Thursday, March 20, 2008

The Open Scholar: Professors Are People Too

New York Times
March 20, 2008
The Professor as Open Book

IT is not necessary for a student studying multivariable calculus, medieval literature or Roman archaeology to know that the professor on the podium shoots pool, has donned a bunny costume or can’t get enough of Chaka Khan.

Yet professors of all ranks and disciplines are revealing such information on public, national platforms: blogs, Web pages, social networking sites, even campus television.

When scholars were recently given the chance to refute student criticism posted on the Web site, a cult-hit television series, “Professors Strike Back,” was born. The show, which has professors responding on camera to undergraduate gripes such as “boring beyond belief,” made its debut in October on mtvU, a 24-hour network broadcast to more than 7.5 million students on American college campuses. [snip]

There was a time when professors did not outrank music premieres on television. They were buttoned-up authority figures, like the legendary fictional Professor Kingsfield, portrayed by John Houseman in “The Paper Chase.” The personal lives of professors could only be imagined from the sparse clues of clothing, handwriting and the contents of offices.

These days, the clues are usually digital and are broad invitations to get to know the person behind the Ph.D. It is not uncommon for professors’ Web pages to include lists of the books they would take to a deserted island, links to their favorite songs from bygone eras, blog posts about their children, entries “written” by their dogs and vacation photographs.

While many professors have rushed to meet the age of social networking, there are some who think it is symptomatic of an unfortunate trend, that a professor’s job today is not just to impart knowledge, but to be an entertainer.

Certainly, professors have embraced the Internet since its earliest days, using it as a scholarly avenue of communication, publication and debate. Now it is common for many to reveal more personal information that has little connection to their work.

Some do so in hopes it will attract attention for a book or paper they have written; others do so inadvertently, joining Facebook to communicate with students and then finding themselves lured deeper by its various applications.

Many, though, say that by divulging family history and hobbies, they hope to appear more accessible to students.

William Irwin, an associate professor of philosophy at King’s College in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., has a Facebook profile, appeared on “Professors Strike Back” and, last summer, created a MySpace page (with a harpist playing music by Metallica) that he says had some 10,000 friends.


Mr. Irwin updates his Facebook page with photos and titles of books he is reading, but he misses what he calls the Las Vegas feel of MySpace. Still, his postings ignite a conversation with students. “Anything I can do to kind of meet them halfway,” he said, “I try to do.”

This sentiment is shared by scholars who think that knowing that your Latin professor likes fly fishing and runs a knitting circle could improve the teacher-student relationship.

David H. Collingwood, a mathematics professor at the University of Washington and a Web page pioneer, whose online photographs show him drinking wine in Italy, mountaineering and scuba diving, said in an e-mail message that undergraduates in large classes often fear approaching the professor for help.

Having a common interest can break the ice. “I have students come to my office hours and comment on a commonality between their interests and mine,” he wrote.

Nate Ackerman, a lecturer in mathematics at the University of Pennsylvania, whose Web page includes information about his wrestling achievements and photos of him with his cats, agreed. “It’s better when your professor’s human,” he said.


Mr. Friedman of mtvU said it is the nature of the age. “I think it’s part of this increased transparency,” he said.


A number of professors said the most disarming thing of all to students is when they encounter a professor not on a Web page, but in the real world. When a student spotted Mr. Gosling on a street near campus, he said, “She looked at me in, like, horror. Like, ‘Wait a minute, you have a life?’ The idea that I would continue to exist — it was sort of a violation of her expectations.”


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