[lit-ideas] Re: It's gone quiet

  • From: Robert Paul <rpaul@xxxxxxxx>
  • To: lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx
  • Date: Mon, 31 Mar 2008 20:17:09 -0700

David Ritchie wrote

While everyone is mulling over what to say about Auerbach, I'm going to step into the on-deck circle with this question: are those of us who are employed in academia abdicating a responsibility when we allow admissions people to characterize what we do? I've just returned from a tour of Eastern colleges. In search of the right academic fit for my second daughter we visited Georgetown, American U., Princeton, Williams, Amherst, Smith, Wellsley, Brown, Brandeis and Harvard. The trouble with these visits is that you get to see much that is not important and little that is. It's like how I imagine buying a car through the internet might be--surface views only. We saw lots of buildings, were told in each place that the professors are "rock stars" or "superstars," or some such nonsense, that professors are available nearly all the time, that students love [name of college here], that there is an excellent study abroad program (pay full tuition plus room and board, live in, say, Senegal), that employers are lining up to provide work for graduates. Do we as professors owe parents some sort of duty to disclose, or can it be assumed that, since most of them have been to college, they will take all this with a pinch of salt?

Until faculty members can be trained to walk backwards safely, there may not be much they can do. Even at Reed, the PR now seems to be done by people entirely insulated from the faculty. (I say, 'even at Reed,' because until the early 1990's, the faculty, for better or worse, oversaw most of what went on, and the admissions/PR budget was hugely less than it is now.) Anyone who cares to look at the College's web page will be treated to a changing series of images, whose effect is that of loneliness and angst: a woman pedaling over the cross canyon bridge, the only sign of human life in the picture; a pensive student lost under an ancient tree; the retreating backs of a group of students who might be found on any high school campus; and a number of not-very-subtle intimations of diversity. These tell one nothing about life at Reed, except, perhaps, that it isn't always raining.

I imagine that things are as bad or worse at most schools David mentions, although my cynical guess is that few people on the Harvard faculty know or care what blandishments are blandished to prospective students. Harvard and Princeton don't need to sell themselves. 'If you have to ask, we don't want you.'

One serious observation. With respect to Harvard, Princeton, Brown, and possibly American University, it is simply false that professors are available outside their idiosyncratic office hours to talk with undergraduates. One of the draws for faculty at such places is that you don't have to teach much unless you want to. Even the famous large lecture courses that some super stars voluntarily teach, rely on graduate assistants to do the grading and to lead the 'discussion sections.' Undergraduates, especially in the first year may see such famous people, but only in the strict sense of 'see'—walking from limousine to library, perhaps.

Smith, Wellesley, Williams, Amherst; there you may meet your teachers. If you're lucky, they'll even know your name.

Robert Paul

To change your Lit-Ideas settings (subscribe/unsub, vacation on/off,
digest on/off), visit www.andreas.com/faq-lit-ideas.html

Other related posts: