The Aging Professor

I am surprised to realize how much difference age makes in my teaching routine. Generally speaking, the older I get, the less students pay attention to me – and, admittedly, the less patience I often have for them. This doesn’t apply to the students who have a particular interest in my areas of specialization, nor to the ones whose ambitions I applaud and encourage. Those students are as devoted as ever. But it does seem to apply to the casual students, the ones who take my general theory courses to fulfill requirements. I can guarantee that I’ve been using many of the same first-year theory pedagogical routines for sixteen years now, and far from them feeling stale, I think I’ve refined them and perform them with more energy than ever. But it doesn’t matter – when I was in my early 40s, a little younger than their parents, the casual students saw me as a role model, potential ally, and someone to identify with. They laughed at my jokes, hung on my every word, and appealed to me for help when the older professors were unsympathetic. Now, just noticeably older than their parents, I’m already an old man to be politely smiled at occasionally and then turned away from. They take their personal problems to my younger colleagues, which is admittedly a blessing. I have to confess to a reciprocal decline in sympathy; excuses I’ve heard 75 times have a blunted impact, and I’ve grown better at predicting which ones will not fulfill their promises. Worst of all, this semester, for the first time in my life, I’ve had to turn disciplinarian. I’ve always encouraged creativity in theory class, emphasizing the freeing effectiveness of the rules once they’re understood rather than imposing them as a restriction. But – and as students do go through generational changes, I can’t be sure of the cause and effect – I’m finding lately that rather than joining me in creativity, they take it as license for rowdiness and distraction, and I have to clamp down. Teaching becomes a chore. I am unusual among my friends in that I’ve never come to mind teaching the fundamentals of theory every year, but lately I’m beginning to fantasize about turning it over to someone else.

When I think back about it, few professors I studied with were as old then as I am. Colleges went on a massive hiring spree in the expansive ’60s, and some of my favorite teachers were only ten, even eight years older than I was. I gravitated toward the younger faculty then partly on the basis of stylistic sympathies, though one of my favorite mentors was the reverend Theodore Karp, who taught in a whisper barely audible past the first row, and revealed the wonders of 15th-century music to me. Aside from him, I don’t remember having much experience of professors over 50. But with the difficulties of retiring in this economy, older professors are only going to continue to predominate.
As a colleague of my generation said to me last week, “When I was forty my students wanted to be me. Now they respect me, but they don’t want to hang out with me.”


  1. says

    As one of the earlier students, I found this an interesting post. I’m glad you still have strong relationships with some of your students. I’d imagine that this will remain a possibility for as many years as you teach – I’ve witnessed strong student-faculty bonds with much wider generational gaps.
    Ten years since graduating from Bard, I still refer back to our lessons, your music and books, your recommendations, and your general guidance – especially in times when my life with music takes new turns.
    Thanks for the trip down memory lane. The impact of your work is undoubtedly still strongly felt by those of us in the “devoted student” category.
    KG replies: Thanks, Jacob. You were indeed one of the early high points, and I’ve been proud to watch you career develop. Those of your ilk continue to appear, and you all make it all worthwhile.

  2. Patrick Murtha says

    That’s the tragedy (if you want to call it that) of teaching — you get older every year, but your students remain pretty much the same age. The temporal and social distance between you grows wider and wider. I am a 52-year-old teacher and professor, and what a world of difference there is now from when I was starting out in this new career at 36! So your post here certainly resonates for me.
    The best I can say about this inevitable change is that it frees up your time and emotional energy. Good younger teachers and professors do tend toward a high level of productive involvement with their students, in part because their students desire it. When you are older they do not desire it so much, as you indicate, and that leaves more of your life for you. Of course I am a little wistful about this sometimes, but that is just part of aging, and I think I can handle it.

  3. AJ says

    Very insightful and not much to add, save that students today also possess far less of a need to know about history and what happened and what it was like in the old days.

  4. says

    I began to teach music composition, theory, orchestration, analysis seminars, etc., when I was 25. I graduated from Bard in 1868, went to Penn, then got a job at UC Davis, where I remained for 35 years. I found that my experiences with students changed dramatically over the years, and eventually the generation gap was so deep that I decided to retire and let the younger composer/professors gave their day in the academic sun. I think this must be a fairly universal phenomenon; the older teachers don’t necessarily get stale, but they have been teaching pretty much the same classes again and again, and the younger professors are so eager to make contact, both academically and personally with students closer to their own age.
    And that’s as it should be. I retired at 61 and at 64 now, I look back fondly on my career as a professor with great pride and happiness, and timed my exit just right. It’s wonderful to just be a composer.