Bright hues of pink and orange spilled across the turquoise sky like milk splattered on a linoleum floor. In the emerging light as the sun chased the moon away, I dotted my last i’s and crossed my final t’s, indented my bibliography and double-checked my citations. Then I shut down my laptop, closed my eyes, and whispered a petition to the gods of APA format and of SPSS results. At 6 a.m., with hardly any shuteye, I finally put my master’s thesis to bed, ready to be shaken awake by a panel shortly after. And not too long after that, my graduation, with a padded toga and all.
I can’t believe it’s been just a little over a month since I completed my master’s degree. I have no inkling as to what an MBA can accomplish. One thing is sure, nonetheless: At 24, I found that the pursuit of graduate school had maneuvered me clear of a looming quarter-life crisis. Certainly, life questions cannot coexist with accounting case studies or marketing plans.
But also—and most importantly—it opened up to me a whole new world of career opportunities in university: its rooms manned by people with fancy PhDs, its libraries lined with dissertations, its halls brimming with ideas, its legacy of knowledge withstanding administrations. Two years out of undergrad work and two years shy of a doctorate, I see the glitz of a professor’s world as shiny, seemingly friendly—and inviting.
It’s not too hard to draw up stereotypes of a professor. He comes to class in rumpled clothes, round-rim glasses atop his nose, bag slung on his shoulder, and a tower of books cradled in his arms. He is also looming and pensive. We’ll credit that imagery to Professor Keating, Professor Dumbledore, and even the Nutty Professor.
But while the archetype persists to this day, it is also not difficult to break it as we have eventually encountered professors of all kinds, from the amazingly chill to the numbingly tough. No matter their teaching styles, they’ve all been through hell and fire. Midway through my thesis study, I realized that it wasn’t easy to get that master’s degree, which makes those with doctorates almost like rock stars.
That they are teachers may be a fair description of a part of their job, but it is not accurate. “I am your professor, not your teacher,” writes Keith Parsons in The Huffington Post. “It is no part of my job to make you learn. At university, learning is your job—and yours alone. My job is to lead you to the fountain of knowledge. Whether you drink deeply or only gargle is entirely up to you.”
Surely, the world’s universities are aged and some are ancient, with roots and traditions dating to the Greeks. It is not hard to find why we exclude professors as part of an academic elite. They are products and participants of an enduring and prestigious culture.
But what is the role of a professor in this day and age? What is the role of citations in the growth of fake news? What is the prominence of sound research results against the backdrop of alternative facts? What is the position of statistical tools amid invented numbers and figures? How does expert opinion impact in a culture of smart-shaming?
But the biggest question for me is:
“Beneath the sampling, hypothesizing, and statistical analyzing, does a scholar’s findings intersect with a layman’s reality, or does it barely touch it at all?”
Danielle Steel once said: “The academic world was addictive and womblike, along with its intellectual challenges and pursuit of knowledge and degrees. And it was easy to hide from the real world and its demands. It was a haven of scholars and youth.”
More and more young people are lured by the academic world. Surely some colleagues my age have already found their place there.
Professors have many times been depicted as gatekeepers, as if they were the passages between an ideal academic world and the harsh “real” world. Rightly so, for universities are like tall ivory towers. But in this day and age, it may be appropriate to keep those gates wide open.
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