An Open Letter to New Professors

Dear Assistant Professor:
Congratulations on your new job! Whether you’re a visiting professor or on the tenure-track, consider yourself among of the lucky. As someone who ran the academic treadmill for eight years—I taught at a community college, at two four-year liberal arts colleges, and at a state university until I landed a permanent position at a private university, where I am also Director of General Studies—I can appreciate your accomplishment more than most. Like many in the profession, I went to graduate school bushy-eyed and idealistic (a real-life Mr. Smith goes to Washington) so that I could become a professor and continue thinking about important questions. I wanted to inspire others to think about big ideas and to experience the transformative power of liberal education, as my professors had done for me.
Imagine my disappointment when I discovered that teaching is not that important. It won’t get you a job, and it certainly won’t get you tenure or promoted, even at most so-called “teaching colleges.” Chances are that it will not be as intellectually stimulating as you expect, and that after doing it for a few years you will become frustrated if not disillusioned or burnt out. Most college students believe that education is an entitlement and only care about grades and getting a degree. They are indifferent to courses that don’t bear on their majors or won’t help them get a job or into graduate or professional school. Having been coddled by parents at home and by teachers in grade school and high school, they are demanding, think they have a right to your total attention, and believe that you must always be there for them.
Most of your colleagues will see undergraduate teaching as a burden to escape from whenever possible, but one that must be endured because it’s their bread and butter, their meal ticket to do research, which is what they really care about. Research leads to publications, and publications to tenure and promotion and to advancement and recognition in the profession. No one ever gets rich or famous being a teacher. So they exploit the system and resent their students for not taking their courses seriously and interfering with their work. No college or university today, let alone any department, would proclaim what the University of Chicago proudly proclaimed at the beginning of last century: “We come to teach.” Professors who come to teach today do so at their peril.
Unfortunately academics don’t seem to care how this attitude affects undergraduate teaching and liberal education as a whole. It was, I think, William James who first warned about its corrosive effect more than a hundred years ago. In his essay, “The PhD Octopus,” James describes how a brilliant student of Philosophy in the Harvard Graduate School took a job as a teacher of English Literature at a sister-college. When the governors of the college discovered that he didn’t have his PhD, he was told that he must get the degree or the appointment would be revoked. The quality of the man and his ability to teach literature meant nothing to the school; the PhD meant everything. The college wanted to see those three magical letters behind the young professor’s name. James understood that the PhD, relatively new in his day, was created to stimulate original research and scholarship proper; but he also understood that the fetish for this “sacred appendage” was a “Mandarin disease” that would lead to “academic snobbery” in the profession. “Will any one pretend that its possessor will be successful as a teacher?” The whole thing, he adds, “is a sham, a bauble, a dodge whereby to decorate the catalogues of schools and colleges.”

The PhD – Not Enough
James’s warning has been echoed by, among others, Woodrow Wilson, Lawrence Lowell, Harold Laski, Robert Nisbet, Morris Kline, Jacques Barzun, and Anthony Grafton, but now even the PhD is not enough and there’s a new snobbery in the profession. The obsession is research and the bauble publications. As Grafton writes in The New Yorker Magazine (October 2006): “Why, when most of our graduate students are going to work as teachers, do we make them spend years grinding out massive, specialized dissertations, which, when revised and published, may reach a readership that numbers in the high two figures? These activities seem both bizarre and disconnected, from one another and from modern life, and it’s no wonder that they often provoke irritation, not only in professional pundits but also in parents, potential donors, and academic administrators.” Think about how many MAs and ABDs currently teach at colleges and universities or are hired as adjuncts, thus showing their ability to do the job.
Although the status of the PhD is not as inflated as that of the BA and the MA, not yet anyway, it is no longer proof of competence in one’s field; peer-reviewed books and articles demonstrate what the PhD once did, and departmental colleagues and administrators increasingly defer to publishers to determine a professor’s value in the academic marketplace (see Lindsay Waters’s Enemies of Promise and Mark Bauerlein’s “Professors on the Production Line, Students on Their Own”). The important thing, especially for an untenured professor, is that your name appears in print, preferably in recognized journals or with a reputable university press. Never mind that most scholarship merely ekes out information and is the kind of fact-grubbing that Kingsley Amis satirizes in the novel Lucky Jim.
Jim wrote the perfect article with the perfect title, which “crystallized the article’s niggling mindlessness, its funeral parade of yam-enforcing facts, the pseudo-light it threw upon non-problems. Dixon had read, or begun to read, dozens like it, but his own seemed worse than most in its air of being convinced of its own usefulness and significance.” To get a hearing in the marketplace of ideas academics must pump up the value of their work. Every article challenges current assumptions, every book is revolutionary, when in truth few are the result of long thought and discovery, and even fewer advance knowledge. Most academics publish for the sake of credentialing; that is to say, most publish for the sake of job security and recognition from colleagues and administrators. The profession calls this “scholarship” and thinks that by changing the name of the condition it has changed the condition.
Is it so surprising, then, that most published matter has a short shelf life? That it is mediocre at best—in language, thought, and aim—and hardly read? Cyril Connolly once defined literature as “the art of writing something that will be read twice,” but most academics are lucky if others read through their books or articles at least once. Even book reviewers rarely read academic books from cover to cover but usually confine themselves to the Introduction and the Conclusion and to whatever seems suitable in between. I knew a scholar who read academic books by their footnotes, saving himself the trouble of actually reading the text! But what’s the point? Why write text at all if other academics don’t actually read books but only take from them what they need so that they can write books which in turn few people will read? Why not simply catalogue our information or findings and list bibliographies?
We all know the little secrets of “scholarship” too, such as using others’ work rather than doing the work for ourselves, and taking credit for it; citing sources without having read them; lifting citations and quotations and sometimes translations from secondary sources without acknowledging the secondary sources from which they came. It is re-search, and not much different from what Francis Bacon observed in his day: “if one turns from workshops to libraries and marvels at the enormous variety of books one sees there, on examining and looking more carefully into the subject matter and contents of those books, one will surely marvel the other way; for seeing the endless repetitions, and how men keep doing and saying the same things, one will pass from admiration of variety to wonder at the poverty and scarcity of those things that have up to now possessed and occupied the minds of men.” This is still why most “scholarship” doesn’t last. It is new bottles for old wine.
I’m not disparaging genuine scholarship. As Montaigne said, “I love and honor learning as much as those who have it; and in its true use it is man’s most noble and powerful acquisition.” I revere great scholars like Aquinas and Scaliger, Bentley and Gibbon. I’m humbled by the massive erudition of a Mommsen who, as Mark Twain said, carried “the Roman world and all the Caesars in his hospitable skull” as easily as “that other luminous vault, the skull of the universe, carries the Milky Way and the constellations.” I’m awestruck by the great learning and output of C. S. Lewis, Harold Bloom, and Anthony Grafton.
Not the “Scholar” You Knew
A scholar used to invoke the image of the bookworm who amassed learning and worked on big problems and questions of great importance for years on end, writes Jacques Barzun, and the “true scholar might devote a lifetime to a large subject and publish on the brink of the grave.” Wittgenstein published only one book in his lifetime, and Arnaldo Momigliano never published a monograph at all, yet both (long dead) are still considered great scholars in their fields. Now every PhD must be a scholar and give ample proof of fecundity and sit on committees and perform all the other duties expected of modern academics and find time for course preparation, grading, mentoring, and actually teaching students.
But here’s the skinny. If you care about teaching, you will be forced to choose between it and scholarship because you won’t have adequate time for both class preparation and research. Something has to give, and invariably it will be your teaching because publications are the currency of the academic world. The more peer-reviewed books and articles you have, the more valuable you will appear to colleagues and administrators. You’ll be told that there isn’t a conflict between research and teaching, and that research informs teaching, but that’s simply not true. Few undergraduate courses are based primarily on a teacher’s original research, and very rarely does the kind of scholarship that gets published make its way into the classroom. You are trained as a specialist, you publish as a specialist, but you will be expected to teach more than your narrow specialty.
The obsession with research and the fetish for publishing has created two tiers in academic world, those who research and those who teach, with teachers on the bottom tier. Since teaching is secondary, most professors eschew the accolade of teacher, even if they are excellent teachers. Having demonstrated the ability to master a subject by obtaining the PhD, and perhaps even turned their dissertation into a book, they prefer to be recognized as scholars, when they might not be gifted as true scholars. Still they believe they are contributing to scholarship. They write book reviews and articles. They attend conferences, which gives the impression on the home front that they are keeping up with the latest research.
At a conference they might even present a paper during a session with half a dozen or so participants, including the commentator and other presenters. (Colleagues and administrators back home will never know, and they can add it to their CV.) Even better, they rub elbows with other academics and vie for the attention of the genuine scholars, who might give it to them, until someone more important comes along. At conferences, you’ll soon find out, if you haven’t already, you are a name tag. People don’t first look at you but at your name and institution. The next best thing to being recognized as an important scholar is to be affiliated with an institution that others have heard of. All this generates feelings of inferiority and a great deal of anxiety within the profession. Let’s face it, academics are just as status-conscious as other Americans (see the chapter on American intellectual life in Paul Fussell’s shrewdly perceptive book, Class).
Expectations of You? Going Up
The top tier of the academic world, like Marx’s bourgeoisie, control access to the means of production. They decide who gets jobs and tenure and promoted, how to allocate resources from salaries to research funds, and who gets published, as they are often reviewers and editors of journals. Like shopkeepers they possess a taxpayer mentality and demand tangible results, even when they have stopped being productive themselves. They might have a few reviews or articles to their names, but that’s usually because they’ve been in the game longer, not because they are necessarily genuine or better scholars. Most are one book wonders. They published their dissertation but haven’t been able to produce another book since graduate school.
Now they have the power to judge you, and it is usually by a higher standard of productivity. We “have an obviously unfair situation,” writes Lindsay Waters, “where people with few publications are in a position to demand from young ‘colleagues’ achievements they never managed.” During a job interview the chairman of a department admitted as much to me, and a former colleague serving on a hiring committee once candidly remarked that he wouldn’t be considered for the job for which he was interviewing candidates. “Hyping professional responsibility,” adds Waters, “is a mask for the fear of elders,” what Nietzsche saw as a vice of modern intellectuals. “The only justification the aged have for doing so is that they can, which is maddening because raising the bar has nothing intrinsic to do with academic inquiry.”
In the current environment Socrates, who wrote nothing, wouldn’t get a job, let alone tenure. Plato and Descartes—the subjects of many a doctoral dissertation – wouldn’t be awarded the PhD for their works, which display great and original thinking but not scholarship. Thoreau, Whitman, and Nietzsche wouldn’t get tenure because they had to pay to get some of their books published—and yet their writings are studied by scholars in a profession that typically looks down upon those who pay to get their work in print, even with respectable academic presses. (Don’t even think about publishing your manuscript with a so-called vanity press.)
Here’s more of the skinny. You will be expected to do original research and produce scholarship based on your findings, but you won’t get adequate funding to do it. True, most colleges and universities give faculty some money for professional development, but the amount typically ranges from $500 to $1500 a year, hardly enough to pay for yearly research trips and the conferences you are expected to attend. Other research grants and fellowships are out there, but their numbers are dwindling, and those you can apply for are competitive and not guaranteed. You can pay for research trips yourself, but as a young professional just getting started with other financial obligations, including repaying student loans, you probably won’t make enough money to do this. For this reason you might find yourself in the position of many other young professors who are forced to look for some other source of income.
Writing textbooks can be lucrative, but that can take years, and besides, the privilege is reserved for the recognized scholars in your field. Forget about trying earn money by making your work accessible and publishing with a trade press; popularized books don’t typically qualify as “scholarship” and are usually pooh-poohed by the profession—although I can’t imagine any academic who wouldn’t love to be a New York Times bestselling author. Like most other young professors you’ll probably opt to teach overloads or summer courses, but remember that this uses up time and energy that should be devoted to research and publishing, which is how you will get tenure.
Older professors, comfortable and secure, will remind you that we don’t do this for the money, and that it is difficult for any young professional to get started these days. I agree. It is also true that assistant professors typically draw salaries above the national median and receive other generous benefits like health insurance and pension plans at little or no cost to themselves. I know from experience that after living for years on a meager graduate student’s stipend, the salary and benefits of a first job seem like a windfall.
But none of this erases the fact that starting salaries for new PhDs in colleges and universities are well below the salaries of other professionals with similar education and training, or less in some cases (I’m thinking of the MBA). Despite entering the middle class, new professors still live in what in what Harold Laski once called a “shabby gentility” and Gilbert Highet a “genteel poverty.” Tuition has risen astronomically over the past twenty years but that hasn’t meant salaries for professors commensurate with their levels of education and training. Nor has it guaranteed them funding to do the kind of original research they are expected to do. You have the tenure gun pointed at your head, but teaching is not enough to get tenure; you are expected to do original research and publish, but you will have inadequate funding and time to do it. Be prepared for the conundrum.
The Creeping Professionalism
In his excellent book, Leisure: The Basis of Culture, Joseph Pieper reminds us that the word scholarship itself is derived from leisure, which in Greek is skole, in Latin scola, the English for “school” i.e. the place where we educate and teach. Culture itself depends on leisure, and leisure is not possible unless it is linked with culture. In this sense leisure means cultivating the intellect, which is the essence of scholarship—and of liberal education. “Thinking, too, has a time for ploughing and a time for gathering the harvest,” says Wittgenstein, who believed that philosophers should greet each other by saying, “Take your time.” One should not write a book or an article until one is quite certain of what one wants to say and that it will not produce more glut. “One should speak,” says Nietzsche, “only where one must not be silent.”
But to take the time that is necessary to investigate a big problem; to think about questions of great importance deeply and clearly and try to answer them thoroughly; to write up your findings in plain, simple and direct prose; above all else, to take teaching seriously and devote time to developing your own methods and style—all this is difficult, if not impossible, for new and untenured professors in the current academic climate. Colleagues and administrators want tangible and practical results—i.e. publications—because, as one former colleague said to me, they want to make sure they haven’t hired a lemon. “To say, when you are at work, ‘Let’s have done with it now,’ is a physical need for human beings,” says Wittgenstein; but it is absolutely necessary “to go on thinking in the face of this need that makes it such strenuous work.” The administrator or colleague with the taxpayer mentality doesn’t understand this. He is used to finitude and expects everything to be done with quickly and to see the results. He is derisive of the thinker who takes his time. It’s bad enough when the general public, ignorant of what we do, sneer at us for not “working for a living” or producing “practical” results, but it’s worse when the same vulgar perception becomes part of the academic mindset.
All this has created a new kind of professionalism that is increasingly prevalent in the academic world. In Representations of the Intellectual, Edward Said appropriately defines professionalism as “thinking of your work as an intellectual as something you do for a living, between the hours of nine and five with one eye to the clock, and another cocked at what is considered to be proper, professional behavior—not rocking the boat, not straying outside accepted paradigms or limits, making yourself marketable and above all presentable.” Leisure now means being free from the job and having time for entertainment—the day’s work done, even professors want to go home and turn on the TV.
Even worse, professionalism promotes conformity because it inhibits the willingness of new and untenured professors to stand firm and alone. Let’s face it, genuine academic freedom cannot exists in an environment that forces you to think small, to constrict your research and thinking, to specialize. Overly specialized research topics are practical because they are more manageable and easier to publish: never mind that young scholars become like brick-layers filling mortar between bricks: never mind that overspecialization severely narrows the mind and outlook by impairing their ability to investigate really big themes and use their discoveries to illuminate and expound entire subjects. This affects not only what we teach but how we teach. It wastes time and energy because, forced to devote our research to the narrow confines and minutiae of overly specialized topics, we produce scholarship that is out of sync with broad instruction in the liberal arts and what we actually do as teachers in the classroom. It also curbs enthusiasm and controversy in the classroom because tenure and promotion and job security are at stake.
You might say I’m exaggerating, but why, then, do so many untenured professors refuse to speak up in faculty senate or express contrarian opinions in departmental meetings? Why do so many essayists writing for The Chronicle of Higher Education use pseudonyms? They aren’t keeping silent or hiding their identity because they believe in the mission of the university or the ideals of liberal education, but because they fear that a colleague or administrator might not like what they say and blackball them when it comes time for tenure or promotion. Even teachers “who really do confront students, who provide significant challenges to what they believe,” writes veteran professor Mark Edmundson of the University of Virginia, often “generate more than a little trouble for themselves. A controversial teacher can send students hurrying to the deans and counselors, claiming to have been offended.” So much for the duty of the intellectual to tell the truth and have the courage and readiness to carry on rational inquiry wherever it may lead, as Paul Baran famously put it.
In closing, let me add that I have written this letter, not to be officious or patronizing, but to share with you some of the things I have learned since graduate school that no one told me about. It is not, however, cause for resignation, but a call to action. I believe that as the next generation of scholar-teachers we must refuse to throw up our hands and surrender to those who promote conformity in scholarship, the curriculum, and the classroom. We can, of course, play the game and go about our business as usual, or we can try to do something about it. “Those who have wanted to attain some greater excellence,” says the wise Montaigne, “have not been content to await the rigors of Fortune in shelter and repose, for fear she might surprise them inexperienced and new to the combat; rather they have gone forth to meet her and have flung themselves deliberately into the test of difficulties.” It is up to us restore the idea of the university and show what liberal education can do. I wish you all the best in the upcoming year.


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