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Yale and Melissa Click: What’s a college professor good for?

Written By | Nov 12, 2015

WASHINGTON, Nov. 12, 2015 – Melissa Click is an assistant professor of mass media at the University of Missouri. She became a subject of mass media attention when she forcibly tried to prevent student journalists Tim Tai and Mark Schierbecker from reporting on student protests from inside an impromptu “media-free zone.”

Click, whose current research interests include “Fifty Shades of Grey” and the impact of social media on the interaction of Lady Gaga and her fans, apologized for her treatment of the journalists and resigned her courtesy appointment to Missouri’s School of Journalism. That appointment allowed her to sit on committees overseeing graduate theses.

Click’s political activities and sometimes hostile stance towards journalism and free speech are not rare among America’s professoriate. Her research sounds trite and silly – as does her doctoral dissertation on the whiteness of Martha Stewart – but that type of research is as common as dirt on our campuses.

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And to be fair, it is sometimes the case that there’s a more serious purpose to the research than is conveyed by the title or by an economist’s snarky description of it.

Higher education is in crisis. States have slashed university system budgets, and tuition at both public and private institutions has risen sharply. In the face of high costs, parents and students increasingly see universities in vocational terms, asking about the jobs and salaries that will be commanded by a university degree.

No one seems to have a clear idea of what universities are for.

University faculties and students often seem curiously out of touch with economic and social realities, especially those at elite institutions. Students claim to feel unsafe or insecure at Yale’s Silliman College, a residence that includes a movie theater, media center, art gallery, library, kitchen, aerobics and dance studio, art studio, basketball court, weight and fitness room, sound studio, game room and a buttery.

This is because Erica Christakis, the associate master of Silliman College, wrote a letter to Silliman students suggesting that they act and treat each other like adults in choosing and criticizing Halloween costumes.

Ninety-nine percent of the world’s population would probably sacrifice a kidney, if not a child, for the chance to live at Silliman. The insults and hazards of the real world are beyond any risk one would ever face at Silliman or even at the University of Missouri.

Minority students at both institutions face real racism and real marginalization that a middle-aged white man can’t fathom, and most of them are well aware that it will be much worse when they leave the university behind. Yet many of us wonder, what are the skills and tools students take with them from the university out into the world?

How will the Melissa Clicks of academia prepare them to face a cold and unsympathetic world after they graduate?

What should college professors do to prepare their students for the rest of their lives?

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Professors traditionally take two approaches to teaching students. The first is to give them answers; the second is to teach them to find good answers for themselves. In some fields, it is essential that students learn a large body of knowledge, that they learn state-of-the-art answers. They learn about the oxidation states of thorium and how to calculate the time and space contraction experienced by an astronaut travelling at relativistic speeds.

They learn to calculate the forces acting on a bridge and how to design an electrical circuit, how to perform cost-benefit analysis and the metabolic pathways by which the energy in sugar powers biological processes.

When it comes to doing organic synthesis, your opinion is irrelevant. Nature is uninterested in your feelings, and so most probably is your professor.

The arts and humanities are different. Truth in these fields is more subjective, and so your ability to think critically and to shore up your conclusions with logic and evidence are more important. Your answer to a physics problem is right or wrong; your answer to a question about the nature of justice is only right to the extent that it is clearly reasoned and carefully supported. It isn’t the answer that matters, but how you get it.

In fact, there are some cold, hard facts you must learn in the humanities, and logical thought and creativity that go beyond cold facts have propelled advances in the hardest of natural sciences. A good professor both teaches you to think and gives you some solid things to think about.

Anyone can learn to know a lot about a discipline.

PhDs in economics invariably know a lot about economics, and professors of chemistry know a lot about chemistry. Professors of race and gender studies know the academic literature about race and gender. But do they really know the discipline?

Are you a philosopher? You might say “no, I don’t have a degree in philosophy” or “I have a degree, but I don’t work as a philosopher.” That doesn’t answer the question. Plato didn’t have a degree in philosophy, but he was without a doubt a philosopher. Doing philosophy is different from finding a job as a professor of philosophy.

To be a philosopher, a chemist or an economist involves more than learning the formulas, theories and history of the profession. It involves learning to think like a philosopher, chemist or economist. It calls for seeing the world in new ways and for some creativity. Universities are good places to learn a lot about philosophy or economics. They can set you on the path to being a philosopher or an economist. But they can’t make you one.

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So what should college professors do to prepare students to face the world? They should challenge students to be better tomorrow than they are today. They should teach students the information they need to master the discipline, then push them to find that spark within themselves that will let them take that knowledge to new places, to go beyond the current limits of the discipline.

If we are successful, our students might someday know more than we do and be better at our disciplines than we are. But that isn’t the real goal. The real goal is to make our students into better men and women, better citizens, better parents than they would be if they’d never walked into our classes.

We want them to be real adults.

We know very little about Melissa Click as a teacher. We’ve seen only one video, and she might have been having a very bad day. We know little about the students at Yale who want to shout down or force out Erika Christakis and her husband.

Those students were also caught behaving badly on video, but they also might have been caught on a very bad day.

What we might suspect, though, is that those Yale students have so far been failed by their parents and their teachers. They are less interested in a place where ideas can be shared safely than in a place where they can be safe from ideas.

We might suspect that Click is more interested in creating a safe place for her ideas than she is in subjecting them to the terrors of a free and open marketplace for thought and expression.

Education is a scary business for professors and students alike. When it’s done well, our most cherished beliefs are challenged and may be found wanting. We are forced to examine and understand ideas we find hateful; if you don’t understand an idea well enough to offer a solid defense of it, you don’t understand it well enough to attack it honestly.

Education requires humility, the constant realization that we might be wrong and the ability to embrace the proof of it. Our theories of matter, economic growth, gender and justice might be wrong – beautiful and imposing structures built on sand. We should never be afraid to tear those structures down and start over.

Humility is an adult virtue; it doesn’t come naturally to children, college students or PhDs. It is essential to becoming an adult, though. It is precisely the virtue that Dr. Click, Yale students in the news, and their enablers seem to lack. (University administrators in these cases often also lack spine, but that’s another story.)

Many college professors are simply adequate, not good or great. Most know a lot about their discipline, but they know mostly the outer form, not the spirit. They believe that their job is to make their students adequate, to focus on what can be tested and ignore what won’t be on the test.

But many others are inspiring. They and their students, too grown up and too humble to believe that the world must conform to their demands, don’t end up in YouTube videos.

Ultimately, a great college professor is no different from a great high school teacher, a great scoutmaster, a great baseball coach or a great parent. All are serious adults who want to see young people in their charge grow up to use their minds and talents as best they can.

The initials after a name mean nothing. It comes down to love and integrity. Those can still be found on campus. We just have to look.

Jim Picht

James Picht is the Senior Editor for Communities Politics. He teaches economics and Russian at the Louisiana Scholars' College in Natchitoches, La. After earning his doctorate in economics, he spent several years doing economic development work in Moscow and the new independent states of the former Soviet Union for the U.S. government, the Asian Development Bank, and as a private contractor. He has also worked in Latin America, the former USSR and the Balkans as an educator, teaching courses in economics and law at universities in Ukraine and at finance ministries throughout the region. He has been writing at the Communities since 2009.