Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Thank You, Professor Orwin

While the ignorance and sloppiness of Margaret Wente's original column in the Globe and Mail is undeserving of anyone's attention, here is a mature, civil, and most-welcome response from Clifford Orwin.


In autumn, a professor's fancies lightly turn to thoughts of teaching. As I told the students in my (monstrously large) introductory course at the University of Toronto last week, I've never attended the Toronto International Film Festival, never felt the least excitement about it. That's because it falls during the first week of classes, when the real action is on campus. I noted that a glimpse of Natalie Portman wouldn't change their lives, while their courses well might. I didn't tell them what is also true - that well into my fourth decade of teaching, I still never sleep the night before my first class.

This piece is not about me, and I mention these things only in response to a recent column by The Globe's Margaret Wente. To hear her tell it, professors don't do much, and what they do accomplish is short on what matters (teaching) and long on what doesn't (research).

I'll ignore the suggestion that professors are lazy. That's, like, so 1973 (the year I started teaching). There were in Canada then many pseudo-Oxford dons whose claim to fame was that unlike those awful American professors, they didn't do very much of anything. That's all changed. Today, the indolent are an endangered species. My colleagues in political science and I can announce that we are all Americans - by which I mean workaholics. A great deal of that work is teaching. Universities take teaching not less but more seriously than they did a generation ago.

True, I spend just six hours a week in the classroom. Ms. Wente grants that there must be preparation time and grading - "But it's still not much." Much must be a relative term. I spend 40 hours a week on preparation (times 24 weeks) and something like 120 hours a year grading (80 essays times 90 minutes), plus supervising the grading of my teaching assistants.

And true, we're not free to spend all our time on teaching. We're also expected to administer, be active in our respective professions, be public intellectuals, show the flag for our programs by delivering lectures elsewhere, practise community outreach, recruit graduate students, raise money for those students and eventually find jobs for them, write research grant applications, pen countless letters of recommendation, referee an endless procession of manuscripts, answer thousands of e-mails, assess colleagues for tenure and promotion, and so on.

So I work 70-hour weeks. Some colleagues work less, but some work even more. You can forget the mythical sherry-slipping slacker. We do enjoy long summers, if you want to hold that against us.

Just a blurry haze of mint juleps, summer, as I try to get a year's worth of research and writing in. And my teaching depends on that research. To teach is to communicate enthusiasm for learning, and what sustains that enthusiasm is continuing to learn yourself. It's also to set an example of progress to nourish in your students the hope that they too can contribute to progress. No, not all research done at universities is valuable. The surprise is how much of it is. And yes, there is always room for another study of Plato or Tolstoy, for great works are both inexhaustible and must be presented anew to every generation. You can't rest on the laurels of the past, for anything worth learning requires to be constantly relearned.

As for devoting more time to teaching, that's not up to us. Society demands that we be research machines, our heads always smoking with relevant discoveries, and not only in the sciences. It's also society that prescribes, through underfunding, that our teaching be wholesale, not retail. I didn't ask to teach a class of 500 this year, and my department (which cares very much about teaching, thank you) didn't ask to offer one. It had no choice, and I drew the short straw.

If you want your kids to be in classes of 20, you'll have pay for it, like the parents who shell out $45,000 a year for their offspring at Swarthmore College [], near Philadelphia.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not seeking your sympathy. I differ from a tree in that my sap rises twice yearly - once in the spring with the approach of research season, and once in the fall with the return of the cycle to teaching. While I would rather teach fewer students, you shouldn't confuse that with wanting to do less teaching. My colleagues appear equally sappy. Teaching may not be our only business, but we're serious about it.