13.6.13

THE CASE FOR SENIOR NONCOMS.

Michael Nelson, professor of political science at Rhodes College in Virginia, calls out his senior colleagues for failing to staff a three-semester sequence on values as understood by Western religions.
Classicists regularly step outside their training to lead colloquiums on the Hebrew scriptures.  Philosophers strain to teach the Inferno. Theologians herd their students though the Iliad and the Republic. Political scientists struggle to make sense of Calvin.

Regrettably, however, a disappointingly small proportion of the Search faculty consists of full professors: only six out of the 30 who are teaching in the program this fall have attained that rank.  All too often, department chairs and other tenured senior faculty shunt the responsibility off on junior colleagues at the very stage of their careers when they most need to establish themselves in their disciplines and can least afford the time to get up to speed on entirely new subjects.

It amazes me how enthusiastically my young colleagues dive into Search anyway and how much satisfaction they derive from doing so — even though every minute that, say, an American historian spends learning about Christine de Pizan is a minute away from finishing that book on sexual politics in the Jackson administration.  We senior faculty who have risen as high in rank and job security as we can ought not to force our untenured junior colleagues into that position.
He's right, saddling new scholars with this assignment is faculty abuse. He doesn't recognize just how abusive it is.
I’m one of the six exceptions and have been for as long as I’ve been a full professor.  I think I can say, without fear of contradiction, that at the outset no one was more of an amateur than I — certainly in the modern sense of the word and, I like to think, in the original one as well. Fear of embarrassment prevents me from revealing the full extent of my ignorance when I began teaching Search in 1991. Suffice it to say that 20 years of studying the American presidency and related subjects had seldom led me into the by­ways of the Deuteronomistic history or the musings of the Epicureans.
Perhaps not, but 20 years in the classroom are the way to develop the professorial instinct to distinguish the ill-formed from the completely confused student questions, and the research savvy to make some of the connections back to that early philosophy.  There's a reason professors generally have the Ph.D. rather than some other sort of doctorate.
My first year teaching Search was the sort of experience that, while you are having it, you hope you will laugh about someday. I prepared feverishly for each class, trying to keep Jeroboam and Rehoboam straight and thumbing futilely through the Iliad to find the parts about Achilles' heel and the Trojan horse. Professors joke about staying a chapter ahead of their students, but what do you do when despite your best efforts they seem to stay at least a page ahead of you?

What you do is manage as best you can and treasure the odd mo­ment when it seems that perhaps you belong at the head of the table after all. I vividly remember the joy I took when, as a political sci­entist, I was able to offer insights into Achilles, Odysseus, and Aeneas that might not have occurred to a classicist, and even resulted in articles in two political science journals.

You also revel in your status as a fellow searcher with your students. One of our goals in the course is to encourage students to take serious­ly their own searches for meaning, and one of the things we always tell them in furtherance of that goal is that the faculty are searching with them.  That’s especially true when we annually read and reread works that have endured through the centuries because they speak to people differently at different stages of life.
Precisely. And it's a task better entrusted to more experienced faculty, for the same reason the recruit's first encounter with the military is a senior noncom.  (Yeah, I'm repeating myself, but no matter how many times I explain this, some goldbrick figures out how to screw it up.)
The lesson for senior faculty in all disciplines, I think, is that any of us are capable of teaching in courses like Search and that those who choose not to do so are cheating themselves by not taking the plunge, as well as relying too much on our junior colleagues.  After all, the issues that engage students as they read these works are the issues that engage the amateur even more than the specialist.

As for the senior faculty who have used their secure status to burrow deeper into their specializations rather than stretch out — well, if my experience is any guide, they would be personally enriched beyond measure.  They’re missing a chance to learn from the works they teach, from their colleagues in other disciplines, and even from their students.

The lesson for the institution is to encourage senior faculty to participate, starting with a year of partial course relief in return for sitting in on colleagues’ versions of the course.  At my dream version of Rhodes, being invited to teach in Search would be regarded by senior faculty as something to aspire to, a crown to one’s career.  Retiring without having done so would be regarded as a mark of incompleteness, even inadequacy.
I like it. Puts to shame most of the silliness that comes from the offices of faculty development.

Let's get real radical: nobody gets to screen for dean, provost, or president, without first having taught in a meaningful core sequence like Search.

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