My Complicity in Civilization’s Decline

I like to think my teaching makes a small positive difference in the world. That my students learn new things they deem meaningful, that they become a bit more curious about the world, and incrementally more caring towards others. Most enjoy my decidedly informal approach towards teaching which has been shaped by Quaker education principles and Ira Shor’s teaching (Critical Teaching and Every Day Life and When Students Have Power).

That aside, Molly Worthen, an assistant professor of history at the University of North Carolina, has me rethinking my three decades as an educator. In a New York Times essay titled “U Can’t Talk to UR Professor Like This” she argues that the teacher-student relationship depends on a

“special kind of inequality” and that insisting on traditional etiquette is . . . simply good pedagogy.”

In the end, she impugns professors like me for being on a first-name basis with students who are all adults.

Worthen:

“The facile egalitarianism of the first-name basis can impede good teaching and mentoring, but it also presents a more insidious threat. It undermines the message that academic titles are meant to convey: esteem for learning.”

Worthen leans on a math professor friend who argues,

“More and more, students view the process of going to college as a business transaction.”

The suggestion being my type of classroom informality is the reason students. . .

“see themselves as customers, and they view knowledge as a physical thing where they pay money and I hand them the knowledge, so if they don’t do well on a test, they think I haven’t kept up my side of the business agreement.”

A pretty heavy trip to lay at the foot of classrooms like mine.

“Values of higher education,” Worthen explains, “are not the values of the commercial, capitalist paradigm.”

So faculty like me are to blame for the corporatization of higher education, but that’s not the worst of my offenses. Worthen also states that professors should take the time to teach students how to relate to authority figures not just as preparation for a job.

“The real point,” she explains, “is to stand up for the values that have made our universities the guardians of civilization.”

I never realized it, but ultimately I guess, by encouraging my students to use my first name, I’m complicit in civilization’s decline.

I don’t begrudge Worthen her formality, but I don’t understand her stridency. Who knows why she can’t accept the fact that teaching excellence takes many forms. Tucked in the middle of her essay is one paragraph that resonated with me:

“Alexis Delgado, a sophomore at the University of Rochester, is skeptical of professors who make a point of insisting on their title. ‘I always think it’s a power move,’ she told me. ‘Just because someone gave you a piece of paper that says you’re smart doesn’t mean you can communicate those ideas to me. I reserve the right to judge if you’re a good professor.’”

Worthen writes about “esteem for learning” without acknowledging what most undermines that, unrelenting grade grubbing. I believe the more formal faculty are, the more likely students are to “give them what they want”. Passivity is so engrained in students by college, any hope for a genuine questioning of authority, especially the professor’s, requires an intentional informality. Forget the guardian of civilization bullshit, I just want students to speak and write more authentically. Passing on using my formal title is a means towards that end. It isn’t a panacea for heightened student authenticity, but it’s not the root of all problems in higher education or Western Civilization either.