My Love/Hate Relationship with College Teaching


Richard Sahn.  Introduction by William Astore.

Being a college professor is supposed to be a grand profession.  Assuming we’re not underpaid adjuncts with neither benefits nor job security, our pay is decent, our autonomy is considerable, and we get a fair amount of time off in the summer.  How dare we whine about hardships!

But the American academic profession is changing.  Today the mantra is relevance as measured primarily by money (in one form or another).  Are your classes full? Money.  Are you winning grants? Money.  Are you teaching subjects that lead directly to high-paying jobs for students? Money. And if you’re not “money,” you’re vulnerable to charges of irrelevance and subject to elimination.

Students today naturally reflect larger society.  They too value money, commodities, consumerism, status, winning at any cost.

As professors in the liberal arts, we try to encourage them to value more subtle qualities.  We strive to help them to become critical, creative, and compassionate thinkers and therefore better citizens. 

Yet nowadays it’s corporations that are America’s true citizens with free speech rights that are limited only by their balance sheets.  Students, meanwhile, are increasingly confined to passive roles as consumers and cheerleaders, burdened by debt and bedeviled by concerns about success, as measured (you guessed it) by their post-college paycheck.

But the main focus in academe is not how to combat the growing power of corporations: it’s how to become more like them.  So the focus is on bottom-line issues like enrollment, retention, assessment, and partnering with business and industry.  Rarely is a rival vision presented to the prevailing ideology of serving corporate America.

Must we surrender the field of education to corporations? Fortunately, some “old guard” professors are still kicking.  Read on!  W.J. Astore

My Love/Hate Relationship with College Teaching

Richard Sahn

I teach sociology. I love to teach but I hate the institutional role I have to play. The great social-psychologist Erving Goffman would call my dilemma “role conflict.”  My conflict is the consequence of teaching the majority of my students who wish they were anywhere else than sociology class. But they have to take my course and, in many cases, need to get an “A” to compete for slots in the health science programs the college offers. These programs almost invariably lead to secure, well-paying jobs in the community such as nursing, dental hygiene, physician’s assistant, and radiation technology.

My function vis-à-vis the students is that of the proverbial cog in the machinery: in most cases they have to do well in my courses to advance their college careers. Learning about society, studying the great issues of our time, acquiring concepts which will help them understand themselves and their social relationships is the furthest thing from their minds.

And why shouldn’t it be?

American culture, indeed, the American way of life, does not encourage critical thinking about the established ways of doing things. Our society does not promote curiosity about why social and political events occur as they do. Making issues out of troubles, as the sociologist C. Wright Mills argued,  should be the main purpose not only of sociology but of all liberal arts courses. Issues are the result of realizing that most human problems are manufactured by political decision making. The American way of life rewards conformity, fitting in, supporting materialism, individualism, and competitiveness. The great unwashed—or what the Occupy movement calls the 99 percent—is expendable, disposable, and subject to be labeled “lazy” (or worse) if they’re economically unsuccessful.

But what makes my job even more obnoxious, that is, what damages my equanimity each day I go to work, is giving students grades on their papers and exams. More or less, I am forced to support the very system to which I rigorously object.  My students don’t react to me or evaluate my course on what they learn—or could be learning—but on how I grade their work. (Many are not even interested at all in their grades.)  Their self-esteem depends, to a great extent, on the grades.  No wonder students ask one another, after I return their papers, “what did you get” as opposed to “did he answer your questions about life, society, reality”?

So, what’s a conscientious college professor to do in this day and age? For instance, I see U.S. foreign policy as the enemy; my students see me as the enemy.  Am I the problem? Is our society the problem? Or, is the problem even deeper?

Bertrand Russell once observed that he was ashamed to be a part of the human species. Maybe I am fighting the very nature of humanity. Maybe I’m too much of an outsider, trying to change people into something incompatible with their nature. The trouble is, it is often agonizing for me to face students who are antagonistic toward almost every idea, concept, theory I try to teach them; they are in my classes for all the wrong reasons.  And yet without the system, the academic institution, I painfully acknowledge every day, I would not be able to earn a living teaching. Caught between a rock and a hard place, I go on anyway.

Richard Sahn, a professor of sociology, is a regular contributor to The Contrary Perspective.

7 thoughts on “My Love/Hate Relationship with College Teaching

  1. I am almost ninety years old and have lived through many hard times but it saddens me now to have seen the ‘soul’ slip out of American life. When college professors and teachers have been forced to perform like assembly line workers and students see themselves as commodities to be sold for a price our country has slipped to a low that I could never have imagined in the worst of times.
    Why have we allowed this to happen?

    • We’re a nation driven by “efficiency” and “relevance” and “practicality.” Much nowadays, including education, is couched in terms of making a buck, of being competitive, of meeting the needs of the workforce (whatever that means). Colleges are reflecting and reinforcing this general trend. The drive for productivity, the drive for profitability, all measured by “the bottom line”: this motif is coming to dominate education.

      Part of this, of course, is due to the cost of Higher Ed. You can’t blame a student for wanting to make lots of money if he or she needs lots of money to pay off their student debt.

      Higher Ed is also confused about its mission. So much of Higher Ed today is “higher” in the sense of goods and services provided to students, to include sports facilities, health clubs, fancy dormitories, and other “essentials” that students have come to expect at colleges and universities.

      Meanwhile, the old-fashioned mission of forming character and inculcating virtue seems exactly that: old-fashioned. Worldly success is the desideratum, as you can tell by all the Harvard/Ivy League grads who go into investment/banking positions on Wall Street.

      Such trends are nothing new, of course, but they are becoming more and more pronounced.

      • “We’re a nation driven by “efficiency” and “relevance” and “practicality.”
        I guess that is what the 1% is driving this nation into by defunding and demeaning a broad liberal education. They want us to compete with China and it is so short sighted. Meanwhile the better educated Chinese, Indians, and Russians are sought after here in our fastest growing industry, technology.
        I always urged my children to get a broad liberal education as a basis for a rounded personal and commercial life . It worked for me because my government ,with the GI Bill, gave me my education as a social scientist and I later used this education as an entre into a successful business career. One of my sons received an education as a political scientist and parlayed that into a career as a technology entrepreneur and a socially responsible citizen.. Another son got a liberal education in English and is a fast rising executive in the technology sector.
        A liberal education challenges the mind and drives curiosity which is the mother of invention.

  2. “Meanwhile, the old-fashioned mission of forming character and inculcating virtue seems exactly that: old-fashioned.”

    Bill.. I know it was an oversight but isn’t the real mission of a “higher education” to feed the ‘curiosity’ of the young and seek knowledge?
    Our supreme court has five members who all have gilt edged ‘higher educations’ but certainly lack virtue. And what in hell is “character”? Does John Roberts have character because he wears robe as head of the Supreme Court and Edward Snowden lack character because he sacrificed his life to warn our citizens of illegalities inour governance?

    • Yes, stimulating curiosity is important. So too is knowledge itself. Character, I would say, is doing the right thing even when no one is looking. Not taking the easy way out. Not exploiting others. And so on. Personally, I think Snowden showed character by exposing abuses of power. Roberts has authority, but his robes and position have nothing to do with character.

  3. Reblogged this on The Contrary Perspective and commented:

    Every now and then, we like to feature “old” posts again. It occurs to me that student debt is one of the biggest problems facing families (and especially recent college students and graduates) today. Not only because students are saddled with substantial debt upon graduation: the necessity for taking on debt to gain an education and credentials reinforces the idea that education is primarily a financial transaction measured by money, how much you owe and how much you can make in a post-college job so that you can pay down your debt. Small wonder that students are so focused on “success,” whether measured by grades or money. There’s much less room for curiosity and creativity when you’re worried about paying the bills.

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