Universities can be Intellectual Wastelands

Why are some University Campuses Intellectual Wastelands?

Early in my career I was sponsored to attend a weeklong workshop designed to help professors become Master Teachers. The workshop was enlightening. I learned two things. After my first presentation, the strongest criticism the organizers had of me was that I was too “feminine.” I should become manlier in the way I engaged students. (Perhaps they mistook feminine for “Southern” since I was teaching at a Southern College and the workshop was in the “North.”) During my next presentation, I took on the persona of a dominating male and even changed my clothing to be more “masculine.” This presentation shocked the evaluators. I became what they wanted me to be and they totally disliked my personality and me. In the end they agreed that I could be myself in the classroom — even if I was too “feminine.”

There were about twenty-five professors in the workshop and I did not come away with a single friend because the workshop was a competition. There was no collaboration on any level. We took several psychological and skill tests the names of which I do not remember. One test placed our personality into a four quadrant schemata. Every other person in the workshop was in an opposite quadrant than I was. They needed security, protection, and were introverts. I was the only one in the workshop that did not need security and protection and I was classified as an extrovert. My personality was placed in what they termed “Entrepreneurial.” This was not the typical personality of a professor and perhaps that is the reason that college environments failed me. As a young professor, I thought there would be an engaging intellectual community at the colleges where I taught. I did find friends but to be truthful, I do not remember having a single stimulating conversation with another faculty member in my career. I can remember that at interviews, some of the questions were engaging, and then there was one librarian whose conversation came very close to being engaging.

The reasons for this lack of engaging conversation are complicated. We are schooled in different disciplines with different languages and different goals in our careers. Many professors are overloaded with “mindless” classes that they teach over and over again. They are placed on “mindless” committees that do busy work that amounts to no changes in anything. The bureaucrats enjoy keeping faculty busy doing nothing that matters.  Their minds are sucked dry.

When people have this tremendous need to be protected and stay in a “secure” environment they are not going to rock the boat. One chair said to me that he was not going to be sacrificed for anyone. He was not going to risk anything even if it meant making a positive change on campus. Many professors never step outside their own intellectual shell to engage living, breathing people on campus. They have to protect themselves from interlopers of their own intellectual properties. They cannot share because that would mean giving up their own security.

While my graduate studies challenged me intellectually, the years as a professor rarely brought an intellectual challenge. Teaching General Education classes until the cows come home is as boring as working in a factory. Students don’t really want to be in those classes and are unprepared for challenging work. Often, they do not read or cannot read and rarely can they write a good sentence. And the numbers of students in those classes are excessive.

Oh, I kept busy with developing over thirty courses, writing lots of books, giving scores of papers at national meetings, but the only time I ever had engaging conversations was with scholars in my field at national meetings. Without the American Academy of Religion and the Society of Biblical Literature my teaching career would have been an intellectual wasteland. As scholars and professors we need to learn how to reach out to other professionals but the environment in which we work is too competitive. They overwork us and under appreciate our efforts. We don’t have any support and we fear that we will lose what little we have achieved or amassed.

We could learn from each other if we weren’t so afraid of each other. If we talked to each other, we might learn to appreciate each other. Perhaps we could become better people, better teachers, and more intellectually engaged.

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