What is a Professor?

Learning is not impersonal

Herb Childress turns his gaze from the supply of knowledge to the people behind it

Her son was murdered, and she began to study sociology as a way to understand the world her son had travelled in. She now teaches at a small college, a 5/5 load, trying to bring other students to understanding of the duties of friends.

He grew up in wheat country, not understanding as a child that the grain elevators and railroad tracks, along with bringing a few jobs in, also took enormous resources away for pennies. “I never heard the word taco until I was twenty-five,” he said. “I never had one until I was twenty-seven.” He now teaches others how to read—and to be curious about—the world around them.

He has published nearly 500 articles in chemistry, and his new college lured him away from a prior position with a lab fund of two million dollars and a job for his wife. He makes two dozen international trips a year, and has not booked his own travel in twenty years. He brings undergraduate students into his lab teams, working alongside postdocs.

“I decided when I was twelve,” she said, “that I either had to go to college or I’d end up like my family.” She recently used vacation days to attend the funeral of her brother, who’d died of an overdose, following on the history of their father’s similar demise years earlier. She did not tell her faculty colleagues why she was away.

She graduated from high school at 17, her BS in mechanical engineering at 21, her PhD in mechanical engineering at 25, and was tenured at a top-tier research university at 31. She brings her school millions of dollars a year in research funding, and has been responsible for dozens of new PhDs from her research group.

He works in the registrar’s office at another college, and also DJs on the weekends. He collects international rock music, and once burned a CD of Vietnamese psychedelia for a colleague in his office. He teaches Intro to Sociology at a nearby community college, on their late-night shift from 11:30 pm to 2:30 am.

How little we know of those people who stand in front of us. If we become one of them, how little we know of our colleagues. As long as we hold our generic label of “professor” — as opaque a term as “barista” or “waitress” or “soldier,” a nameless servant who does their duty — we are permitted to not know the person. Education can be thought of merely as packets of information being shifted back and forth between invisible entities, like automated stock trading.

“Student,” of course, is equally opaque. But because of their youth and naivete, they’re often more willing to tell us their stories. I had a young woman in tears in my office, believing (incorrectly) that she wasn’t capable of doing the work that her college demanded. “I know I’m only here because of field hockey,” she wept. I had a young man in class who was going to college in order to make enough money to buy back the farm that had been in his family for five generations, that his father had been forced to sell. I had varsity athletes who told me of the galvanized steel pails around the weight room that were there within handy reach, for them to vomit into from overexertion and dehydration in their pre-dawn workouts. I had a student tell me about his mother calling from Taiwan every Saturday morning to find out if he was dating a nice Chinese girl yet, to tell him once again how it would be her death and shame if her grandchildren spoke another language.

Why do we leave our homes and become something other? Why do we stand on the far shore and try to welcome various of the refugees escaping their homelands? Why do we become so obsessed by fruit-fly digestive chemistry, or a nineteenth-century political economist, or the ways that teenagers use their communities, that we spend much of a career in isolation, pursuing those ghosts? The answers are as diverse as we are, too often hidden away even from ourselves. If we explored, and shared, the motives and dreams and fears that drive us, perhaps we would do better at the human work of teaching and learning.

Image credit: stu_wp: They’re Here. Creative commons license.

About Herb Childress

Herb Childress is a writer and former academic living in Vermont USA with his wife, another writer and former academic, and their cats, who have been neither. He has a peculiar knack for seeing around corners and is the author of the recently published The PhDictionary: A Glossary of Things You Don’t Know (but Should) about Doctoral and Faculty Life (University of Chicago Press). Bits of his work can be seen here.


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