Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Berlinerblau: Teach or Perish

Jacques Berlinerblau
Jacques Berlinerblau is one of our most thoughtful public intellectuals. In his recent piece at The Chronicle of Higher Education he reminds us that the survival of the humanities is directly connected to teaching.  Many of us who toil at teaching colleges already know this, but those of us who also want to publish need to be reminded that our primary vocation is practiced in the classroom. Professors and administrators at places like Georgetown, the research university where Berlinerblau works, need to hear his message.  Several writers have made this argument, but few have made it with the style and force as Berlinerblau.  Here is just a small taste:

The adage "publish or perish" is outdated, almost sinister in its misdirection. For the truth is that many well-published Ph.D.’s are out of academe altogether. At colleges across the country, there labor underemployed scholars with stellar CVs. Their accomplishments, at least in the first decade beyond their thesis defense, are usually comparable to those of their far less numerous tenured counterparts. The slogan we lived by is, empirically speaking, false. It really should have read "publish and perish." If the metric of success in our profession is a tenure-track position at a liberal-arts college, then most of our recent doctorates are perishing.

As for today’s graduate students, how different they are from today’s emoji-driven undergraduates. A few years back, the former did hanker to become professors. Most of them probably still do—though maybe they wish they had listened more carefully to their faculty mentors, assuming they had one.

When forlorn A.B.D.’s in the humanities ask me for advice, I recommend that they think in terms of "teach or perish." Society will always need skilled transmitters of knowledge. But another peer-reviewed article on the "circulation of Enlightenment triumphalism" in Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles, not so much. Don’t get me wrong. Tess stands among the most spectacular fictions ever composed in English. It shouldn’t live on only in the sepulcher of a scholarly journal. Its afterlife should be experienced in the minds of students, their awe for the novel’s innumerable charms ignited by a professor. That Tess’s fate is linked to our own is a probability I won’t address here.

If all the dour reflections above are accurate—if they are half-accurate—we will need to rethink our priorities and core concerns. The kindergarten instructor, I surmise, likes those little tykes, thinks they’re cute. I have met seventh-grade teachers who reveal to me why they work in middle schools: They are mesmerized by the dorky majesty that is the mind of a child age 11 or 12. In this spirit, I submit a re-visioning of an American college professor’s job description: The successful candidate will be skilled in, and passionately devoted to, teaching and mentoring 18- to 22-year-olds, as well as those in other age groups. Additionally, she or he will show promise as an original and creative researcher.

Check out my conversation with Berlinerblau during a keynote session at a Georgetown University conference on secularism.