Students today, with the encouragement of their professors, are increasingly deciding their own paths of study through fields that are defined by general principles and methods rather than by specific works or thinkers. To some that sounds like a dishearteningly cold pragmatism, but why should anyone be surprised when a newly, and happily, diverse student body finds it hard to get excited about fields of study that until very recently defined many of them into irrelevance? The natural and social sciences have also left a lot of diversity to be desired, but at least when Marie Curie discovered radium, she didn’t have to publish her findings under a male pen name.
The liberal arts are adapting, yes, but as they adapt, they come less and less to resemble what their defenders are mourning: a dedication to “great books and grand subjects,” in the words of Joseph Epstein, who makes clear his loyalty to a particular flavor of “greatness” when he, quite candidly, decries the decision that “the multicultural was of greater import than Western culture.” Epstein preferred a world when there was a “general consensus” about what needed to be taught in college, and that consensus included the conviction that ancient Greeks and Romans were more important to study than—this comes straight from Epstein—African-Americans.
Epstein doesn’t think we’ll find his perspective offensive, because he writes from a perspective that has presumably measured Frederick Douglass against Aristotle and, after careful and fair consideration, given the prize for sagacity to Aristotle. He’s counting on us agreeing that it’s outrageous that Douglass would be taught instead of Aristotle—but that’s a cheat. Just because Toni Morrison has now bumped, say, Proust from syllabi of world literature does not mean that the notion of a “general consensus” about whose books should be taught is any more defensible than it was when African-Americans needed to found their own colleges because the “general consensus” was that blacks didn’t belong at white colleges.
This isn’t a manifesto: I’m not saying we should replace literature with sociology, or philosophy with physics, or poetry with calculus. What I’m saying is that empirically, the world is changing, and higher education is changing along with it. What we now understand, and that Epstein et al seem loath to admit, is that the “general consensus” that defined the humanities in their heyday was never really all that general.
After 18 years of various forms of involvement in higher education—undergrad, grad student, research assistant, teaching assistant, resident assistant, tutor, thesis advisor, lecturer, adjunct instructor—I thought I’d pretty much seen it all. When I stepped foot on the verdant campus of Macalester College this fall as a newly-hired visiting assistant professor, though, I realized that I’d never experienced life inside that hallowed American institution: the liberal arts college.
My first impression was that, when it comes up to meeting one’s expectations of what a highly selective teaching college is like, it’s amazing how little this college disappoints. I’m guessing it’s the same story at Williams, or Amherst, or Swarthmore: students strolling leisurely across a quad, stopping to laugh and chat or share a flyer for their upcoming a capella show, napping under trees and tossing the inevitable Frisbee.
When I flew out east at age 18 to begin my studies, sight unseen, at Boston University, I was surprised to find that my dorm looked like something from behind the Iron Curtain and was positioned next door to a giant auto parts dealership (billboard: TRUST ELLIS THE RIM MAN). Macalester is a college that actually looks like its website.
As I got to know the school better and made my way through the administrative tasks required of an instructor, the college revealed itself as what seemed to be a university on training wheels. Our new-faculty orientation included a dozen or so friendly faces, and we were visited personally by the registrar herself. At a university, the registrar is like the Great and Powerful Oz: you quiver in fear of her judgments while taking her actual existence purely on faith. Functions that require entire floors of administrative buildings at BU or Harvard require only one part-time staff member at Mac.
What’s been hardest to adjust to, having spent almost a decade in grad school, is the eerie absence of graduate students. At a university, grad students are as ubiquitious as Oompa-Loompas; at Harvard, for example, grad students outnumber undergrads by a factor of more than two to one. At Macalester, it’s like the Rapture has happened and the grad students were finally rewarded for their thankless labors by being assumed into heaven, leaving the exploitative faculty behind to wail and gnash our teeth as we grade our own papers.
The differences aren’t just matters of size and ambience, though: this liberal arts college effortlessly evinces the kind of serenity that universities have to work strenuously to achieve. (University brochure: “Our students relax! Really! DON’T YOU SEE THOSE TWO STUDENTS LYING ON THAT PATCH OF GRASS?! THEY’RE RELAXING, GODDAMIT!”) Mac students work hard, but they don’t wear that mask of determination that comes from having to claw your way into everything from the most desirable dorm to the best research apprenticeship to the last scrap of chicken parm.
The faculty members’ attitude is different, too. Though we all should have been overwhelmed at the faculty orientation, the only faculty members who showed any signs of stress were the ones who had recently relocated from big universities and hadn’t let their engines rev down yet. A couple of my new colleagues are ABD doctoral candidates at the University of Minnesota; they look around, raise their eyebrows, smile, and mention esoteric theories I’ve never even heard of even though I’m in their department. Distinctions among faculty titles are commonly ignored—those of us coming from universities were taken aback to learn that even non-tenure-track faculty, the untouchable caste of research universities, were welcome at faculty meetings.
This liberal arts college seems like a safe place, with a collapsed hierarchy: after class the other day, a student called out to me from the curb where she was sitting smoking a cigarette and nonchalantly apologized for neglecting a certain reading in her response essay. It’s not that the students are less respectful than they were when I taught at Harvard—they’re less uptight about everything. With no hierarchy of teaching assistants (as an undergrad you’re graded by your teaching fellow, who reports to his head teaching fellow, who reports to the professor) to go through, in the classroom every day is like casual Friday.
(Teaching colleges are notorious for faculty-student liaisons, and no wonder. At Macalester there’s actually a dedicated fund to support faculty members who invite their classes to their own private homes for dinner, which sounds like the setup for a Tom Perrotta novel. There’s little danger of scandal for me, though—I live in a studio apartment, and thus will be hosting a well-chaperoned class dinner at my mom’s house.)
If this all sounds like a dream, in many ways it is. For those of a certain mindset, there’s something immensely attractive about the prospect of being wrapped up in a cozy cocoon of crisp autumn leaves and non-ironic school sweatshirts. Though you’re less likely than at a research university to see your professor on PBS, you’re more likely to see her in the bleachers at your sporting event (at faculty orientation we were urged to attend football games: “Sometimes our team isn’t terrible”). She’s also less likely to be fired for failing to publish prestigiously enough, or to jump ship for another job with a bigger research budget and a lighter teaching load.
With the economy struggling and tuition rising, there’s a national debate about the value of a college degree—and it’s the enormously expensive, quietly thinky sort of liberal arts degree that you get at a place like Macalester that’s most controversial. The liberal arts college has never been a particularly democratic institution, and in years to come an education like the one my students are getting may become purely a luxury. Truth be told, it certainly feels luxurious—in all the nerdiest ways.
Essay Cheating Tricks Your Instructor Cannot Fucking Believe You Think He/She Will Actually Fall For
Font games. You made it bold just for aesthetic purposes, did you? Readability? Sized it to 16 points to go easy on our eyes? Uh huh.
Plagiarizing the top Google result for the essay topic. This same essay has been assigned every quarter for the last three years, so your instructor has seen at least half a dozen other people try to insult his/her intelligence by plagiarizing that exact same paragraph.
Making the margins extra wide. This is not a poetry broadside.
Turning in a paper written for another class. You just happened to stumble on three articles assigned in the Introduction to Medical Assisting class while in the library researching your paper on social networks?
Putting the paper in a fancy binder. What an amateur bootlicking maneuver. Throw in an eight-ball and a couple Benjamins to snort it with, and then we can talk.
Adding extra spaces between the paper title and the first sentence. When your paper starts two inches from the bottom of the first page, you can’t really count that as a “page”—especially when it ends two inches from the top of the second page, and the required length was two pages.
Changing one word from a plagiarized sentence to foil Google. Even Google isn’t that dumb.
“It might also help to show, over time, that the supposed superiority of an Ivy League education is highly over-rated. […] In time, people would see that the very top schools are like those celebrities who are merely famous for being famous. Harvard would be recognized for what it is, the Justin Bieber of higher education.” (Forbes)
Brown: the Lena Dunham of higher education
Duke: the Chris Brown of higher education
NYU: the Patti Smith of higher education
Wesleyan: the Pink Floyd of higher education
Dartmouth: the Ashley Olsen of higher education
Cornell: the Mary-Kate Olsen of higher education
Georgetown: the Michael J. Fox of higher education
Princeton: the Snooki nip-slip of higher education
Columbia: the Al Pacino of higher education
UCLA: the Encino Man of higher education
Barnard: the Winona Ryder of higher education
Wellesley: the Hillary-Clinton-but-only-in-a-pant-suit of higher education
Notre Dame: the Jesus of higher education
Brigham Young University: the Brigham Young of higher education
Boston University: the John Belushi of higher education
Boston College: the Jim Belushi of higher education
University of Oxford: the David-Beckham-in-a-bowler-hat of higher education
University of Cambridge: the Victoria Beckham of higher education
University of London: the Pete Doherty of higher education
Yale: the chimpanzee riding a Segway of higher education
1) Refer casually to controlled substances. Last week I saw a professor in the sciences crack jokes with students about the chemical composition of cocaine. I’ve also seen professors talk about “brand-less cigarettes” when in a pinch. Dude, you got like three degrees. There’s no way you couldn’t have done that much smack.
2) Ask students to call you by your first name. We’re all equals here. There is no hierarchy. Except there is. A big difference is that one of us sitting in the circle of harmony will be voting the rest of us on or off the island.
3) Swear in class. This feels exhibitionist. Like you’ve figured out the only way in class to interest the guy with the backwards cap is to use three F bombs and a couple “well, shits!” when talking about the poetry of Emily Dickinson.
4) Talk about your band. The low-point of my education was when an English professor scratched the name of his cover band onto the chalkboard with the addendum, “9 p.m., Friday night, _____ Bar.” As if watching your dopy khaki-d ass three days a week for 50 minutes wasn’t enough pain, now your solipsistic self wants them to see you take a 15 minute solo on Dire Straits’ “Sultans of Swing”?
5) Take your class outside when the weather is nice. I see a professor headed for doorway with a group of students in tow, I think one thing: this will end in someone getting stung by a wasp or a sexual harassment subpoena.
6) Everything is phallic and/or referencing your exes. “Teacher” is your public persona. “Guy whose last three girlfriends committed suicide, left you, and had you arrested,” respectively, is your private persona. Let’s keep the door shut on that last one.
7) Try to get “comfortable” with your students during one-on-one conferences. I like keeping individual meetings with students socially awkward and uncomfortable in a bright white room of despair. This is for two reasons. (a) I’ve consumed too much Rock Star Energy Drink and can’t pick up on social cues/developed a nervous twitch. (b) It helps students recognize that for all the rumors and fun day-dreams about what it’d be like to “hang” with Professor Cool Guy who listens to M83 and references Breaking Bad in class, he is in fact an emotionally shallow nincompoop who landed in the community college out on the prairie for justifiable reasons. If you wanted Ethan Hawke teaching your math class, you should’ve gone to school in the Ivy League.
- Dunstan McGill will let his student evaluation sheets sit on his futon at home for weeks before opening them.
Photo courtesy Chaz Wags