Mark Bauerlein: What’s a Professor For?

Aug 25, 2015 by


An Interview with Mark Bauerlein: What’s a Professor For?

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

1) Mark, I have known you for years – but for our readers- can you briefly tell us about your education and experience?

I earned a doctorate in English at UCLA in 1988, submitting a thesis on Walt Whitman’s poetry and literary theory. I joined the Emory English department a year later and have taught there ever since. I devoted my research to standard academic matters, immersing myself in current scholarship and theoretical debates, going to conferences, reading manuscripts for presses, etc., but around 2000 turned my attention to more public matters such as the relation of the humanities to American culture. I joined the National Endowment for the Arts in 2003, serving for two years under Chairman Dana Gioia, where I led research projects on public matters such as population research on arts participation. From then on, I devoted more time to publishing in magazines and newspapers and trade presses than in academic journals.

At the same time, I turned attention away from graduate instruction and toward undergraduate instruction, especially at the freshman and sophomore levels. I believe that humanities research has steadily distanced itself from public audiences and from undergraduate studies, to the detriment of the disciplines. That focus is obvious in my recent work such as The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future; Or, Don’t Trust Anyone Under 30 (2008) and The State of the American Mind (co-edited with Adam Bellow–2015).


2) You recently published a piece in the New York Times. What was it about ?

The essay was about the changing status of the professor, who has decayed into nothing more than an accreditor. We assign tasks and give grades–that’s all. Increasingly, students want nothing more. That’s what the survey data show. More than half of all students are quite happy never to talk to a teacher outside of class. And professors are all too comfortable with the attitude. After all, it saves them time. The towering mentor who was a moral authority (one whom students might rebel against as much as emulate) is gone.

3) You seem to bemoan the lack of contact between instructors and professors and students. Has it changed over the past 10, 20, 30, 40 years?

We don’t have strong data on how often students mingled with professors going back to the 60s, but we do have good evidence on pertinent academic aims. In 1967, 86 percent of students aid that “developing a meaningful philosophy of life” was an essential objective of college, while less than half of that percentage ranked “being very well off financially” as essential. Today, the first number has fallen to 45 percent, while the second has soared to 82 percent. It hardly needs to be said that a student out for money isn’t going to spend too much time sitting in an English professor’s office pondering Hamlet’s dismay.

As for today’s numbers on student-faculty engagement, 33 percent of first-year students report never speaking to their teachers outside of class, while 42 percent do so only sometimes. Senior aren’t much better, with 25 percent at Never and 40 percent Sometimes.

4) How much responsibility does a professor have to encourage research, writing, and ( gasp ! ) thinking?

It is all his or her responsibility. Of course, students today have all kinds of anti-intellectual pressures in college. All the amenities, the social life, drinking, sports, sex . . . they draw students steadily away from books and ideas and art. Well, professors have to work harder at motivating students to care. So, they should assign in-office tutorials, demand more homework exercises for every class session, call students out for absences, and make them speak in class. It’s a pain for us, yes, and we didn’t have to work so hard at instilling academic habits, but that’s the reality, and we must face it.

5) Although mentoring is not part of a professor’s contractual duties- some do it and do it well- and others seem to ignore it. What do we need to do to encourage robust, sincere interaction between faculty and students?

A simple rule for humanities courses (I can’t speak for the sciences): Everyone must have a college-wide requirement of out-of-class contact hours with teachers, teaching assistants, and tutors. Build into every syllabus a component of one-on-one engagement. Make students perform in front of a single instructor, and grade them accordingly.

To encourage professors in this, let’s alter the hiring and promotion guidelines so that student engagement counts a bit more and published research counts less. We already have enough humanities research in production every year. A lot less of it would both free professors up to do more mentoring, and it also might improve the quality of humanities research (which is generally dreadful).

6) Often, I heard a professor say ” You should read this book ” in response to a student’s question. How important is that simple intervention?

Sounds like a cop-out to me, unless the student is one of those special kids who is already immersed in books and will take the advice seriously. That reply make work with graduate students, but not with 90 percent of the undergraduates in America today.

7) Now, writing seems to be one of those tedious, laborious skills that students dislike. How can we turn this around with some one to one time?

First of all, let’s change the focus from writing-as-identity and writing-as-expression and writing-as-a-political-act to what Gerald Graff calls “arguespeak.” [;_ylu=X3oDMTByNXM5bzY5BGNvbG8DYmYxBHBvcwMzBHZ0aWQDBHNlYwNzcg–/RV=2/RE=1439935271/RO=10/]

Students need a different mode of instruction, and Graff has it right.

To support that, let’s turn many of those in-office visits into revision sessions. I do it all the time. Students bring two copies of their rough drafts to me. We go over the efforts sentence by sentence, word by word, comma by comma, and make changes together. it can be grueling, and one must expect slow progress over the weeks. But it is crucial that teachers show students how the revision labor works. You must get involved in their writing as it happens.

8) How much writing do YOU require and what gauntlet do you put them through?

Generally, for sophomores and up, I have them do short papers every other week, and I have them bring each one in for revision work. For first-year students, I assign a 3-page paper every week, and do revision work, too. Also, these papers have to be written by hand, preferably in cursive. Each class ends up writing about 40-45 pages of final copy by the end of the semester. This does not include homework assignments and exams.

9) Moral, ethical, legal and political issues—how much should an economics Professor or English professor or any professor for that matter be involved?

I’m not sure what you mean by “involved.”

10) Recently you published a chapter in a quite excellent book on the humanities- What was that chapter about and who published it ?

The volume is called The Humanities in 2015, published by Nova Science and edited by someone named Michael Shaughnessy. My essay is entitled “The Best Argument for the Humanities.” The point there is that defenses and justifications of humanistic study on any grounds other than the greatest humanistic objects themselves is a dilution and a deflection. The more we talk about critical thinking and other higher-order cognitive skills, about cultivating sensitivity and toleration, about awareness of others, blah blah blah, the more outsiders turn us off. But the more we talk about Achilles gloating over the dying Hector, the first three minutes of Wagner’s Tristan and that haunting chord, Bernini’s Daphne in the midst of transformation, the camera wandering through the Amberson mansion . . . the stronger our appeal. We shouldn’t say, “Here you will learn good critical thinking skills.” Instead, we should say, “Here, you will see and hear the greatest stuff ever. It will change your mind, your taste, your feelings.”

11) What have I neglected to ask?

Do the humanities have a future? Certainly, but it will be a boutique operation. The era of the humanities as the center of liberal education is over.

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