The Irascible ProfessorSM
Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro

"University politics are vicious precisely because the stakes are so small."... ...Henry Kissinger

Commentary of the Day - July 27, 2001: Fantasizing About My Last Faculty Meeting - Guest Commentary by Sanford Pinsker:

As I key in this paragraph, my last faculty meeting looms ahead.  I  look forward to it with great anticipation.  Why so?  Because when I start phased retirement next Fall, I won't have to attend any more of them--no more tedious reports by the president about how our current fundraising campaign  is doing, no more news from the provost about  an accreditation team slated to visit the campus, no more committee chairs or  blue-ribbon panels boring me to tears with what "studies show" about  plagiarism or binge drinking on other campuses.  And last but hardly least, no more extended performances from the floor by fellow faculty members, outraged, cranky, or just plain nuts.  I can stay home, thank you very much, and leave the business of  college governance to somebody else.

That's only a few of the reasons why  I'm  fantasizing  about my last faculty meeting. If the truth be told, though, I've  dreamed my way through most faculty meetings for most of the thirty-five years I attended them. It's only later, usually on late afternoons, when I fantasize about meetings that dance around my head but never happened.  No doubt some sociologist has already done a thoroughly researched study on the odd phenomenon of the faculty meeting and I realize full well most faculty members figure that I can't come up with something they haven't experienced themselves.  Both the sociologist and any academic picked at random know that faculty meetings are boring--that is, when they aren't flat-out infuriating. But at the risk of sounding  immodest, my fantasies  do a better job at cutting to the quick and giving boredom a human face.

Take, for example, my  recurring fantasy about the time  the president of my  College came  before the faculty to make the following announcement.  "I'm sure I won't say this with the proper sense of timing and drama, but let me simply tell you  that the Coca-Cola Company, tired of complaints that it only showers lavish gifts on Emory University, has decided to give a small liberal-arts college an unrestricted grant of l40 million dollars."

If you've already figured out that Franklin and Marshall  was the college that the folks from Coca-Cola picked, you're right.  After all, it's my fantasy, so why would I pick somebody else's college?  That said, what follows really thickens the plot.  Once again, our President speaks, this time, however, to a faculty sitting on the edge of their collective seats: "The officers and trustees recently met to decide what the best use of this money might be.  A new dorm?  Refurbishing  the chem. labs?  Perhaps an addition to our Arts Complex? All worthy suggestions, but after a good deal of thought, we came to the conclusion that the simplest solution might just be the best one.  Therefore, we propose to use this large gift to create a better faculty morale, and thus to make Franklin and Marshall College a happier place to teach and learn.  That's why we've decided to give each member of the faculty one million dollars."

Three hands immediately shoot up, the same three hands that always oppose everything the President ever proposes or says.  They are the professional gadflies that no  college worth the name can apparently do without.  Indeed, that is their identity, their mission, if you will--not scholarship, not teaching, not even the drudge work of faculty committees.  No, they simply stand at the ready to oppose the President, and they are prepared to so stand today.

But  in my fantasy  the same faculty that normally sits idly by as the triad of nay-sayers  crank against the President no longer suffers in silence--not with a million bucks per head hanging in the balance.  They rise, nearly as a body, pull up the chairs bolted to the floor,  and fling them at the malcontents.  This, after all, is one apple cart that the faculty doesn't want upset, even if it means dispatching three of their number and giving the President a round of applause.

I get the chance to travel a bit, and when I share this fantasy with people at other small colleges, they can not only name the three hands waving at their faculty meetings but  also tell me that  they would be happy to heave the first chairs.  This gives me some reason to suspect that my local fantasies have longer legs than I first imagined.  A few years ago, when I got tired of people telling me that English majors were not as well read as they once were, or that bio. students were no longer whiz kids in the labs, so, I proposed--in my fantasy, that is--a major in whining and a minor in shopping.  After all, the College had been adding new courses  in everything under the sun and beyond it, so why not add  ones in things our students are good at? Things went swimmingly at first (lots of people, normally my political enemies, rose to the floor to commend my wisdom), and it looked like the proposal would sail through.  But then (curses!), somebody suggested an amendment to the effect that we have a major in shopping and a minor in whining.  Not surprisingly, this precipitated a heated debate that ended with the faculty nearly equally divided and the motion tabled.  Indeed, that's the shape most of my fantasies take: sound and fury followed by a tabled motion.

Who knows, if this is what happens when I daydream my way through faculty meetings, perhaps this explains why  many younger faculty members don't attend them at all.  They are apparently too busy doing cutting-edge research that is often more talked about than produced.  Those of us who still attend faculty meetings know that our business is being conducted sans  quorum, in much the same way that the same absentee bunch is only on campus one or two days a week.  They are, in short,  unavailable--for meetings of any kind, posted  office hours, or anything else.  What to do?  Well, we talk about it, and (where else?) at faculty meetings where the culprits are conspicuously absent.  This, too, I regarded as a local problem until colleagues at other institutions told me that, just as it is easier to list students not on the Dean's List,  it is easier to list faculty members who regularly attend meetings than the much larger number of those who beg off.

The same thing is true about  the ongoing business of faculty evaluation--at our College or many other others in the endless pickle of measuring effective teaching.  When I first arrived at Franklin and Marshall, the burning issue was merit ratings and what sort of ingredients should go into determining the final number.  Student evaluations were a large part of the thorny puzzle, with some arguing that satisfaction should be the whole ball game while others (rightly, I think) worried that this was a sure-fire recipe for grade inflation.  Why I am not surprised that we will be debating yet another formula for student evaluation questions at my last faculty meeting.

As I remember it, one of the questions on an early version of the student evaluation form  was "Has this course changed your life?"  Possible responses ranged from "A lot" through "A little" to "Hardly at all." Ideally, our students should  have their lives changed four times a semester or thirty-two times over a college career.  I used to wonder how anybody could stand so many life-changing epiphanies in so sort of space, but it was hard to put  those suspicions  in the form of an objection from the faculty floor.

Instead , I dreamed my way through dozens of meetings until I settled on a fantasy that gets to the heart of what debates about teaching evaluations are really about.  "The ideal professor," I imagine myself saying from the floor of a faculty meeting, "should wear khaki pants, blue button-down shirts, a blue blazer, and penny loafers."  I nearly mentioned a "well-trimmed beard," but thought better of it because some women in the room would surely be offended.  My point, however, is that the ideal teacher should look very much like. . . well, me.  For isn't that  what the hullabaloo about student evaluations is really about?  Each professor  describes what he or she values in the classroom, be it lectures or free-floating discussion, a rigid syllabus or one devised through student input, and then argues these are the very things that evaluations, and merit pay, should pay attention to.  Sometimes the pronouncements are subtle, sometimes painfully obvious, but none completely escape the sense that a personal agenda is being served. At the very least my fantasy about the ideal professor who dresses as if the year were l955 has the value of unvarnished  honesty.

I don't plan to  share this particular fantasy  at my last faculty meeting because it wouldn't do a shred of good.  But I've got one ready just in case our president makes a passing mention about my years of faithful service.  Usually my fantasies take shape after a particularly dreary round of pointless, usually tabled, debates.  What makes me so excited about my last faculty meeting is that I see--in my mind's eye, that is--the president offering me an undisclosed amount of money if I promise not write anything, absolutely anything, about Franklin and Marshall College once I become emeritus.  After all, he'll explain to the faculty, if the government can pay farmers not to grow alfalfa, the College can pay me to  dummy up about the College.  I plan to hold out  for the million that I didn't get, three fantasies back, from the  folks at Coca-Cola.

 ©2001 Sanford Pinsker
Sanford Pinsker is Shadek Professor of Humanities at Franklin and Marshall College.

Although Krispy Kreme U. is a much larger institution than Franklin and Marshall, much of what Professor Pinsker writes about is all too familiar to the Irascible Professor.

Return to main commentary.

© 2001 Dr. Mark H. Shapiro - All rights reserved.