I’ve often joked with friends and colleagues that professors ought to wear academic regalia to class every day. The thing is, I really do believe it–or at least that we should wear some sort of sign or badge, not of “naked” authority, but of our discipline, of disciplinarity itself. If that would turn us into a kind of priesthood, so be it: our worst problem, at least in English and certainly in the teaching of academic writing, is that students don’t buy in–don’t believe we have much of anything to offer them. We need to act as if what we do is special.
Our students are, in my view, starved for discipline, and I think we regularly disappoint them concerning it. Of course, as people grow up, most adjust their ideas about authority greatly. It’s a pretty safe bet that their hopes, fears, and expectations about their teachers do not correspond point for point with our own ideas about our roles as helpers and authorities. The child thinks of it in terms of power that might or might not be justified; we, I hope, put reasonableness and justification far forward, and, because it is not the reason we signed up for this teaching gig in the first place, we have to remind ourselves periodically (or rather, students do regularly point out) that we are in fact arbiters and have to exercise the power of our offices responsibly, fairly, and gently.
Our culture seems to say we’re not very good at this, especially the “gentle” part. The typical movie or TV professor is a real asshole: arbitrary, arrogant, unreachable, and vain. We’re like Hobbes’s life-without-society: solitary (dwellers in the ivory tower), poor (for being trapped in such a relatively unremunerative profession), nasty (or at least archly sardonic), brutish (that is, abusive in every sense), and short (on anything real to offer). There must be a kernel of truth in it for this image to be so potent. True, American culture is notoriously anti-intellectual, but that says nothing definitive about the particular forms it takes–those still call out for explanation. If the professoriat’s negative image is undeserved, as I think it mostly is, then what accounts for it? If we’re such hot rhetoricians, how come so many people hate us?
When any person or group is heaped with unaccountably heavy scorn, it’s no great stretch to call it scapegoating. Someone who can be singled out to blame stands in for some one or thing that can’t be. Jews periodically played the goat for Europe’s economic failure to thrive. We catch hell because America feels stupid. I of course realize that stupid people often regard themselves as smart. Do I contradict myself by saying they feel stupid? No: they do. They feel smart, feel stupid, and contradict themselves. There’s nothing in human nature to prevent that. And nothing we can do will prevent people from casting us into whatever roles their personal dramas require, but at least we can try not to reinforce their tendency to cast us as egomaniacal bullies.
There’s a rhetorical bind that interferes here, I think: if we’re not to be false or shallow, most of what we say has to be qualified. Proverbial sayings like “money is the root of all evil” appeal to the listener in a way “money is a root of some evil” cannot, even though the latter is much truer. Michael Smithson, a very interesting researcher on ignorance and uncertainty, owns that we academics are often faced with a dilemma between falsehood and comprehensibility, where the truth takes too much patience and effort for most people to get it, so they settle for what someone (help me out here) has called “the closest cliché.” If we combat this by correcting students’ hopeful, poetic-sounding oversimplifications, we’re thereby made into hurters of feelings, thus targets of resentment. We all know this; Socrates got in really big trouble for it. He also, as he predicted, became one of the all-time great intellectual heroes with his simple (but not easy) method of getting to the bottom of things.
It wasn’t the students who sentenced Socrates to death, though. His mistake, if it was one, was to piss off the parents and the politicians. He taught in the most casual of ways, all ad-lib and in-the-moment, but without the accidental slights, the lapses in attention the rest of us mortals are prone to. He didn’t have to enforce deadlines on papers, it’s true, and his main concern was with finding what is reasonable and right rather than inculcating what is arbitrary and useless. However it happened, we, or many of us, have been maneuvered into the awkward position of inculcating various amounts of quasi-traditional, poorly examined crap; at least I know that I’m still weeding bits of fallacious received wisdom out of my teaching with no end in sight, and I will not believe English can be the only subject that’s full of it. It’s fair to demand that our disciplines preclude arbitrary uselessness; if and when they don’t, we had better fix it, because any exercise of arbitrary power in the name of discipline is a travesty. It plays into adolescents’ well documented over-readiness to detect and denounce hypocrisy in their elders, for one thing. It’s a throwback to a lower level of maturity, not a higher. Thus the only “best practice” I can support is to model forth a non-authoritarian, presumptuousness-free brand of disciplinarity and invite our students to emulate it.
Of course that’s easier said than done. The very phrase “best practice” feels arrogant to me, a claim to know more than can be known. And that in itself is a heavy claim, so I don’t expect everyone to obediently quit using such a professional-sounding phrase*. But there ought to be some agreeable sign or set of signs to symbolize what’s true and valuable in academic discipline and to set us apart from the cynical herd. Sackcloth robes and light sabres, perhaps. You tell me.
*(I almost wrote “epithet,” and so it is: a conventional yoking of adjective to noun, after the pattern of f—ing a–hole.)