This morning I was reading the comments about the firing of a university professor in Missouri. This post is not about that situation. What I was astounded by were the comments people were making about university professors. Here are just some of the lovely words: stupid, dumb, libtards, ideologues, brainwashers, faithless, godless, lazy, cushy jobs, all deserve to be fired, not worth our time, not worth our money and I could go on and on.
It’s not the first time I’ve railed against the way people talk about this profession. But, maybe I do not do enough to educate people about what exactly the job of a university professor entails. Maybe I do not do enough to dispel the stereotypes (like we are all sitting in our ivory towers, collecting a pay check doing nothing). But, then again maybe this wouldn’t do any good because it seems that these days we are happier with our over-generalizations of the world and explaining the world through sound bites and memes. I’ve certainly seen it with other professions. But, I’m going to try.
I’ll tell you this much. These perceptions of our profession matter as we are going through this budget battle. It matters if our legislators believe these stereotypes because they will make decisions based on those and not the reality of the university professors across this state that devote their lives to educating our young people so they can compete in the 21st century economy. Research tells us that it is often perception, not fact that rules the halls of policy making.
I first want to start with the perception that we do not want to be here. Or better yet the perception we do not want to be in the classroom teaching. Like any profession I encountered some that were better at the art of teaching than others. But, they always had time for me and were passionate about the material they were teaching. I encountered professors that did not spend much time in the classroom. Why? Because they were doing brilliant research and making a difference in our social world in that way. They were making the key medical breakthroughs. They were inventing the next round of engineering technology. I also encountered wonderfully passionate graduate teaching assistants (who, by the way, contrary to public perception all have a Master’s degree and are working on a PhD. They are not just some person off the street we stick in the classroom. In fact, as a starting point they all have more education than many of the hard working teachers in K-12). Are they young? Mostly. Are they inexperienced? Yes. But show me a profession where new people are not inexperienced. I also work with wonderfully committed adjunct faculty who, in some cases are practitioners in their field, but in other cases are the under-appreciated and under rewarded backbone of our universities. . In my lengthy educational career I’ve encountered 1 professor that I thought should probably retire and their heart was just not in it anymore. I’ve encountered professors that probably needed some work on their social skills. I’ve encountered professors that are not always the best communicators. But, I do believe every profession in our economy has the same. It’s called working with people with different personalities.
I’ve debated hard ideas in the classroom as a student and as a professor. It is not brainwashing to talk about different perspectives. It is not brainwashing to ask students to consider how empirical research matches up with public perception. It is not brainwashing to ask people to stop over generalizing. It is not brainwashing to ask students to critically reflect upon the messages in the media. It’s not brainwashing to help them develop good analytical skills. It is not brainwashing to teach in an in-depth way about the effects of social structures on our daily lives. It’s called education.
My colleagues work HARD to provide relevant experiences, internships, study abroad, community based research, community partnerships, for our students. These things do not just happen. It requires us to be in the community making connections so that we can place our students. I spend just as many hours evaluating the quality of an argument made as I do correcting grammar, helping to make them better writers, providing opportunities for public speaking, teaching basic math so we can do statistics. I spend time in my office talking about ideas one on one. I spend hours preparing good lectures, activities, and readings for students. More times than I can count I was quickly restructuring class because of a major event in the world that they needed a space to discuss what happened. I also spend a good deal of my time as a cheerleader telling them they CAN do this and they CAN become a college graduate. I spend time connecting them with career counseling, financial aid, mental health services, been called on to accompany students to a difficult court hearing, written dozens and dozens of letters of recommendation, cried with students who’ve experienced loss, jumped for joy as they’ve accomplished their goals. And, in my spare time I also do research. I serve our local community and university in my position as professor. I serve on boards, committees, attend multiple events just to support the residents of our city. I do all of this in the capacity of a professor. The idea that we are all sitting around “doing nothing” is preposterous. The idea that we only teach 1 class a semester is ridiculous. We wouldn’t be educating the sheer number of students we do if every professor in the United States had a teaching load of 1 class per semester. Professors that have that kind of load are in their labs the rest of the time WITH students. Just because they are not in the traditional classroom does not mean they are not teaching.
Let me say again—I am modeling the experience I had in higher education from my Bachelor’s Degree, Master’s degree and PhD. My colleagues are modeling the same thing. We learned this from our professors. I am listening to the activity going on in my halls right now. I’m hearing advising appoints happening, calls being made to bring more classes to our students, and I am about to start a morning of skype and conference calls with my students who I teach online as I do every Friday morning. I am modeling what I experienced—the great professors I had that did the same for me. And, I’m not giving this laundry list of what we do as a list of complaints. I am giving it for people to understand the role we play.
If you do not know what is happening in our halls of higher education—ask. Visit. Come see for yourself.
Do we get this business of higher education right all the time? Absolutely not. Are we sometimes our own worst enemies? Sure. Do we heatedly debate the ideas of what higher education should look like? Yes. Does this debate get ugly sometimes? Yes. Do we have people that do not always represent our profession in the best light? Yes. As an institution do we need to be more flexible to change? Yes. Do we work with people we do not always agree with? YES. Do we sometimes view the world differently? Yes. But, is that really a terrible thing?
Do not take the over-generalizations and stereotypes as the measure of what we do. Do not take that as a measure of the amazing women and men who walk into the classroom every single day to teach the young adults who will be leading our future businesses, designing the latest engineering and medical innovations, solving our hard social problems, policing our streets, teaching our children, making judicial decisions, and creating new ideas about how we want to be as a society. And, when you hear these misconceptions–speak up. Just as you should when you hear anyone lumping every single person into a single category. SPEAK UP. SAY SOMETHING.
And by the way, I just got off the phone with a former student who just had to call to tell me about a new idea she’s had to work on and see if I had some more information that I could share. THAT is what your professors in higher education are supporting and doing.