What exactly is a professor these days?

It’s a question with no easy answer, finds James Derounian

November 13, 2015

There is an air of mystique (and kudos) surrounding the title “Professor”. On the one hand, it conjures up tired stereotypes (think eggheads and batty scientists), and on the other, those elite, high-flying scholars soaring through the academic stratosphere (think Richard Dawkins, Stephen Hawking or even Brian Cox).

A professorship is widely seen as the pinnacle of achievement for staff in higher education. But what – in 2015 – should a professor be?

Broadly speaking (and with many caveats around the differences between countries and cultures), professors teach students at a high level, they conduct research and they publish scholarly works. So far, so simple.

In fact, from a US perspective, I’ve heard that things are perceived as far simpler in Europe (where only very senior faculty call themselves professors).

Writing to freshers in the press earlier this year, the University of Houston-Clear Lake’s Keith Parsons attempted to simplify the situation still further for his new charges. “I am your professor, not your teacher. There is a difference,” he wrote. “Up to now your instruction has been in the hands of teachers, and a teacher’s job is to make sure that you learn…However, things are very different for a university professor. It is no part of my job to make you learn. At university, learning is your job – and yours alone.”

A university professor, he wrote, should “lead you to the fountain of knowledge”, but “whether you drink deeply or only gargle is entirely up to you”. It’s an interesting view.

Emory University English professor Mark Bauerlein wrote a piece for The New York Times titled What’s the point of a professor? In it, he argues that “you can’t become a moral authority if you rarely challenge students in class and engage them beyond it. If we professors do not do that, the course is not an induction of eager minds into an enlarging vision. It is a requirement to fulfil.”

He goes on to state that in times past “students looked to professors for moral and worldly understanding”. In 1967, in fact, more than twice as many students said they hoped that university would help them in “developing a meaningful philosophy of life” as they hoped that it would ensure they were “well off financially” in the future. Since then, these objectives have traded places.

The decline in regard for teaching in higher education seems to have deep roots. Back in 1518 (!), a requirement for Oxford arts graduates to undertake a period of teaching was rescinded “because nobody attends those lecturing”.

I certainly subscribe to the view that the best professors treat students as individuals, not numbers. They go the extra mile in helping students and in responding in a timely and constructive manner to study queries; they not only know their stuff but also know how to communicate it, in an engaging and inspiring way.

Professors should go way beyond the academy and talking in huddles through journals that have limited readership. They should not be presenting articles in arcane language and publishing findings a year or so after the event.

We find ourselves in a world of mass migration, climate change, poverty and war. Now – of all times – is a moment for leadership and connection; for influencing policy, communicating ideas and facilitating their implementation. Without this, we as citizens and academics are lost. As philosopher of science J. D. Bernal commented – the scientist is citizen first, scientist second.

There appears little consensus on what a professor actually is. Is it a status symbol; the summit of the academy? The opaqueness of the issue was brought home by one retired professor who told me: “You’ll know a real professor when you see one.”

James Derounian is principal lecturer, applied social sciences, and National Teaching Fellow at the University of Gloucestershire.

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Reader's comments (9)

Last sentence says it all. Some people have that rare combination of insight, comprehension, and superb ability to communicate ideas on any level.
Thought provoking article. Would have liked to have seen some reference to the role of the professor in enabling and mentoring junior colleagues. Many are concerned with feathering own nest, but the best I have worked with epitomize the spirit of collegiality and team building.
Thank you Stanley Lambchop [great name :)] - editing limits content....but completely agree with you re "mentoring junior colleagues"; and the importance of fostering the "spirit of collegiality and team building"....doesn't take much to say "thanks...well done....good job" etc James
It's a pity that James works for a University that, not so long ago, promoted its Dean of Business to Professor; an individual who had never once published anything, an individual who had an alleged history of bullying in another Faculty, an individual who had not one qualification in a business related field and an individual who brought public scandal on the University over a whistle blowing case. Perhaps James we already know what a Professor isn't, or at least we should know by now what one ought not to be.
Dear Descartes - We may "already know what a Professor isn't", but in the spirit of being constructive, we need to proceed and contribute on the basis of what one ought to be. James
Where I work a professor can be various things. Notably they can be brown nosers or someone with the flimsiest of publication records. Someone with a record of deep learning and understanding? You'd be hard put to find one of those.
Destructive testing has served IKEA well over the years James, perhaps that was the model being followed by your VC at the time, but I take your point. In your commendable constructive spirit, let me reverse the invective and comment that every 'proper' Professor I've worked with/for own certain qualities. Their academic credentials are rooted in hard won qualifications in their discipline, they are respected members of their academic community, they demonstrate humility widely, they promote their University through having published in leading journals in their field and they serve their University with pride. Clearly these qualities are mutually inclusive but without one or more of them, one does not have a Professor.
"In fact, from a US perspective, I’ve heard that things are perceived as far simpler in Europe (where only very senior faculty call themselves professors)." Sadly no longer in the UK where City University London is doshing out the title 'Professor' to part time lecturers of undergraduates
Hi James, sorry to say you have missed out an increasingly important role for Professors - that of revenue generator via research grants. This is now a widely-expected task for most, but the pressure on Profs to deliver this seems increasingly to outweigh the traditional roles of facilitating learning, research and 'academic citizenship' - a term I picked up from the THE in a great article a few months ago. I would also add that being a good 'teacher', or 'learning facilitator', or whatever term one prefers, is almost never enough to enable an academic to attain the title and level of (full) Professor (as distinct from Assistant or Associate Prof.

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