I picked up Mark Edmundson’s book Why Teach?: In Defense of a Real Education because of a Times review that mentioned his complaint about a college culture in which professors give slim homework assignments in return for good course evaluations from students. Boy, did that strike a nerve. Those student evaluations carry enormous weight. I do well on them. I’m a pretty good song ‘n’ dance professor. I bring up episodes from The Simpsons to make a point. I slip quotations from The Big Lebowski into my lecture and glance around the room to see who perks up. I am famous for my digressions, and occasionally a student evaluation will even admit, “His stories go wildly off-topic, but somehow they end up being relevant and adding to the discussion.” I like to hear my jaw rattle, and when allowed a captive audience I can get a little manic (as a lot of people who know me socially would have trouble believing).
But you know what? At Northwestern I studied medieval music with Theodore Karp, a round little man with a distinct whisper and a slow, deliberate air. He had no song ‘n’ dance in him at all. Students beyond the front row could hardly hear him. Yet he knew every music manuscript of the 11th through 16th centuries top to bottom, and the calm, munificent way he dignified every student question, no matter how misguided, with a meticulous and carefully qualified reply, at whatever length necessary, made him a glowing presence. He was the Yoda of musicology. I was devoted to him, and after his 15th century class knew that period almost as well as the 20th century. As an undergrad I had an aesthetics professor, too, whose pause-studded lectures could cure insomnia, but we had great discussions in his office afterward. And the music theory teacher whose knowledge I most pass on to my own students today was distinctly lacking in charisma. As I look back, I was impressed by academics who could keep a class laughing, but there wasn’t much correlation between how clever a lecturer a professor was and how much impact he or she had on me. It had to do with something else – perhaps a dogged determination to impart knowledge.
As a result, when I sit on faculty evaluation committees, I’m the one who ends up defending the boring but expert professors, the ones who get poor write-ups from non-majors who just took the class for a distribution requirement, but whose senior project advisees think of them as gods. And I’m a little ashamed of myself for feeling smug about my ability to entertain 19-year-olds. Though perfectly successful by the available metrics, I am not yet the type of professor I most admire.
One of the problems with college culture throughout the field, I think, is that teaching well is not rewarded much. Everyone smiles indulgently when a student raves about a professor, but it’s publishing (mostly), committee work (somewhat less), and professional honors that raise one’s profile in the institution. I resent switching my focus from my current book project to my next class, partly because it’s the book that’s going to impress my superiors and colleagues. That’s kind of sad. Edmundson is exercised about college devolving into a credential factory, in which we entertain young people for four years and then declare them qualified for a job without having changed their lives, transforming their sense of who they are. He waxes eloquent on the way we present to them the great minds of the past condescendingly, without acknowledging how much superior they were to most of us today. My school recently lost a wonderful music teacher who had come from studying and teaching in Asia, and she was horrified by how lazy American students were. She wouldn’t bend on her assignment workload, and her student evaluations suffered as a result; now she’s teaching in Beijing, where she’s more justly appreciated.
I emphasize that my own school is not extreme in this regard; Edmundson makes it clear, with reports from colleagues at schools all over, that college culture is fairly uniform, and heavily conditioned by mass culture and the internet. I’ve adapted too well to this undemanding milieu, and I’m trying to figure what to do about it. I cut the kids too much slack because they are just like I was at that age: arrogant, fragile, neurotic, and affronted by criticism. They come in having had their self-esteem artificially pumped up in high school, and their expertise in certain things I know little about – technology, pop culture, stuff they’re read about on Wikipedia – is indeed impressive (as, Edmundson insists, our liberal relativism makes us all too quick to admit; wisdom has been reduced to knowledge, knowledge to information, and all information is equal). Yet they’re also personally insecure enough that to hammer them about their cultural ignorance, their inability to think critically, would feel cruel. As one of my more perceptive colleagues put it (who paid his own way through college), “I’m resigned to the fact that I’m going to spend my career patting rich people’s kids on the head.” In one respect, many of them are not like I was: I am miserably astonished at how few of them really want to take pride in how good a theory or history paper they can write. Outside their performance major, meeting the bare minimum requirements is too often good enough. As a writer myself I want to push and push them to express themselves clearly and dig beneath the obvious facts, but pressing them too hard goes against the culture, and they’re already insulted by a B-plus that I thought of as a gift.
I do not remember being nearly as focused on social life as kids seem to be today. Parties were a terrible trial for me, and I was little enough socialized that solitude was often preferable (and still is). I’m embarrassed today to recall how many classes I skipped, but I was constantly reading and studying for self-improvement. I remember reflecting that very little learning actually took place in classrooms (a self-fulfilling prophecy in my case), and that the main thing I could absorb from my music profs was their attitude, their jaunty disregard for things that didn’t matter and their laser focus on things that did. That does seem to work for some students (and I seem to be the perfect teacher for the lackadaisical hot-shots who were most like me), but it doesn’t work for them all.
On the other hand, Edmundson – several years older than I am – remembers a college culture in the 1960s that was different from the one I found. He had professors who challenged him, risked offending him, and changed the way he thought. I went to Oberlin in the ’70s, and things, if he is correct, had changed. With the rapid rise in student population in the ’60s, a slew of new young faculty got hired quickly. As I think back, many of them – even some of my favorites – seemed breathtakingly irresponsible. One of my professors spent an entire class reading us a crazy satire of musicology articles someone had written. He was brilliant, and tremendously entertaining. He was also the teacher who warned me that Cage was a charlatan and minimalism a scam, but I didn’t think him less brilliant for that, only limited in perspective. It was not uncommon, at the time, for professors to require almost no work at all. There was a war in Vietnam; guys who flunked would get snapped up by the draft board (actually that ended the month before I turned 18); and grade inflation was through the roof. My GPA was 3.78, and I’ve always sworn I was in the bottom half of my class. In other words, if American college culture has really gone so far downhill, it seems to have begun happening after Edmundson went to school, and before I did.
Perhaps unfortunately, I developed my teaching style in conscious imitation of some of those professors, but I don’t dare be as slipshod as some of them were; the climate has changed. Nevertheless, I’m going to try to see how much more I can push my students this year, without injuring their delicate self-esteem. The student evaluations can no longer concern me, because I’ve exhausted all the honors the school can bestow. As the old-timers tell me, I’ve only got two promotions left: “emeritus” and “dead.” Unlike my more vulnerable younger colleagues, I no longer need the students to be my friends. I’m three times their age now, and I’d much rather they astonish me with their commitment, enthusiasms, and bursts of originality. Their lack of intellectual ambition is a perennial disappointment, and I’m going to try to focus on changing that, if I possibly can, rather than on keeping them entertained. I may even have to become boring.