The “Love Boat” analogy is a joke, but the sentiment is serious.

20 09 2011

I realize this blog has been something of a bummer lately, but you need to realize that I have colleagues who are far, far more depressed about the future than I am. I had a talk with an old hand around here over the weekend who insisted that he’d never want to be young again because their future is so bleak. He claims there are more people in China studying English than there are Americans, which I agree is a scary thought if true, but he also helped me recognize a possible way out of the humanities professor’s dilemma.

“If we define ourselves solely as teachers, we’ll be gone in twenty years,” my depressed colleague explained. I think there’s something to that. Scholarship is what separates tenure track from disposable labor. It’s the hardest row to hoe for tenure in the first place and therefore a sign of a university’s relative prestige. It’s also something which cannot be easily outsourced to China or elsewhere.

At the same time though, as I pointed out during that conversation, define ourselves solely as scholars and a new online teaching structure will be built up by going around us. “Oh, they’re too busy with all that deep thinking to learn about new technology,” your average administrator will say. “Let’s hire unemployed Ph.D.s to teach five classes at a time and nothing else. Then we can run the university any way we like. [Insert Snidely Whiplash laugh here.]” That’s the logical extension of the adjunctification of academia that’s been going on for decades now. Online education will just accelerate this process unless we tenured folks can make a good case for why what we do is better.

Perhaps the solution is to walk the fine line between teaching and scholarship more explicitly than most of us do. Stop reading your PowerPoint slides and teach what you study, or at the very least, explain how what you study affects your understanding of whatever it is you teach. Conveniently, I can use yesterday’s brutal blog-beating by Historiann of some tech dude at IHE to explain precisely what I mean.

He’s upset that historians don’t teach more narratives. Historiann wonders why anyone reading a narrative history needs an historian around at all:

Kim is probably right that a synthetic work aimed at a popular audience probably won’t be on a whole lot of college and university syllabi. But why should books aimed at a general audience be taught by professional historians, when students might instead read a more challenging book with a professor on hand to guide them through it? Students are perfectly free at any point of their college or post-collegiate lives to pick up a book like 1493 and read and enjoy it, just as Kim did.

Quite frankly, I don’t think I need to show my students how to read a book like 1493 or celebratory biographies of the so-called “Founding Fathers” by David McCullough. (I think I personally might die of boredom–and my number-one criteria for selecting books for my syllabi is whether or not *I* think they’re exciting or interesting and can stand to read them again.)

[Emphasis is mine.]

I actually have some sympathy with the tech dude on this one as I use a fair number of narrative works in class. Perhaps that’s because there are better narrative works available for modern U.S. history than there are for the Colonial Era. [David McCullough, for instance, is much better to my mind when writing about Teddy Roosevelt than he is about John Adams. Daniel Okrent’s Last Call is both serious history and an absolute joy to read. I’ll teach it for the first time in a few weeks.]

To my mind though, the key part of that smackdown is the part about having the professor there to guide students through the work. It’s our responsibility to explain to them why what they’re reading is actually interesting and our scholarship is what makes that possible. Like Julie your Cruise Director, we need to make sure they’re having as much fun studying history as we are teaching it.

A good teacher can also lead group activities that are both educational and interesting, not to mention virtually impossible to do online. When my wife was in college, she used to cook dishes from every country she studied in her world history courses and bring them into class. When I first heard David McCullough speak, I specifically remember him talking about how important it is to learn to read aloud. Just try doing that online!

If we don’t make a good case for our own usefulness, the value we have by being there in the room to help students learn, their vacation dollars will go elsewhere. If that happens, we’ll never be able to afford our own vacations again.




4 responses

20 09 2011
Mark R. Cheathem

Great post!

20 09 2011

Don’t tell, but I use Atul Gawande articles in my subject-related class. And some people use his work to inform their research. Just because someone can tell a good narrative doesn’t mean their work is useless! Even to professionals in the ivory tower…

21 09 2011
Hidden values | Music for Deckchairs

[…] apart) and university teachers who feel that online learning threatens something vital that must be defended with increasing stridency: A good teacher can also lead group activities that are both educational and interesting, not to […]

27 09 2011
The Humanities: They’re good for what ails you! « More or Less Bunk

[…] History grant program, I mean literacy as in reading and writing literacy. So what if there are more Chinese people learning English than there are people in America. It’s your first language! You can compete against that. Besides, just like Lydia Pinkham, we […]

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