The View from the Ivory Tower

Image from www.nickagin.com

Illustration by Leslie Herman

The viral post on Huff Post Education, “Message to my Freshman Students,” really got to me, and not in a good way. As an educator, it’s easy to blame a lack of learning on the students, but it’s more honest to carry some of it ourselves. Dr. Parsons’ dualism, and tenured arrogance struck a nerve. I am not saying there aren’t major issues with student behavior and responsibility, but like most ancient institutions, universities have to adapt to the reality of the modern world in order to thrive. I don’t have all the answers for how to do that, but it is NOT by listening to the advice of gentlemen, like the one I am responding to.


This blog is definitely out of the norm for my usual postings, but I hope you will bear with me. I feel so strongly about this professor’s “Message to My Freshman Students,” that I simply must respond, publicly and passionately, to his myopic vision. As high school graduation nears, I am afraid that too many well-meaning elders, whether they are parents, principals, or teachers, will forward his speech to their college-bound graduates, as an indication of what they can expect next fall. I surely hope they are mistaken, though I am a little discouraged by the 35k Facebook shares it’s garnered. But truly, it’s been my experience that Dr. Parsons’ perspective is that of a waning number of professors whose extended time in their Ivory Towers has led to a rather distorted view of their profession.

The first half of his speech is dedicated to encouraging his young students to take responsibility for their own learning. In order to pass, they have to show up for class, pay attention, listen carefully, do the reading, and complete the assignments, on time and well. I agree 100%. Students are responsible for their own learning and the freshman year usually presents some challenges in that arena. However, he also makes it very clear that he is not their “teacher,” someone whose “job is to make sure that you learn.” He is their professor and as such, he feels “It is no part of my job to make you learn.” Furthermore, “I have no obligation whatsoever to make sure that you pass or make any particular grade at all,” only “to lead you to the fountain of knowledge.”

This is where Dr. Parsons and I part ways.

He says nothing about a drinking vessel, a cupped hand, or the accessibility of the water in that fountain, but, Parsons magnanimously concedes, “Whether you drink deeply or only gargle is entirely up to you.” All of his wisdom can be yours, if you simply listen to him lecture you. Listen is the operative word. Listen carefully, critically and comprehensively, even if you have never been taught to listen in this way before. Parsons is a self-proclaimed, old-fashioned, “chalk and talk” man, more comfortable hearing the sound of his own voice than that of his ill-prepared and entitled students. Although that may sound harsh, I can sympathize with his point. Why not let the smartest person in the room do all of the talking?

Clearly, because it doesn’t work. It isn’t how his new students have learned for the first twelve years of their education. It isn’t how many students learn best, if at all. It is rarely the most effective way to deliver significant, but difficult information to anyone. Working at a university doesn’t give anyone a pass on keeping up with current pedagogy, or at least it shouldn’t. Parsons dismisses the constructive criticism and classroom coaching he’s been exposed to by calling it “Hogwash!”

Dr. Parsons is very clear about his loyalty to the ancient traditions of academia: “I have absorbed deeply the norms and values of an ancient academic culture and they are now a part of me.” Students, who are newcomers to this strange and exacting culture, need to get on board right away. Difficulty in assimilating is the fault of the immigrant, obviously, and few concessions should be made. He sees no need to update, or improve academia’s ancient methods, even though we no longer live in the ancient world. The “fountain of knowledge” he so generously offers, once students have paid their ever higher and less affordable tuition, can be found for free in the library, on the internet, in the form of MOOC, in podcasts, (like the excellent, philosophical The Partially Examined Life), and cheaply through used books and textbooks on Amazon.

Parsons’ attitude illustrates why higher education is coming under such fire these days. More and more young people and their parents are questioning whether to take on a huge amount of debt to pay for a liberal arts degree. The bottom line is that for a university education to be of value (beyond the certificate), professors have to be a “value-added” proposition. They cannot merely sit like disembodied heads on thrones, unaccountable for the young heads that roll around them. I can think of no other position where an educator (or any employee for that matter) can state, “I am not held responsible for your failures. On the contrary, I get paid the same whether you get an ‘F’ or an ‘A.’”

Therein lies the problem.

In Dr. Parsons’ mind, professors are paid to know what they know, and write about it, not to ease the path of the young women and men who find themselves struggling in his Introduction to Philosophy course, a subject matter that Parsons’ himself calls, “an abstruse and difficult field… [full of] seemingly arcane and incomprehensible topics.” Fortunately, I believe most professors are far less cavalier with the joint contributions they are asked to make to both their field of study and the education of the next generation.

I understand Parsons’ frustration with unprepared and immature freshman. I’ve taught them off and on for the last twenty years, and encountered much of the behavior he points out, but I suspect it is his own ego and sense of entitlement that is driving the second half of his essay. Ironically, it is actually that kind of ego and entitlement that drove me away from an academic career many years ago. By the time I finished graduate school at the age of twenty-three, with a 100+ page master’s thesis under my belt, I knew the academic party line and I wanted no part of it. Though crude, I called it mental masturbation. Hopefully it’s changing, but it said in essence, live in your head. Specialize; know more and more about less and less, and publish for your peers, not the public. Parsons actually summed it up beautifully in another essay when he wrote, “The more you learn, the better it is. There is no such thing as too much knowledge.”

Dr. Parsons, I respectfully disagree.

Knowledge is valuable and necessary. I have pursued my natural curiosity all of my life and education is a priority in my home, but there is such a thing as too much knowledge. It becomes too much when we extol intellectual knowledge while denigrating other types of knowing, and when we privilege people who are “in the know,” over those who aren’t. It becomes too much when what we know becomes more important than who we are and how we treat others. Knowledge, as you know, is transcendent when it is used to elevate our common humanity, but can be dangerous when it becomes an end in and of itself.

So my speech for college freshman shares the same premise as Dr. Parsons’. My main advice to them would be to step up their learning game and take responsibility for their education, but the difference is that I believe I have a responsibility too. As the “educated” one, I have something of value, something a majority of my students want: knowledge, practical skills and application. I also have a job description and it is not simply to be a “lecturer,” although that is still, ironically, the archaic title used by some universities for their teaching professionals. My job requires me to inspire, engage and ultimately educate my students to the best of both of our abilities.

Despite my many objections to Dr. Parsons’ arrogant delivery, we do agree on a final point as well. The last line in his speech is this: “For your professor, a course is an opportunity for you to make your world richer and yourself stronger.” Amen to that, Professor, just don’t forget that the opportunity is yours as well.

Ouch!

Ouch!                                                            by Nickagin.com

A Mother’s Day Bouquet, Weeds Included

A Mother's Love Letter to Herself

A Mother’s Love Letter to Herself

Mother’s day is approaching. It’s hard to forget it if you are on social media, as sentimental posts about the glory of moms flood the news feeds. Ostensibly, these images were created by men and women for their mothers, but obviously, they were created by moms for themselves. More than anything, they are a reflection of how we hope our kids feel about us. We share them as a tribute to our mamas, but really, we are just sending them as love letters to ourselves. A mother-child relationship is infinitely more complex. It’s a wonderfully complicated combination of love, devotion, and gratitude, with a healthy dose of resentment, and old wounds mixed in. If you don’t have mixed emotions about your mom, then you’ve done a lot of inner work, or you’re in total denial.

I know that traditional Mother’s Day offerings are flowers, brunches and pretty cards, but is there space for a little bit of honesty too? A bit of gentle teasing about all the things your mama really taught you?

The first things that come to mind about my mom can’t be romanticized, though they can be appreciated. She taught me how to burn chicken, go to church, play Scrabble and clip coupons. She taught me to love the beach, dancing and the Jackson Five. She taught me to prioritize travel, education and physical activity. She taught me self-discipline, thriftiness and that reading is a wonderful way to spend your time. I’ve used all those skills and they have served me well. If you want lessons, I will give you her number.

But there were some things my mother couldn’t teach me, because she didn’t know how to do them herself. My mother does not snuggle, except with babies. Her hugs are all shoulders and hipbones, even for those she loves deeply. Handholding is inefficient and slightly uncomfortable. Strong emotions are suspect, to be squashed if possible. Tears are dehydrating. Poetic language beyond her. If she feels something, you might know it, but probably not because she told you herself. Risk-taking is synonymous with irresponsibility, as is following your instincts and eating out too often.

Though they aren’t my favorite qualities, I understand where they came from. They are part of a family legacy, passed on to her from devout, depression-era parents, who raised eight children, making sure everyone got some, but no one got more than enough. That was true of candy bars, soda pop and probably even love.

While those are the easiest things to rattle off about my mom, they certainly aren’t the whole picture, so I would be remiss if I didn’t tell you a little more. It is Mother’s Day after all.

This is my Mother’s Day card for Sylvia.

mom's day card

For better and for worse, I am my mother’s daughter. I have learned and unlearned a thousand things from her, but these are the ones that I hope to carry on.

She is fiercely loyal to her family and friends. She shows up to every event on time and she does not gossip. Sylvia’s got your back. She is deeply faithful to her God and her husband. You do not make mass every Sunday and stay married for forty-eight years without saying to yourself, every day, “I’m in this for long haul.” She shows up where she’s needed. There is no task too big, or too small. From rocking a baby, to mopping the floor, to organizing charity events, Sylvia is on the job. Her home is open and so is the kitchen. Children, grandchildren, friends, friends of family, and friends of friends from foreign countries have all found a warm, clean bed and a full fridge in her house, just a stone’s throw from the Pacific Ocean. No checkout fee required, only the hope of a good conversation.

Finally, my mother loves her children deeply, though she rarely says so. Words are not Sylvia’s forte, but ironically, they are mine. I need things spelled out for me and so for years I mistook her acts of love and service as her children’s inevitable due. I thought that sacrificing a career and personal creativity, making meals, driving carpools, and planning family activities was just what moms did. I thought it was their job. I know better now.

It was a choice and it’s a choice she continues to make for all of us. Her job is even bigger now that we are all married with kids of our own. Instead of the four she started with, she now has four daughters, four sons, and twelve grandchildren. She makes sure everyone has some, and hopes that it’s enough. But I have to admit, she set our expectations pretty high and though she won’t say so, she probably feels stretched thin, meeting the “needs” of her ever-growing family.

So Mom, here is my Mother’s Day “gift” to you today. I’m sorry it’s in my native language of words, expressing perhaps too much honesty and emotion. Tomorrow, I will try to show my love for you in your native tongue of action. When I see you, I will give you a sideways hug, play a game of Scrabble, and clear a table. We can do some dancing, cuddle some babies and walk on the beach. Together, we can show our family how we love them.

P.S. If you think I’m being hard on my Mom, whom I love and respect dearly, I write this knowing full well my own children will have a laundry list a mile long of the things they need to unlearn from me and my “love.” It will probably include an overemphasis on deep breathing, inspirational quotes, and self-awareness, as well as an obsession with laundry day routines, repetitive menus and the reapplication of sunscreen.