Wisconsin governor Scott Walker has taken some heat for claiming that “it’s time for faculty and staff to start thinking about teaching more classes and doing more work.” I think that much of the criticism Walker has drawn is justified. While UW’s own survey research, suggesting that its professors work more than sixty hours per week, cannot be taken at face value, professors, whether they are at big research universities or small liberal arts colleges, have plenty to do.
They teach classes, which entails extensive preparation, grading, and communication with students outside of the classroom. They conduct research, which often entails supervising and mentoring students, as well as grant writing. And they serve both on the committees involved in governing colleges and universities and, informally, in various ways, from bringing in guest speakers to advising the campus newspaper. As in all professions, one finds people who are not conscientious, but those who actually do their jobs work hard, often for considerably less than other professionals earn. Still, as two different commentators pointed out this week, Walker’s heavy-handed comments may point to a real problem.
In the Chronicle of Higher Education, Jacques Berlinerblau, a professor of Jewish civilization at Georgetown University, observes that research universities like his make every effort—Berlinerblau has to teach only three courses per year—to release professors from teaching responsibilities. Insofar as everyone benefits from the pursuit of knowledge, even if the case is harder to make out for the study of Chaucer than it is for the study of antibiotics, we need not necessarily be troubled by the light teaching loads of professors at places like Georgetown, especially since many of them are superb, hardworking teachers and mentors. But by a kind of contagion, or because of a race for prestige, the emphasis on research at these powerhouses trickles down to colleges and universities whose primary function is teaching undergraduates. Although I think Berlinerblau exaggerates the case some, it rings true to me when he says that although “teaching undergraduates is, normally, a large part of a professor’s job, success in our field is correlated with a professor’s ability to avoid teaching undergraduates.” We live, he says, “by the unspoken creed that teaching is … not really what one is supposed to be doing. Conversely, doing a lot of teaching is construed as a sign that one is not doing well.”
Berlinerblau thinks that by neglecting teaching, or at least by not thinking more carefully about the drawbacks of a system that devalues teaching, he and his colleagues have left themselves “fatally exposed” to politicians who question the value of a college education, and to educational entrepreneurs—typically bearing technological solutions to the high cost of education—who argue that they can’t do much worse at teaching undergraduates than professors are presently doing.
Sam Goldman, writing for Minding the Campus, calls Walker’s comments “lazy and ill-informed.” But he too thinks that there is a “good case” to be made that the “labor model on which the modern research university depends,” whatever its merits for a Harvard or M.I.T., is “financially unsustainable and educationally counterproductive.” Moreover, there is “nothing crazy” about the desire of many students and parents that professors “spend more time in the lecture hall and less in the lab or archive,” though Goldman insists, importantly, that actually catering to that desire requires changing the orientation of universities—and having fewer institutions that aspire to be first-rate research universities—not just tacking additional courses onto a professor’s schedule.
At least some colleges and universities that presently pride themselves on research will probably, in a competitive environment, have to persuade potential students and their parents that their primary mission is to teach. But Berlinerbrau’s piece touches on one additional problem. Speaking particularly of the humanities, Berlinerbrau concedes that “we erred … in politicizing inquiry to the extent that we did” and in bringing the “same dense and ideologically tinctured brand of” theory to bear on “our vast canon of texts and traditions.” Anyone who has been following the debate over the boycott-Israel movement on campus will understand that more teaching is not necessarily better if what’s being taught in classrooms is, for example, a simpleminded theory, barely, if at all, distinguishable from propaganda, that captures Ferguson and Palestine as two aspects of a single colonial and racist movement.
Goldman, to his credit, has written before of the case campus conservatives could make with other lovers of our “cultural inheritance” in favor of the liberal arts as precisely opposed to propaganda. Writers “like Tolstoy evade contemporary political categories” and pose questions that challenge any moral, political, or aesthetic commitments.” Some such robust defense of what is to be taught, and not only an emphasis on teaching, is needed. Merely giving further lip service to the amorphous category of “critical thinking,” or imagining, as one writer purporting to be an enthusiast for the liberal arts did this week, students as “content creators” and professors as “cognitive coaches” is unlikely to assuage the fears of those, both within and outside of the field of higher education, that we have lost our way.