Here a prof, there a prof

They're everywhere now. John Warren recalls when it was a rare honour to receive the academy's highest accolade

January 27, 2011

Every morning I arrive at the office and enact a futile, Reggie Perrin-esque routine before starting my day. Part of this habitual pattern of behaviour includes emptying my pigeonhole of junk mail; because, let's face it, when did anyone last send a significant piece of correspondence by post? Recently, however, I found a small white card lying in the bottom of the box. It was a reprint request, an anachronism, a reminder of an academic world I thought had faded into the mists of time.

Receiving a postal request for a copy of a paper reminded me of a number of long-forgotten pleasures. The first of these was the egotistical thought that somewhere out in the great wide world are people interested in reading what I have written. Second, the arrival of reprint requests was often also associated with an exotic stamp or two. The final element that used to complete the warm glow was the ego-massage derived from the flattering words usually found at the top - "Dear Professor".

How times have changed. As an undergraduate, I spent three joyous years in a department that boasted no professors at all. In those halcyon days of my academic youth, to be inaccurately addressed by the title "professor" was as flattering as it was rare.

The occupiers of professorial chairs were limited to one or two august gentlemen (they were overwhelmingly male) per department. Professors were impressive polymaths, who were founts of obscure but wide-ranging knowledge gained over many years of scholarly endeavour. Indeed, I know one professor who held chairs in departments as diverse as genetics and music. To be called "professor" - even erroneously on a tatty reprint request card - was an honour.

Today many university departments may contain 20, 30 or even more professors. The title is no longer the badge of the respected elder statesman; it is increasingly associated with the youthful high-flyer.

The title professor is seen as a reward for capturing grants and is associated with the publication of highly regarded papers in increasingly narrow fields.

Professors are no longer polymaths but extreme specialists. Perhaps most surprising is the fact that most professors no longer profess: as extreme research specialists, most professors have no time or inclination to teach students. When they are put in front of a class of undergraduates, they have only one or two pet subjects that they can talk about and all too often these go straight over the heads of most modern students.

The publication of GCSE and A-level results each summer is associated with a predictable deluge of opinion articles in the media objecting to exam grade inflation. But while we obsessively over-analyse the minutiae of grade increases at the bottom end of the academic spectrum, the hyperinflation in the awarding of the title professor goes unnoticed, by all except those in academia.

So finding a reprint request wrongly addressed with the title "professor" is no longer as flattering as it was. Perhaps it is because I am becoming cynical as I rapidly approach the age at which chairs were formerly offered to senior academics (just as they became a little shaky on their feet). In today's university system, being in your fifties is regarded as being "past it" in the professorial stakes.

I am tempted to crumple the reprint request card that had the audacity to call me professor. But as I contemplate the act, a sprightly old emeritus professor scurries past me down the corridor. Of course we all know that old professors never die and it appears that neither do they lose their faculties. But I wonder if the ranks of the modern career professors will still be flying high in their dotage.

Therefore, in deference to the professors of old, I address a Manila envelope, enclose my most recent paper and post it, confident that it is not on its way to some whippersnapper professor in their thirties.

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