August 2014
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In Defense of the Tenure Set

I may have come across as a bit hostile towards tenure-track faculty in this post .

(Psssst. Hope. Your bitter is showing).

Yes, there are people in academia who think that they are the universe’s gift to the world. But there are people like that everywhere, right? Some of these people are just harder to fire than others.

I’d like to tell you a little story about a tenured professor who impacted my life in ways that he was probably never aware of.

The year was 2001. I was a freshman at Trinity College, and I wasn’t sure how I felt about being there. I mostly liked my classes. And I definitely liked being able to eat french fries for lunch every day (why, Hope, whyyyyyyyy ?). But I was not so sold on Trinity as a whole. I hadn’t met my people yet (that was going to take one more semester), so I often felt lonely and out of place. I had an awful lot of classmates who didn’t seem to care so much about the part of college where you showed up to classes and learned things.

I would later learn that disinterested classmates aren’t necessarily a bad thing. I got a lot of fantastic one-on-one attention from faculty members who were just so darn happy to have a student that cared . But, at that moment, it was just one more thing that made me feel like I didn’t belong.

And along came Mozart’s father.

I was taking a class on Mozart, taught by John Platoff . It was one of those classes that you both love and hate. Because you’re learning all sorts of great stuff, but holy carp is this a lot of work. In hindsight, of course, I loved that class. I’m prouder of that A- than I am of quite a few A’s and A+’s.

It was a beautiful spring day, and I was a little sleepy from lunch (probably, it was the french fries). But Dr. Platoff manged to get my full attention when he started reading a letter from Mozart’s father. The letter was about an opera that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart wrote when he was still a child, an opera that was then performed by Italy’s premiere opera house, with Mozart himself conducting. Leopold Mozart wrote in his letter about his immeasurable happiness and pride in watching his son conduct, and in watching his son triumph.

Dr. Platoff had to stop reading for a moment, because he was tearing up a bit.

“I’m sorry,” he said, “one day you’ll have kids and you’ll understand what this must have meant for Leopold Mozart.”

Spoiler alert! One day I did have a kid. And Dr. Platoff was totally correct. But that moment wasn’t about my thoughts on children. That moment was about watching my professor get emotional about his subject matter. That moment was realizing, oh, hey, I’m at a school where the faculty cares about their subject matter. This guy could be at another university writing grant proposals and delegating most of his teaching duties to wage slaves grad students.  But he’s here, because he loves this stuff and he wants to teach us about.

In that moment, I decided I was going to stick around.

It’s not quite so dramatic as “John Platoff kept me from dropping out of college.” Because I never had any intentions of dropping out of college. But I had thought about going somewhere else.

(Funny enough, one of the other schools I was considering was Tufts, where I eventually ended up working and going to grad school).

In that moment, I decided that Trinity College could very well be the school for me. And I was right. I loved Trinity. I got a fantastic education. I was in small classes (no giant lecture courses for me!). I had faculty who really cared about teaching. I met some of my favorite people in the whole wide world. These are all things that never would have happened if I’d decided that Hartford was a shithole (it kindof is) and that Trinity students are all a bunch of preppies who pop their collars and wear loafers with no socks (ok, most of them are) and that I should just transfer somewhere else or  go home (strangely enough, not true).

I’m not entirely sure how much I learned about Mozart that day (I was convinced that it was a nine-year-old Mozart who wrote that opera, but a quick googling tells me that he was 14). But, that’s not the lesson that I needed to learn. You get out of college what you put into it. And that day in college, I learned the importance of finding faculty members who care about their subject matter. Faculty members who maybe care so much about their subject matter that it can overwhelm their emotions.

I didn’t take nearly as many music classes in college as I would have liked to. But I got to work closely with Dr. Platoff the next year when I was a First Year Mentor . And we stayed in touch – he took me out to lunch to congratulate me when I graduated in 2004. I had a lot of great professors at Trinity. I learned that, if you let your faculty know that you actually care about your classes, they will appreciate you for it. This has served me well in grad school.

Did you have any epiphanies in college?

4 comments to In Defense of the Tenure Set

  • Did you have any epiphanies in college?

    I went to community college while in HS (special state program where you get HS and college credits at the same time), and it struck me in one of my classes that everyone that was in the class was there because the wanted to be there, not because they had to be there like in HS.

    It was an eye-opener for me, and helped me to appreciate my time there.

    [Reply]

  • [Dare I announce this to the world? Sure, why not}

    My freshman English teacher looked straight at me during a one-on-one and straight-out asked, "Do you want to just be charming all your life or do you want to use that brain of yours?"

    Ouch. And what a gift.

    [Reply]

  • Hope, I had a Dr. Platoff in my life too while at college when I was seriously thinking about dropping out. I get that it isn’t a professor’s job to entertain us, but he reached out to me, helped me gain confidence, and also showed me that learning and doing well were fun again. I’ll always be thankful that the ability of a single professor to lift me up counteracted the ability of a couple of jerks who nearly beat me down.

    [Reply]

  • B.

    Loved this post and the one about the VIA. You showed both sides of the spectrum. ^_^

    But seriously, college is a rough time for most of us and having a professor that cares makes a big difference. And like you share in your post, it’s not that they care about YOU as a student (though that helps, of course); but they care about what they are teaching you. The subject matter. When someone is passionate about what they are talking about, teaching, sharing with the world…it makes a BIG difference in how you view them, that subject matter and maybe even the world around you.

    Thank God for the Dr. Platoff’s out there!

    [Reply]

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