14.12.16

JUST DO YOUR JOB.

That's the advice of Stanley Fish's Save the World on Your Own Time, the occasion for Book Review No. 25.  Professor Fish has been a professor of all trades, a public intellectual, and a dean, and he distills a few lessons into an entertaining book (he eschews the sesquipedalian prose of the Literary Scholar.)  It's from this book that I obtained (page 129) his "Postmodernism is liberalism taken seriously."  (Yes, but there are limits to radical skepticism and he recognizes as much.  Read carefully.)  I was less convinced by some of his writing about administration, but yes, take care of the lighting and the chalk supply in the classrooms, and that advisors answer the 'phone, and the high concept stuff will take care of itself.  But there's this at page 159.  "If colleges and universities are to be 'accountable' to anyone or anything, it should be to the academic values  -- dedicated and responsible teaching, rigorous and honest research -- without which higher education would be little different from the bottom-line enterprise its critics would have it become."  Um, there are market tests for bottom-line enterprises, unless they're well-connected rent-seekers.

But an academic enterprise, bottom-line motivated or not, could do worse than this (pp. 168-169:)
[C]ollege and university professors can introduce students to bodies of material new to them and equip those same students with the appropriate (to the discipline) analytical and research skills.  From this professional competence follow both obligations and prohibitions.  The obligations are the usual pedagogical ones -- setting up a course, preparing a syllabus, devising exams, assigning papers or experiments, giving feedback, holding office hours, etc.  The prohibitions are that an instructor should do neither less nor more.

Doing less would mean not showing up to class or showing up unprepared, not being alert to the newest approaches and models in the field, failing to give back papers or to comment on them in helpful ways, etc.  Doing more would be to take on tasks that properly belong to other agents -- to preachers, political leaders, therapists, and gurus.  The lure of these other (some would say larger or more noble) tasks is that they enhance, or at least seem to enhance, the significance of what a teacher does.  But in fact, I argue, agendas imported into the classroom from foreign venues do not enrich the pedagogical task, but overwhelm it and erode its constitutive distinctiveness.
Shall we start by tossing Student Affairs, and the therapy dogs during finals week?

(Cross-posted to 50 Book Challenge.)

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