Teachers and Professors

by James E. McClellan III, Professor Emeritus, College of Arts & Letters

Teachers are important and should not be undervalued. We have all had memorable teachers who have taught us each important things and have changed our lives. Remember who taught you how to ride a bike? Play chess? A musical instrument? The calculus? Without such teachers as our instructors and guides we would be perpetual children, diminished, uneducated, and incapable of functioning in the world.

For me, my 11th-grade chemistry teacher, Mrs. Hess, opened up the wonderful world of moles and the periodic table, and I went off to college fully intending to be a chemistry major. That didn’t happen, but Mrs. Hess had a profound influence on me that remains to this day, notably in instilling in me the excitement of learning new and wonderful things.

Good teachers have incredible skills that allow them to facilitate student learning and shepherd their development. For a while long ago, I was an inner-city elementary school teacher, but I lacked any skills and any notion of what it was to be a good teacher, and the third graders in my charge quickly defeated me. On the other hand, my wife Jackie was a special education high-school math teacher, and she was armed with an exquisite skill set that involved not only the elements of how to teach math, but also insights into her charges that allowed her to tailor her instruction to each individual student and what was best for him or her individually. If it was only to permit her students to balance a checkbook, she endowed them with powerful tools to be successful in life each in his own way.

What about professors? A recent talk at Stevens sponsored by our esteemed Center for Faculty Engagement & Advancement explored “the differences between a teacher (who facilitates learning) and a professor (who imparts information).” Really? Is a professor merely that “sage on the stage” who rattles on uncaringly about this or that before an audience of largely bored students who try to absorb “information” as best they can in anticipation of regurgitating it on another mind-numbing exam?

My students had a hard time grasping what I meant when I told them – as I always did – that I was not their teacher, but their professor. That is not to say that I didn’t care what happened in the classroom. I always tried to make my classroom a dynamic and interesting place. I took every opportunity to vivify the topic at hand, and ex post facto every class offered an occasion to assess what worked and what didn’t. I have had my share of positive student evaluations and teaching awards to show that being a professor is not equivalent to a deadly dull classroom experience or simply “imparting information.” In the end a professor professes, much like a preacher, and the hard truth is that it’s ultimately up to students to embrace what’s put before them and to take responsibility for their own education.

That said, apparently there’s still a need to explain what a professor really is.

Two qualities seem to me to be essential to the character of any real professor. One, professors are part of living traditions of intellectual inquiry, and secondly, they are under the obligation to produce new knowledge.

I became a historian, and so in some general sense I am a successor to Herodotus, “the father of history.” More than that, I am the product of the Annales school of French historians, and I necessarily brought that tradition into the classroom and my own work. Even more, I became a historian of science and so joined a discipline that harks back to such pioneers as George Sarton and Alexandre Koyré earlier in the twentieth century.

Real professors are not trained simply to transmit the work of the men and women with whom they studied. Unlike priests or preachers, professors are called upon to build on the work of their predecessors and advance it into new territory. The humanities and liberal arts are living traditions, as are the natural and social sciences, where researchers form part of spatially extended, “invisible colleges” on the cutting edge of the research front. Thus, when I stood before a classroom as a professor I was almost less an individual than an embodiment of a deeply rooted and on-going tradition of inquiry in my field.

Real professors undertake research in response to questions being investigated at the cutting-edge of their specialties. Such research requires mastery of the existing literature and an almost tacit knowledge of how exactly to pursue research in a particular context. To add to existing knowledge requires creativity and artistry of a sort. The end results are novel contributions made by individuals to larger conversations undertaken and adjudged by communities of experts. (These are not the requirements of ordinary teachers.) Think how far the world has come both in understanding and in practical application by dint of this model of knowledge-making.

I needn’t dwell on my own research over forty years to make the point. Perhaps the point that needs to be made is that the university today may no longer need professors,…that all we need are teachers plain and simple. Important exceptions aside, the university in America today is less and less a center of learning that harbors professors who instantiate their fields and profess what they know and do. The university seems ever less a haven where students go to get an education and become educated citizens. Plainly, for most students (and most administrators) the university is evermore an institution (and dare I say a capitalist institution) for training and as a stepping stone for jobs. Such students need teachers and all the help they can get to see them through.

Given the almost universal decline of secondary education in America, the university today is becoming the functional equivalent of the high school of yore. Sadly, because we seem increasingly to devalue learning and the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, perhaps the university today needs more Mrs. Hesses and fewer Professor McClellans. I daresay many will gleefully agree, but will they recognize what is lost in the bargain?