Monday, November 23, 2015

When Teachers Don't Matter

In "When Teachers Don't Matter," Mark Bauerlein discussed two changes in academia: the new role of the professor, and the lack of relationships between professors and students.

Bauerlein regrets that a professor is no longer a presence, the seat of knowledge, an authority, or a moral exemplar. As a professor in an engineering school, I see the same trend happening, more slowly perhaps, but I do not mourn. Because more effective channels exist, the professor should not be the source who transmits knowledge or use that position as the basis for authority. Bauerlein claims that professors are now mere functionaries, accreditors, and graders, but this overlooks the fact that a professor designs the course in which the students learn. Students take courses to learn how to do something (such as how to analyze a poem, design a bridge, or live a good life), and professors must design courses in which students learn. A course is not a chance to admire a professor, it is an activity in which a professor helps students learn. The role of the professor has changed, but it is not diminished. Indeed, it may have increased. The public admires designers of video games, computers, and other technology products; as the importance of course design attracts more attention, students will admire the professors who design and lead the most effective courses (whether or not there are lectures from the front of the classroom).

Bauerlein also laments the lack of relationships between professors and students. This is an important insight, and students who fail to talk with the professors who teach their courses are losing an important opportunity. In general, this reflects a lack of community, which can occur when a school becomes too concerned with its output and productivity, and professors consequently become too concerned with writing proposals and papers. There are examples, however, of communities today. In A Whole New Engineer, David Goldberg and Mark Somerville described the communities formed at Olin and Illinois, and I have had the pleasure of belonging to (and teaching courses for) a learning community here at Maryland. In these communities professors can become mentors.

Good student-professor relationships can help students learn and alter their lives. Even as instructional strategies change, forming such relationships is still possible.