As my first academic year teaching as a part-time instructor in Britain began to wind down, students crowded my office for a final appointment. One of them was a small, anxious girl whom I had been advising since January; she's never going to be the greatest writer in the world, but she's made incremental, steady strides over the past few months.
She handed me her essay and watched me read it. When I finished, she leaned forward. "Have I really not improved in six months?" she asked, her eyes wide with worry. "That's what my other professor told me."
I would have been speechless if not for the fact that her remark was so familiar. Over the last 10 months, I've heard many versions of that comment, sometimes from students, sometimes from faculty members themselves talking about their students. I'm not claiming that disdainful treatment of students is the norm among faculty members here. But it is true of a fair portion of my colleagues.
There was the professor who waited until the last class session to hand the students their papers and announced: "You're all terrible; you're going to fail your exams." There was the adviser who, when told that a student had been diagnosed with dyslexia and dyspraxia (poor fine-motor skills), replied: "Well, now at least he'll be able to waffle on aimlessly with better spelling." There was the student who, when I praised his paper, said, "Wow, that's the first nice thing anyone's said to me here."
And there are the many students who have come to my office and cried—so many that I now have a routine: "Would you like a tissue?" I say. "Would you like me to close the curtains? Would you like a cup of tea?" (It is England, after all.)
Who are these cruel teachers?
After my previous column ("Things Look Pretty Male Here"), I'd like to tell you that they are all elderly male professors with bitter hearts and little empathy. But I can't because I've heard just as many women as men make such dismissive comments about students.
When I was learning to be an academic, my impression was that you found out how smart someone was, then taught that person to be smarter. I didn't think you were supposed to find out how stupid certain students were, then assume they would never get any better.
Teaching in Britain is a grueling business, so bureaucratized that it makes one weep for the paperless society. There are endless self-monitoring forms to be filled out; syllabi not only have to list the course goals and assigned texts, but also state precisely what "outcomes" will be achieved by the end of the term, and what "transferable skills" students will acquire. I suppose there isn't much time leftover for caring. Still, the lack of it among professors here seems more pronounced than has been my experience among American academics.
When I was in graduate school, my adviser described one professor as "a member of that generation of academics who look on students as an impediment to research." Notice that my adviser's comment suggested both that that generation had had its day, and that it was wrong. But here in Britain, some members of that generation seem to be hanging on.
Most of the professors who I have heard make cutting remarks about students have been in late middle age or older. But even among young faculty members here, I often find a subtle but curious sense of entitlement, as if they belong at the university, have a right to be here, and the students don't.
What's more, that sentiment may demonstrate that they are perfectly in tune with the times. Academic worth at British universities seems to be based almost solely on one's ability to produce articles and research that are admissible for the REF, or Research Excellence Framework. Universities in Britain are obsessed with the REF, a formula to ensure that departments with the highest-ranked publications get the most government money.
As a job counselor told me, and as I've seen for myself, most British universities don't even bother to hide that obsession. At every place I have interviewed, I have been asked to explain how my research will contribute to the forthcoming REF. The intense focus on research is not necessarily stronger than in America, it's just that here, with an admirable (I guess) sort of honesty, they show it straight out: You're largely worth what you publish.
Wherever I've encountered that attitude in academe, I've found it odd. If I told most people that I was going into a profession in which I'd produce a very small product aimed at very few people, and I'd concentrate on doing so to the neglect of a vast number of potential purchasers who would buy a slightly simpler but infinitely more valuable and desired product, they would no doubt suggest I reconsider my strategy. Yet that is precisely what the British government is asking, if not forcing, its academics to do. Research is not just vital in the university scheme here. Because it leads to money, it is everything.
In general, even the most esoteric-seeming research moves knowledge forward. But I believe that increasing the knowledge of the masses also moves knowledge forward. I have published an academic book, yet when I teach a student how to use a comma correctly, or explain the wit of W.B. Yeats's line structure in "Politics," I feel that I am achieving more than my academic book ever could.
Certainly in the humanities, contact between professors and students helps keep the mind alive to fresh ways of seeing. As our students discover new things in texts and grapple with unfamiliar ideas, we often discover aspects and puzzles hitherto missed or forgotten. And students keep us in the real world: Their hopes and worries, even their foolishness, reminds us there is life outside of academe. Watching what they do (and don't) respond to shows us which ideas are relevant, which will float, and which will not.
Many academics are worrying about the future of academe. I worry about it for the traditional reasons—originality being stifled, depth being downgraded, and an essential component of society being treated like a contemptible hanger-on. But I also worry about it for reasons that seem both less mentioned and equally pressing—such as this research-first model that puts teaching (a very low) second, and means that those we teach will suffer the loss.
And then, too, I wonder how students will be affected long term by the contempt I've seen, whatever its motivations. What does it do to young people when they've been dismissed by someone they hoped would guide their future?