The dirty secret about professors

September 05, 2006|By Alan Rosenthal

I was having lunch in a small Washington restaurant several years ago when I happened to overhear a conversation at the next table. It soon became apparent that the two men speaking were professors at prestigious private universities who were spending a sabbatical leave in the nation's capital.

The gentlemen both confessed their distaste for teaching, especially to undergraduates. One said that he would be "suicidal" if he were forced to teach freshmen or sophomores.

As a university professor, I was appalled by this attitude. My disgust turned to outrage when it dawned on me that these two were probably considered academic stars on their respective campuses.

Here is higher education's dirty little secret: All too often, many of the renowned professors who give their prestigious institutions their sterling reputations are unwilling or unable to teach properly.

Perhaps my restaurant neighbors had had no real interest in teaching from the very beginning, even though studies have shown that a large majority of professors in the United States believe that teaching is their primary responsibility.

Perhaps not. The other shoe fell soon after.

My two delinquent academics bemoaned the "terrible" pressure to publish and/or to win grants at their schools. They felt that good teaching was a waste of time, because it was neither recognized nor rewarded.

In no other line of work does so important a responsibility count for so little in terms of advancement.

I wonder if high school applicants to top-tier schools are aware of this. I wonder how their parents would react if they knew they were paying top dollar essentially for a brand name, and for an education that could be equaled or bettered at a good public university or a small liberal arts college - and at a lower cost.

This is not to denigrate the importance of scholarship. Continuous learning and research are vital in maintaining command of one's field. Nor do I mean to belittle the modest number of scholars who publish prolifically and who are also gifted and dedicated teachers. They are to be admired.

However, the intense pressure to publish has unfortunate consequences for teaching, because there are only 24 hours in the day and one has only so much time and energy.

Several years ago, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching issued a report that was highly critical of the nation's well-known private research universities for all but abandoning their pedagogical responsibilities to undergraduates. And yet the allure of these institutions remains strong. A Harvard degree, to cite the most prominent example, is widely considered by the public to be the Holy Grail of educational achievements.

But is it? Is an Ivy League education, or one received at another high-profile research-oriented school, significantly superior to what a student can get elsewhere? Is it really worth the terrifying cost?

Not necessarily, I say. Many, many undergraduates would be better served at a less-glamorous institution.

Anecdotal evidence abounds, both from students and faculty. One bright Harvard graduate wrote in the Atlantic Monthly that he had learned little of enduring value at his university. He complained of "unengaged professors and overburdened teaching assistants." He related that a majority of students received A's or A-minuses in their courses whether they truly deserved them or not. There was also little guidance on course selection. Upon graduating, he looked back and "felt cheated."

At Brown, another university that has attained mythical status among high school guidance counselors, there are few delineated requirements. Students are offered a buffet of courses, even in many major fields of study. In my view, this is tantamount to a dereliction of professional duty.

In his book Class, Paul Fussell suggests that the only type of aristocracy that exists in the United States is educational in nature. That is, our native grandees go to the "best" schools and derive their power and prestige from these affiliations. They look down on the peons who suffer the indignity of having graduated from a state university or other such "mediocrity."

America has largely bought into the myth. Some parents, I fear, care most about a sexy college name for their kids to put on their r?sum?s.

To parents of students who are now considering various colleges, I offer this advice: First, disregard the college rankings in magazines and other publications. They are fiction. Next, when you visit schools, ask who will be teaching your children, what they will be taught, and how they will be taught. Inquire about the university's view of mentoring, individual attention and the accessibility of its faculty - all of its faculty. Above all, try to find out how committed the school is to creative and conscientious teaching.

After all, it's your money.

Alan Rosenthal is associate professor emeritus of modern languages and linguistics at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. His e-mail is rosentha@umbc.edu.

Columnists Trudy Rubin and Clarence Page will return Friday.

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