Beside/s: What’s the point of a professor?

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about what a professor is and does and what their relationship to their students should and/or could be. This exploration is highly personal.  I’m in the midst of a lengthy book/story project in which I critically reflect on my past life as a Professor and struggle with how and if I want to ever teach or be an educator again. Is there space for my type of teaching, where I am not the Authority/Expert who bestows knowledge on my passive students, but does something else? What is that “something else’? Does it count as teaching?

In the midst of my ruminations, I encountered two online essays that prompted/provoked me to push at the limits of my tolerance for the idea of Professor as Expert and Supreme Authority and reminded me, once again, how embedded arrogance and hubris are in academic culture. In anger and frustration I wondered, Is it possible to be a (flourishing) professor without being an Asshole?

Mark Bauerlein’s What’s the Point of a Professor?
Keith M. Parsons’ Message to My Freshman Students

These two essays bothered me a lot. I was angered by their wistful and exasperated nostalgia for a time when Professors were gods, revered for their wisdom and adored by their students. And saddened by their contempt for their students as spoiled and lacking in proper values. I was so bothered that I spent the rest of last week thinking and trying to write about them.

I became stuck, jotting down page after page of notes (14 pages so far!) with ideas of how to respond, but never being able to convert those notes into a cogent argument. Did I want to crank about Bauerlein’s and Parsons’ arrogance? Challenge their elitist vision of who/what a professor is? Reflect on how their toxic hubris was too familiar to me, having witnessed it repeatedly at the “fancy” research University where I taught for almost six years?

Yesterday morning I came to a realization: I’m tired of spending time with these arrogant assholes. I want to move on to better ideas and more compelling reflections on the state of the University and the role of professors. I want to read other perspectives besides this dominant narrative of the Professor as god and their students as spoiled and lazy brats. So I read Tav Nyong’o’s post on Bully Bloggers, Zareena Grewal’s op-ed for The Washington Post and Sara Ahmed’s article for The New Inquiry. 

All of these articles are written by professors who don’t envision their students as lazy, entitled and ignorant. They see them as courageous and smart resistors who are fighting back against institutions that do violence to them and that hypocritically preach values that they consistently fail to practice.

Tav Nyong’o’s The Student Demand
Zareena Grewal’s Here’s What My Yale Students Get
Sara Ahmed’s Against Students

I was inspired by these articles to move beyond my anger and frustration with the arrogant asshole narrative to think deeply about the role/duties of the professor, the relationship they have with their students and the values that they collectively (students and professors…and even the administration) develop and practice within academic spaces. I’m still unsure about how or if I fit in as a teacher or whether the Academy is worth fighting for, but I feel like I’m on a worthwhile path of reflection, one that will be more valuable than my initial cranking about Bauerlein and Parsons.

As I keep thinking about these issues, I have much more to write. For now, I conclude this post by placing a passage from Ahmed beside/s (as in, next to and in addition to) Bauerlein’s claims as one possible answer to the question in his title: What’s the point of a professor?

In the final lines of her critical essay about why students resist and the academic culture that is against them, Sara Ahmed writes:

We need to support, stand with, and stand by, those students who are fighting to survive hostile institutions.

It is our job (Ahmed).

Supporting, standing with and standing by students. That’s the point of a professor.