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CAMPUS CONFIDENTIAL How College Works, or Doesn’t, for Professors, Parents, and Students
By Jacques Berlinerblau
246 pp. Melville House. Paper, $26.99.
The Georgetown University professor Jacques Berlinerblau has a secret: He hates graduation. Seated on the dais, listening to the college president and the various honorees assembled to inspire the happy crowd, he finds himself miserable. As one speaker after the next drones on about the joys of education, he finds himself growing increasingly uncomfortable in his academic robes: Such platitudes seem to him painfully at odds with the priorities that guide most modern institutions of higher learning.
This gap between rhetoric and reality, between the “sanctimony, hypocrisy and doublespeak” of academic leaders and the way colleges operate in reality, animates “Campus Confidential.” Berlinerblau, who directs Georgetown’s Center for Jewish Civilization, styles himself as a contrarian guide to the wilds of academe, breaking ranks from the tenured professoriate to give aspiring students and their parents the lowdown on how their dream schools actually work.
His diagnosis is bleak. At heart, he sees a gap between how professors are trained, what they aspire to and what they are rewarded for, and the day-to-day work of an academic job — namely, teaching undergraduates. Prospective students may be drawn to schools because of their esteemed faculty, but once they arrive on campus, he suggests, they will find that these scholars want nothing to do with them. Instead, their education will likely be guided by part-time teachers and graduate students, who are paid a few thousand dollars a course. As Berlinerblau puts it, “While teaching undergraduates is normally a very large part of a professor’s job, success in our field is correlated with a professor’s ability to avoid teaching undergraduates.”
Berlinerblau is best when he expresses moral outrage over the condition of the part-timers who labor in the trenches. He tells the story of Margaret Mary Vojtko, who taught French as an adjunct professor at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh for 25 years.
In 2013, after being abruptly dismissed, she died of a heart attack, penniless and desperate. Her case was extreme, but not unusual — Berlinerblau cites one study suggesting that as many as one-quarter of part-time faculty members receive some form of public assistance.
Rather than attend a school with a faculty so “word- and thought-defyingly distinguished that it can’t be bothered to teach sophomores,” Berlinerblau suggests that prospective students should scour the course catalogs for the proportion of classes taught by full-time professors and should seek out schools with more small seminars than huge lectures. These metrics, he argues, might lead students to consider institutions outside those traditionally called most prestigious — Albright College, for example, as opposed to Yale.
Berlinerblau is more convincing describing the problems of academia than he is explaining why they’ve come about. The culprit, for him, is graduate training itself, which emphasizes research as opposed to teaching. Much of the book is composed of caricatures of academic types — the hopelessly insecure Ph.D. candidate laboring in a tiny subfield of early modern European history; the dreary, disillusioned associate professor who no longer believes that “sacrificing three years of evenings, weekends and summers to research a 9,000-word peer-reviewed article is livin’ the dream”; the scholar of Joseph Conrad who goes on the warpath against those unsuspecting colleagues who have failed to cite him sufficiently, exacting his revenge by slapping down their conference proposals. In the background hovers a lost golden age when devoted professors cared selflessly for their students and were rewarded and respected in return.
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But can the problems of contemporary academia really be traced to hyperspecialized graduate training? The publish-or-perish prerogative of the research university is nothing new. Teaching, named by Sigmund Freud one of the “impossible professions” — “in which one can be sure beforehand of achieving unsatisfying results” — has long been treated within higher education as a lesser realm than scholarship, its intimate rewards (though appreciated by more professors than Berlinerblau suggests) too closely associated with other kinds of caring labor for it to command prestige on its own.
What does seem to have shifted in recent years is the wholesale acceptance of business norms by many academic institutions, which have adopted a strategy focused on the bottom line despite their nonprofit status. This has resulted, among other things, in the willingness to charge students ever-higher tuitions while driving labor costs down, and in the adoption of a star system that resembles the tournament structure of our whole society.
There have been various attempts to challenge these norms, but they mostly go unmentioned by Berlinerblau. One force in particular is notably absent: the academic labor movement. In recent years, many part-time faculty members and graduate students have turned to the model of organized labor to redress the inequalities that Berlinerblau identifies. For many of those involved, such groups have offered a model of intellectual life that is collaborative rather than entrepreneurial, mutually supportive rather than modeled on a zero-sum competition. One might even say that the quintessential experience of graduate school is no longer solitary labor in the archive; today, it is marching on a picket line. Should the culture of academia change in the ways that Berlinerblau wishes, it is likely that such collective efforts will be responsible.
Near the end of “Campus Confidential,” Berlinerblau writes eloquently about the goal of “thoughtfulness” as the quality that good teachers most want to encourage in their students. The author of this passionate, important jeremiad might have sought to treat a bit more thoughtfully the many others in the academy who share his concerns — to lecture less, and listen more, as good teachers do.