Many years ago I served on a search committee for a position in the history of American Foreign Policy. For many reasons it was an odd search, and we ultimately did not succeed in hiring anyone for the opening. We interviewed one candidate over the phone, with an exceptional record of publication, and a strong, Ivy League academic pedigree. He was doing a post-doc at some thinktank somewhere and, when asked about teaching said that, yes, he did enjoy it, and that it was for him a “nice break in the day.” He would not have been a good fit for us. I teach in a department, and at a college, with a great number of very fine teachers, where teaching is Job One, and where we take great pride in the accomplishments of our undergraduates.
I have served on many search committees since that time. It consistently strikes me how poorly served are many job candidates who come from elite research institutions. The letters of recommendation, even when they are signed and printed on letter-head, are so long, with detailed and esoteric discussions of the significance of a candidate’s research. In my view, they contain more detail than is necessary and, all too often, say little about teaching beyond expressing the belief that the candidate, based upon their personality, might be good at it.
Do not get me wrong. Research is important. It makes you a better historian and, when done with eyes open, it makes for better teaching. It
forces you to remain engaged with the scholarship and to keep abreast of the developments in your field. Even at a college like ours, it is something that you are required to do in order to achieve tenure and promotion.
And even at a school like mine, with its heavy teaching load and limited travel funds, it is my view something that you are ethically bound to do. Were I to resign my position, and if my college was able to scare up the money to replace me and conduct a tenure-track search for a historian in Early American or Native American history, I would expect that at least a hundred people would apply for the job. Many of these people would be fantastically qualified. Many of them would have published much more by the time they went out on the job market than my peers and I did back in the middle of the 1990s.
But, let’s face it, many of them will never land tenure-track teaching positions. Because colleges increasingly rely on adjuncts to carry the weight of their college’s teaching obligations, or because public systems are strapped for cash and positions are not necessarily replaced, many of these outstanding young historians will never get the chance to do what I have done. It is an unjust system, and no meritocracy. Those of us with good jobs need to appreciate how privileged we are. We need to publish, and if we cannot, we should get the hell out of the way for those who can. We cannot justly take up space. Other people, were they so fortunate, would produce high quality work and in quantity if they could. Many of them will never get that chance.
Many of those who apply for position after position and never find secure academic employment would make fantastic college teachers as well. So those of us fortunate enough to have jobs have the obligation to put our best efforts forward, to realize that we speak to more students on any given teaching day than will likely ever read an article we publish or listen to a paper we give at this or that conference. We should realize that we can devastate a student with an unkind word or with criticism that is indelicate or overly harsh.
We should recognize as well that with words of confidence and encouragement we can change a young person’s life. A student will remember us, and what we have said, perhaps long after we have forgotten that student’s name. And to have that sort of positive impact as a teacher requires great effort and commitment and consciousness. I once had a colleague when I taught in Montana who told me during my campus visit that being a college professor was “the best part-time job in the world.” He published shit, a bibliography here, a stupid article there. He taught unimaginatively–presidents and scantrons in American history. To do well requires an enormous amount of energy and sensitivity. Teaching is the most important thing we do.
I have had many great teachers as colleagues. Bill Cook, my medievalist colleague who retired a few years back, and who was adored by generations of students, told me that he reminded himself that every student he taught was the most important person in somebody’s life, and that they were entitled to the utmost courtesy, care, and respect. His office for many years was across from mine, and I was always impressed by how much time he took with students, how much interest he showed in them. It was a good lesson for me.
I had this student who took a couple of my classes–my Native American survey course and my course in American Indian Law. She wrote one of the finest research projects I had ever read. Her short papers were brilliantly insightful. They were well-researched and extremely well-written. They were theoretically sophisticated. She was not a history major, but was the best student in each of the classes she took. As she prepared to leave campus, having completed her last semester, she stopped by my office. She thanked me for the semester. I told her that I have been at this teaching thing a while. I told her that I had a good idea of what it takes to succeed in graduate school and academia, and I told her that I am highly selective in who I recommend for graduate school–it is a tough job market, after all, and to succeed you need to be a hard worker, talented, and imaginative. I told her that I did not know what her plans were after school but that I had every confidence that she could succeed in any endeavor she chose to pursue, and that I would be delighted to write a letter of recommendation for her. She was visibly moved by this.
A couple of weeks later, I was talking to a colleague in her home department. I was sharing how talented I thought this student was, and thanked my colleague for sending her over to my department. He said that she was a C student, that she did not seem that interested or motivated. Damn. That transcript. Those grades. Wouldn’t work for graduate school. It was a conversation that left me deeply disappointed, and I feel it still, a couple of years later. Was she really uninterested, or was he uninspired or ill-advised? I wish I had the chance to meet this student earlier in her Geneseo career. I have a feeling that I may have been the only professor she had who really let her know how exceptional and talented she was.
We teach. Sometimes, we get lucky, and we meet students who have such breath-taking talent that we learn more from them than they from us. Sometimes students disappoint us, frustrate us, inspire us, and make us proud. Sometimes they do not live up to what we believe is their potential. But once in a while, you will change their life for the better, and, once in a while, they will make yours much better, too.