Thursday, January 13, 2011

What Would John Stuart Mill Do?

This is one of the stranger (but not the strangest!*) anecdotes in Higher Education?, a book by Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus:

"When faculty members do have power, they often use it to resist. When [Colgate University president Rebecca] Chopp tried to enlist faculty to invite students into their homes so they could see professors in another setting, she found few takers. "They have tenure," she said, and sighed, "They do whatever they want."

Drat those tenured professors. There they go again, abusing the power that tenure confers. It would be much, much better if they had to fear for their jobs and felt they had no choice but to allow students into their homes.

Just because some professors work 60 hours a week and might want to keep some separation of home and work, doesn't mean they should be allowed to do this. And who cares what significant others and offspring (and pets!) might think about this? If you're related to a professor, their job is your job. Deal with it.

Haven't we all heard stories of legendary professors whose homes were open to their students at all hours of the day and night? Why can't we all be like that?

If we truly cared about our students, we would want them to come to our homes, gaze at our off-campus lives, and meet our families (and pets!) in situ. That way, we would not intimidate them so much and they would feel more comfortable coming to our office hours.

There are some professors, tenured or not, who enjoy having students routinely visit their homes and be "one of the family". Others want their home to be a respite from work, even if they do quite a bit of work at home.

I really don't see the reluctance of some professors to open their homes to student visits as a convincing argument against tenure or as supporting evidence for how little professors care about their students.

* My vote for the strangest part of the book is the paragraph in which the authors describe a "workingman" who "jumped on a subway track to rescue a child who tripped and fell." The workingman didn't think; he just did it. The authors posit that professors on that same platform would not have jumped on the track to save the child:

"We wonder if, had some professors been on the platform, would they have paused to ponder how John Stuart Mill might have parsed the choices?"

I wonder if that is a sane thing to wonder. Of course the professors would save the child. What better way to combine broader impacts, a synergistic activity, and outreach?


Anonymous said...

Jesus! More publicity for this book?! Seriously, are you on his payroll?

If you’ve run out of interesting things to discuss, there’s no shame in taking a break … or just hanging it up.

Anonymous said...

I find it really hard to believe that a book like that actually got published :/ :/ :/

Anonymous said...

You're funny.

Bagelsan said...

Of course the professors would save the child. What better way to combine broader impacts, a synergistic activity, and outreach?

Of course, I imagine that a high "impact factor" in this case might be seen as a negative...

Luis said...

Jesus H. Fajita-Eating Christ. I cannot believe you willingly suffered through reading that book carefully enough to comprehend it at that level of detail. Perhaps a medal is in order.

I am not always a fan of the tenure system, but the pile of mendacity, nonsense, and sheer weirdness that is HIGHER EDUCATION? is, by your report, just astonishing. Pure hackery. Wow.

Andrea said...

How funny. I am trying to have a gathering of grad students at my home and am not allowed to for liability issues.

Anonymous said...

Nice ;)

Anonymous said...

Your concluding paragraph had my laughing out loud. :)

I wonder how angry Mr. Hacker is at all the other careers out there where people are involved in "nonwork" activities like meetings. Jeez, that CFO just spends all day meeting with people and going to workshops! Can't he do some real work like the rest of us?

Anonymous said...

Oh my god, what a couple of bozos! It just cracks me up!

And I can't remember the last time I read about a pseudo-social scientist OR journalist leaping onto the tracks . Come on, Andrew Hacker! Won't you please think of the children? Don't you care?

Douglas Natelson said...

I seem to have more and more occasions for using this:

Anonymous said...

Since professors are such horribly lazy people who do nothing to advance society, maybe Hacker and Dreifus should give up their tenured positions at Queens College and Columbia, respectively, and move on to a more fulfilling, influential line of work.

And Hacker can give up that cushy Emeritus salary and state pension he is collecting!

Anonymous said...

How ironic that Hacker picked Colgate University to make this accusation. As a Colgate alum who is now a grad student at an MRU, I firmly believe that the professor-undergrad relationship there is exemplary. Granted, I was “only” invited once to my prof’s house for dinner (as part of a senior research seminar) – but on numerous other occasions professors took seminar classes to the faculty club for lunch or dinner (the university has funds available to encourage these kinds of interactions). My experience in this regard was not unusual, nor confined to one academic discipline. I also found that other privileges that I had as an undergrad (such as calling many profs by their first names) are solely the purview of grad students here at MRU.

This is all tangential to the fact that the Colgate faculty changed my life, both in the classroom and through undergraduate research – that ALL science students must undergo, not just the motivated few as is the case at MRU. That was discussed in more detail yesterday.

I don’t really want to start the SLAC vs. MRU argument here, nor argue Hacker’s broader point (others are doing that eloquently this week), but merely say that Colgate faculty in particular are very concerned about their teaching…and still do research. With their students. Whom they care about. My Colgate profs continue to be important and influential in my life, and many of my friends feel the same, even the ones who are no longer in academia.

Anonymous said...

From my understanding, John Stuart Mill would have, of his own free will, gotten particularly ill off a half a pint of shanty.*

He'd need to!

*citation: The philosopher's song, monty python, before I was born.

A. Non Mouse said...

Believe it or not, having dinner in a faculty member's home is one of the measures of student-faculty engagement and is a way faculty can cultivate student learning ( and references therein).

It is a clear expectation of our institution that we have our students over for dinner at key points in their career--one is during freshman advising, and one during their senior year. Many faculty do additional dinners (like I try to have my advisees over every year, as students in specific, small classes). While the senior dinner is traditionally held in the department chair's home (and thus only affects department chairs), we're all expected to rotate through freshman advising--and thus having students over for dinner.

FUG said...

Well, clearly, as the child is such a burden on society, JSM would allow the child to die to increase the happiness of more people.


Anonymous said...

That last bit is so hilarious!

Do you think he is reading all of this? Which of these anonymous commenters may be him. Come on, Prof Hacker, you know you want to write a comment!

Anonymous said...

A. Non Mouse: who is doing all this cooking (and pre-guest cleaning!) associated with all of these dinner parties?!

I'd love to go out to a restaurant with a bunch of students, but have them over to see all my dust bunnies, food stains, toddler pull-ups strewn about, wii games, procastinating detective novels on the bedstand....Don't think so.

Anonymous said...

Although I like the idea of faculty occasionally having students to dinner I don't think it should be a job expectation - I wasn't hired as a hostess. For large classes it's impractical, sorry I will not be hosting a dinner for my class with 75 students. I'm pretty sure that would be a fire hazard given the size of my place. Maybe I should just invite my favorite students from the big class -hmm how would that go down?

Also it can but faculty in a very strange place and one that the university should avoid. I'm teaching a seminar class - a perfect type of class to round out the term with an at-home dinner I may do this but if I were a young male faculty, or a lesbian, not a youngish married female faculty I doubt I would. Why? Everyone in my seminar is female and that could lead to some real weirdness. Imagine if you end up with a couple students that stay longer than the others (or even worse just 1 student) - do you turf them? In the first meeting with the Dean appropriate relationships with students were a point of discussion - could this be perceived as inappropriate? Maybe, hopefully not but it opens a door to some interpretations that I would want to avoid. You can't expect people to put themselves in that position. I plan to have dinner with my undergrad researchers but not at my home. They're underage but I can't control if they drink before they get there. It's a 20minute drive from campus, I can't control how they drive. It puts faculty (and the university) in a precarious position.

Lastly - would we save the child?!! Seriously? Oh, I forgot the process by which they sucked out my empathy and heart when they handed me the PhD. The guy sounds like a sociopath - he's dehumanizing a class of people based on his own prejudice.

Anonymous said...

I teach in the city. I live in a one bedroom apartment. If I brought a whole class of students over here they'd be in ALL my things... and yes, as a lesbian, I feel a greater need to have that separation... my colleagues who like to have students over are all married heterosexuals with big houses, where the students stay in the more public spaces and never see the rest of the house...

Alex said...

I plan to have dinner with my undergrad researchers but not at my home. They're underage but I can't control if they drink before they get there. It's a 20minute drive from campus, I can't control how they drive. It puts faculty (and the university) in a precarious position.

I'm not saying that you're making the wrong call here, but it is sad that it is this way. We are talking about adults who gather for a voluntary activity away from the place of employment outside of work hours. However, somehow the institution has to worry about decisions made by adults traveling to this non-work location outside of work hours.

If some friend who has no connection to my work got drunk and drove to my house, I wouldn't be liable just because I invited him over. Well, I don't think I'd be liable. Yet, as soon as we have a common affiliation to the same institution, anything that we do together anywhere at any time becomes a matter for the institution.

It's not so much that I feel sorry for the institution bearing this burden (as a liberal academic I naturally believe that all burdens should be born by institutions with pockets deeper than mine :) ), but rather that when this becomes the institution's business, anything I do outside of work becomes the institution's business, and now they're in my business. And that should be bother anybody who cares about boundaries.

Anonymous said...

How odd. I attended a SLAC and only once had dinner at a professor's house. As I recall, it was during the summer when only a handful of students were on campus doing research. And yet, I would say that I had fantastic "engagement" and a very comfortable, yet highly professional, relationship with at least half the faculty in our small chemistry deparment.

By contrast, it was an unstated expectation that my graduate research group members would go to the bar and consume vast quantities of alcohol until the wee hours with our (bachelor) advisor, after each weekly group meeting. I am certain that I committed several acts of presumptive DWI during that period of my life.

DrDoyenne said...

Here's another perspective from someone who has entertained grad and undergrad students, research associates, and post-docs in her home.

For many years, my prof husband and I would host get-togethers a couple of times a year (usually just before Christmas break and just before summer break)…bringing together our two lab groups. We did this because our graduate adviser did this, and it was one of the more pleasant memories of our time there (my husband and I met in graduate school).

Being invited to Christmas dinner with the major adviser's family was a departure from our usual student-adviser relationship, which was pretty formal. These events made an impression on me--seeing my adviser as a family man and gracious host; observing his spacious home filled with memories; hearing personal, funny stories from his wife and children; and sharing a meal that he and his wife had prepared together. The experience gave me and my husband-to-be a glimpse of what a professor's personal life might look like. Granted, it might not be everyone's cup of tea, but it was clearly a positive role-model for a bunch of unmarried, poor, struggling graduate students. More than 35 years later I can still close my eyes and see their dining room table decorated for Christmas and filled with food....

So it seemed natural for my husband and I to do the same with our students and employees. I have no idea if our dinners made the same impression on our students as our adviser's did on us, but they seemed to enjoy our gatherings. We still keep in touch with many of our former students, and a few have become close friends and colleagues.

Despite my personal positive experiences in this regard, I would be on the side of faculty who would resist any attempts to make them host students in their homes. My experiences could not have been forced by a university administration. For this to work, it has to have the enthusiastic participation of both sides…professors and students. It has nothing to do with tenure.

PS. I never jumped onto train tracks to save a child, but I once saved a student from being crushed under a boat tossed by violent waves. Does that count?

Alex said...

I think the personal touch factor of a professor inviting students into their home is completely lost if it's expected or the even the norm, let alone obligatory.

Should I ever be lucky enough to land a TT position, however, it'll be high on my list.

Doctor Pion said...

I've never been in the house of a sociologist, let alone one that is an author, and I've only been in one journalist's house.

I think it is important that I be able to drop in on the Authors and see how they live. Maybe I could become a Famous Author if I lived like they do.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

Does it occur to anyone that some students might not want to be invited into a professor's home -- might even find it a bit creepy -- and yet would feel coerced to accept the invite because the prof was in a position of power?

I have a friend who teaches at an elite SLAC, and home visits are part of the culture there. She enjoys the close relationship with her students, but she's also described it as "exhausting" and "difficult to be an adult" in that setting.

Anonymous said...

I've had dinner with my students at a suitable, public restaurant. Why?
1) I don't have to cook
2) our house is a wreck
3) there can be no accusations of impropriety.

We haven't had our faculty colleagues over, for goodnessakes.

If the president wants to have Faculty host students they should

1) Host the Faculty themselves,
2) Be prepared to host the Students as well.

That said, at the Small (VERY) small liberal arts college I attended, I did get an invitation to the President's house for dinner. It was nice. It was also catered.

Anonymous said...

I just want to second what the previous anonymous Colgate Alum said. I am also a Colgate Alum (currently a postdoc in a science field) and I could not count the number of times I interacted with faculty outside of the classroom - from dinners out, to study sessions at their homes, to department picnics, not to mention the fantastic research experience I had there. And I am still in close contact with a number of my former professors. Using Colgate as an example in this case just shows how seriously out of touch the author is.