Rock-Star

The question of “rock-star professors” has resurfaced, in the form of a Stanley Fish article in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Fish begins by quoting an Illinois state Senator who balked at the University of Illinois at Chicago’s recent star-buying-spree, saying of said high-priced academic honchos, “Let them teach at Stanford!”

There’s a certain perverse genius in Fish’s rhetorical move here, as Marie-Antoinetting this fiscally-minded senator allows Fish to play the populist, claiming at once that “it is not in the democratic spirit of the country to reserve the ‘best people’ for the children of privilege,” while simultaneously distancing himself from this argument, which he suggests “skates above the issue raised by the senator and raises his (implicit) question: Why are the best people the people who are angling for research time and support? Why aren’t the best people the people who come largely to teach?”

On the one hand, Fish makes an excellent point: the public at large dismisses much of academic labor by assuming that hours not spent in the classroom are hours not working; as Fish points out, “detailed accounts of what professors do and why they do it have been offered innumerable times to innumerable audiences (including state legislators), and still all the old charges continue to be retailed and recycled.” (See, for instance, the excellent Ed Ayers article that Matt linked to last week, for a good example of such a detailed account.)

Fish goes on to make the crucial connection between research and teaching, but does it via a rhetorical question that seems to me a bit odd: “What is the difference between a university where the instructors are well-trained and perfectly competent, and a university where the instructors, in addition to being well-trained and competent, are producing the research that is taught at other universities?” This begs the question to me, in ways I think Fish means to turn away from, of the relationship between research and teaching in the lives of individual professors, as, inadvertently or not, the research being produced at the home institution of the rock-star professor in this sentence is not being taught by that institution, but only elsewhere.

Fish concludes his argument:

It is not that those who teach the work of these star professors do not deliver the “goods” — the category of the great teacher who is not himself or herself a leading researcher is a real one — it is just that there is something particularly powerful and exciting about watching and interacting with someone whose discipline-shaping ideas are being worked out and tested at this moment in this classroom. It is an excitement students will feel even when they know almost nothing about the credentials or “national renown” of their instructors; and it is an excitement that will flower (not in every case but in enough cases) in a decision to take up a certain line of work or in a resource that can be sustaining at a difficult moment or in a memory that keeps alive and renews the pleasures of serious thought.

Despite having just a few paragraphs before admitted that, as an undergraduate, Fish himself did not even know that his favorite professors had written books, here those books are made to bloom in the lives of students.

Understand, please — I’m all for an active research agenda; I think that ongoing, forward-thinking research is a necessary complement to the teaching life of any professor of undergraduates, as the act of producing scholarship results in a continually reinvigorated intellectual life and an engagement with new modes of critical thought. And I think that — particularly as such work is considered one of the main criteria for job retention — hours spent on scholarly work should be accorded the same kinds of respect as are hours spent in the classroom. However, I find myself disturbed by the ways that these arguments are here being used to support the further stratification of academic life, the hiring of professors who are protected in some measure from the “labor” of teaching in order to flower forth in new books.

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