What's a professor to do?

Ray Stevens

March 13, 1991|By Ray Stevens

PROFESSORS aren't held in the esteem we used to hold them. Not long ago, a Sun writer commented, "Johnny can't write -- and neither can his prof." An Evening Sun essayist lamented the pernicious effect of the "publish or perish" syndrome, where professors are required to grind out meaningless scholarship to survive in college and university teaching. Such scholarship, we are told, is usually ill-conceived, ill-written and perhaps dyspeptically submitted for publication.

On the one hand, a commentator scourges the inability of professors both to write and to teach their students to write; on the other hand, an opponent of most scholarly writing contends that professors should not even be required to submit their ideas and essays to peer review for evaluation. The former apparently finds little but slovenliness in academic writing, while the latter apparently believes that academics should not even bother to test ideas in the public forum, which is the primary justification for publication.

Alas, the disintegration of learning; what, pray tell, are poor professors to do?

A curmudgeon with some experience both in the marketplace and the classroom might reverse the charge and question: What can one expect when universities admit people who are not qualified to attend? When college communications programs do not recommend courses in literature as electives? When standardized tests become the norm? When business and other professional interests replace most liberal arts learning? When students are indifferent? When work habits are so poor that we have lost our competitive edge as a nation? When our national leaders do not even know what a balanced budget is?

But such a response would answer broadside with broadside. More temperate writers should address the topics raised by the commentators referred to above.

First, the implication that ill-written and slovenly scholarship fills many journals needs examination. Of the many hundreds of scholarly journals in existence, how many essays by how many authors in how many disciplines have the critics of academic writing actually analyzed stylistically, and what criteria were used for analysis?

No doubt slovenly scholarship exists; certainly poor writing occasionally slips by peer reviewers. Perhaps some editors believe that the passive voice and the verb "to be" are the only permissible verbal constructions; and undoubtedly some publications are so heavily invested in propaganda that jargon and critical biases take precedence over rational discussion.

But to impugn academic writing in general is to impugn the integrity of the many editors of journals who take their responsibility seriously. Many journals have at least three reviewers in addition to the editor. If something slips by, readers -- most of whom also take writing and scholarship seriously -- react immediately. Most responsible journals have similar procedures.

Academic review works for people who, having completed graduate programs for college teaching, understand the purpose that education. But academe is gracious enough to allow for those who disagree with these assumptions. Some colleges recognize that only good teaching needs to be rewarded, and that professional scholarship submitted for peer review and designed to teach peers is not necessary.

Often lost in the verbiage, however, is the purpose of the discipline of the Ph.D. degree, which is the normal entry requirement for teaching in the liberal arts and sciences, and for performance in many professional disciplines. It is primarily a research and writing degree. The course work prepares one to continue to study and to write -- as well as to teach -- after graduation. The Ph.D. implies commitment to the whole profession, not only to students in a classroom. Otherwise, the doctor of arts degree, advanced as an alternative to Ph.D. programs some quarter-century ago, would have become a dominant force in colleges and universities by now.

Unfortunately, the system breaks down when focus is lost. Some live only to publish; some live only to teach in the classroom; some aspire to the proverbial good life of a latter-day Mr. Chips; some consider the Ph.D. process merely a rite of passage that entitles them to a comfortable life with few disturbances; some scorn undergraduate teaching -- to the extent that one department recently left a university en masse, its teachers carrying their graduate students and their long resumes with them; and others retreat at the very thought of submitting an essay for peer review, often questioning the motives of those who do.

But some take their undergraduate introduction to Aristotle seriously, believing that there might be a golden mean somewhere between all or nothing in writing and teaching. The best teaching and writing occur when the two coincide. Johnny would be well advised to enroll in a college or university where professors practice what they teach.

Ray Stevens is a professor of English at Western Maryland College.

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