1. Peter (the other) says:

    “Shoulder to the wheel, nose to the grindstone, eye on the goddammed ball. (Compare the old Shaker saying: “Hands to work; hearts to God.”) Whatever your choice, doubt-induced paralysis is a recipe for certain failure… ”
    Jonathan, thank you soooooo much for that, I needed it right at this very moment. It is going on the bathroom mirror (a high honor, so far reserved for only dead guys).

  2. jonathan says:

    Talking to myself, too, Peter. In recent months I have been scattered, unfocused, and not nearly as productive as I should.

  3. A very marginal comment to the articulate disquisitions of messrs. Ford & Bellman: I agree that the issues here have been overdiscussed. Or rather, as Jon suggests, discussed with so much heat and so little light that it amounts to de facto overdiscussion.
    It has been my feeling that academia has been a poorly self-defined and -defining place ever since the mid-70s, which saw the more or less sudden introduction of the business model and admin philosophy, publish or perish, grade inflation, and a number of other practices that, however vile they might be in and of themselves, contributed to a foully diluted community awareness of academic purpose.
    What are universities *for*? Why do we need them in the 21st century? Who benefits from them, and how? Far from seeing such questions as impertinent, I think every responsible member of the academic community should have firm and clear answers to them. (‘Realistic’ is a bonus I likely can’t request.) The bureaucratization of scholarly life has served to veil its purpose from its practitioners. (Or, I dunno, mebbe we done jes’ got us a whack of a great crop of unselfaware dunderheads these days, huh?)

  4. Jim says:

    What are universities *for*? Why do we need them in the 21st century? Who benefits from them, and how? Far from seeing such questions as impertinent, I think every responsible member of the academic community should have firm and clear answers to them.
    I agree with Michael’s basic sentiments here, and would reiterate that the introduction of the business model and the related “bureaucratization of academic life” have made it very difficult for those of us within to form clear answers to such questions. (Still, the problem is more a lack institutional consensus than that we as individuals can’t provide answers.) On the other hand, a look at the history of the American university will show, I think, that it’s been in perpetual crisis (or at least experienced regular, periodic crises) since at least the turn of the twentieth century.

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