Thursday, November 29, 2007

Dinner with the President

I have been feeling a little down about the project of the research university for a while, partly because I've seen, through teaching, what a raw deal so many students (particularly, or specifically, undergrads) get when they enter a high-profile research university like NYU, and partly because I've realized that my commitment to education, and my understanding of the goals of the academic project more broadly, are not commensurate with the goals of a large number of my peers and seniors. Before I expand on that, though, let me say that my experiences tonight, to my surprise, have given me fresh hope and new energy.

So here is the full story: About a week ago, I received an invitation to have dinner with the President of NYU, John Sexton. The opportunity was intriguing. I have become disillusioned with the conflicts between the NYU mission to be a university of New York in New York, and what, from the inside, at least, looks like a quest to gain status and rank at the expense of an engagement with the lived reality of this city, which is cosmopolitan in the best and worst ways. NYU, it seemed, was riding the elitist ivory tower image right up there with the most iconoclastic of the ivy league, attracting well-resourced undergrads in order to finance the graduate students who would teach them, while the big-name tenured faculty got on with the business of research. It isn't a terrible model, particularly if you are among the big-name tenured faculty, but for the students, particularly undergrads, who expect to have life-changing, though-altering experiences through their interaction with the best thinkers in the world, finding out that your intellectual heroes have little or no interest in teaching, or worse, great interest, but no time, due to the demands of the tenure track, can be somewhat disappointing. No wonder the academy and its discourse has such a bad reputation in the world out there. You need to be taught academic speak in order to understand the work being produced, but the people most qualified to teach you that would rather be talking to each other than to you, even if you are paying huge amounts of money for the privilege of their attention.

Don't get me wrong, this is not a critique of the faculty themselves. I have benefited immensely from a large number of outstanding intellectuals who have gone above and beyond to help me get to where I am. And I'm also benefiting greatly from the financial management of a university that can afford to fund my education for five years, in exchange for a few semesters of teaching. Heck, I'm one of the biggest beneficiaries of the system. But I'm also critical of that system because it encourages a view of education, the practice of teaching, that labels it the unfortunate baggage of an academic career. Teaching is the despised responsibility. Research and publication are the goal.

Quite frankly, as far as I can tell, there is no point in doing research and publishing work if one has no intention of teaching it. Knowledge is only as good as the use it is put to, and there are only two ways that the knowledge we produce can be put to good use: through our own application of it (i.e. "advocacy" or "public sphere work", both second-class considerations in the academy, and non-entities in the tenure process), or through our teaching of it to others, who will apply it. And we should be publishing so that our insights are available to those who we cannot teach directly.

One clarification here. I don't mean teaching according to the classical model of students sitting at the feet of the master. I mean teaching in the way that it works in a graduate seminar, or in the undergraduate sections I've been lucky enough to work with this semester. Teaching becomes about providing a set of materials and interpretive tools, and then letting the magic that is learning happen. Sometimes, that means that students make use of those tools right there with you, and all of you come away with something from the classroom encounter, and sometimes it means you demonstrate a few ways of using them, and let the students take that away and work their magic, either in private, or, if you're lucky, in the work you get to grade. Either way, no one is the end point of knowledge. It's all a great set of endless possibilities. How exciting!

A while ago, I read this document, published my John Sexton on the university website, in which he proposes a role for "university teachers", as distinct from research faculty. I agree with a lot of what he says, but I find myself opposing the document as a whole on the basis of his caveat that
[the university teacher] will be capable of appreciating and of participating in
the research enterprise. But he or she will have chosen to tilt the
personal mix of research and teaching more dramatically in the direction of
teaching than would be appropriate for one seeking tenure. The university
teacher will dedicate a full professional life to the university as an active
participant in the institution and a premier participant in the education of
students. The university teacher will not be given the lifetime position we
associate with tenure, but the possibility of remaining with the institution for
a whole professional career will be very real

So my big question is: why is it not appropriate for a faculty member who "tilts the mix" of research and teaching more strongly toward the side of teaching, not to get tenure? Why is teaching valued less strongly? What is the mission of the thinking individual if not to disseminate their thoughts? And how, other than through teaching, do we do that?

I didn't get to ask that question tonight, though I'm going to ask it via email once this crazy semester is at an end, in a few weeks time. But I did hear a whole lot from our university president that suggested to me that his goals for the production and dissemination of knowledge line up more strongly with my own than I had previously thought. At the very least, I encountered an openness to conversation about these matters that I had not expected, and that gives me some hope. I still think teaching is undervalued, but I no longer think that the university is all about money and prestige. And that is a big relief.

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