"Like the downfall of an empire, the collapse of something as complex as the professoriate defies simple monocausal analysis. There is, undoubtedly, a multitude of factors that account for our plight. Many are beyond our control and culpability, like decreased public funding for higher education and America’s inveterate anti-intellectualism.
That said, we can and should be held accountable for all sorts of inanities...It was not unwarranted to pose political questions in our research. We erred, however, in politicizing inquiry to the extent that we did. There is nothing wrong with importing theory into studies of literature, art, cinema, and so forth. It was ill-advised to bring so much theory—and almost always the same dense and ideologically tinctured brand of it—to bear on our vast canon of texts and traditions.
But no decision we ever made could have been more catastrophic than this one: Somewhere along the way, we spiritually and emotionally disengaged from teaching and mentoring students. The decision—which certainly hasn’t ingratiated us to the job-seeking generation—has resulted in one whopper of a contradiction. While teaching undergraduates is, normally, a large part of a professor’s job, success in our field is correlated with a professor’s ability to avoid teaching undergraduates.
It follows from this contradiction that the more accomplished the scholar, the less she or he is required to engage with students. Prestigious institutions perpetuate this logic by freeing their most distinguished faculty members from classroom responsibilities. Such luminaries, of course, might be asked to teach a small graduate course in their area of microspecialization. Or they might speak at multitudes of underclassmen in a stadium-size auditorium. These stars will be shielded by a battalion of teaching assistants, lest they be disquieted by some sophomore’s imbecilic concern about her midterm grade.
Permit me to illustrate these contradictions with a personal example. When I was an adjunct, teaching at (criminally) underfunded public community colleges and universities, I would cobble together six courses in the fall and six more in the spring. When I won the lottery and received a tenure-track job at a midlevel institution, I graduated to a 3-3. After improbably hitting another jackpot and making it to an elite university, I now enjoy the luxury of a 2-1. I have never been so garlanded in my field as to receive the 0-1 or the vaunted "double zero"—the mark of exemplary scholarly achievement.
We live by the unspoken creed that teaching is, well, not really what one is supposed to be doing. Conversely, doing a lot of teaching is construed as a sign that one is not doing well. This perverse reasoning leads scholars to conjure up all manner of strategies geared to evading the lectern and maximizing undisturbed research time.
I submit a re-visioning of an American college professor’s job description: The successful candidate will be skilled in, and passionately devoted to, teaching and mentoring 18- to 22-year-olds, as well as those in other age groups. Additionally, she or he will show promise as an original and creative researcher."