Tuesday, March 27, 2012


I find the preconceived notions about and interest in the academic world my students have refreshing, if at times confusing.

When I teach writing,* I make the point to my students that they ought to avoid bombast, lest they end up coming across as Oswald Bates from In Living Color.  Usually, I phrase it as something like "don't be fancy for the sake of being fancy," and the students usually claim to understand and then show that they do not quite get it as much as they say they do.  But that is a commonplace.

This semester, when I discussed bombast with one of my classes, one of the students brought up the insistence of many who hold a PhD that they be called "Doctor," a group among which I cannot say I do not stand.  The student remarked that calling for the use of an earned title is "fancy for the sake of being fancy" and that he (the student is male, I promise) would rather call someone "Mr." than "Dr." based on that idea.  Here, I confess to being confused; while I am well aware of an anti-intellectual, anti-authoritarian strain in the prevailing culture of the United States (something John McWhorter discusses at length in Doing Our Own Thing), I am not sure that the student has thought his position through.  It seems quite a bit less artificially ostentatious to insist upon the use of an earned title than to prefer an unearned one--and such honorifics as "Mr." and "Ms." are accorded based on (usually) imposed qualities rather than upon merit.**

Less confusing was a more recent discussion I had with a technical writing class I taught.  In it, I had the students read an article Lisa Melancon and Peter England wrote, "The Current Status of Contingent Faculty in Technical and Professional Communication" (College English 73.1 [March 2011]: 396-408).  They did, and the discussion that followed was one of the best periods of teaching I have done.  I did notice that many of the students' questions and comments were about tenure: what it is, why it matters, and what effects it has (and the lack of it among instructors has) on teaching.  They seem to have arrived at the opinion--of which I approve--that more classes at the introductory level ought to be taught by those who are most invested in their institutions and who therefore should have the most to gain from students of all sorts acquiring solid educations.

It is good to see that students in technical fields at a technical college understand the value of firm grounding in the humanities.  There is some hope yet.

*Insofar as writing can be "taught," which depends greatly on how "teaching" is defined.  But that requires more consideration than I can really give here and now.  I suppose it will have to wait.

**I am aware that there are problems in this statement.  I know that gender is performed, and that the presence of intersexed and trans-gendered persons complicates matters.  I know also that a great many people who have "earned" titles have not actually earned those titles.  I know not, however, a better way to phrase the ideas, for which I apologize.

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