A Thought Experiment

“Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach.”

That’s been around forever, that demeaning sense that everyone knows how to teach because they a) raised kids, b) showed their neighbor how to start a lawnmower, c) led Cub Scouts for a couple of years, or d) have a job skill. And one of the surprising ways that belief expresses itself is in the number of people who hold some job or another at colleges, and pick up a course or two each semester as an enhancement of their salary.

Here’s a sample list of people at one college who, along with their day job, are also listed as “part-time faculty:”

  • Head coach, women’s soccer
  • Head coach, men’s soccer
  • Head coach, baseball
  • Head coach, football
  • Head athletic trainer
  • Head coach, men’s basketball
  • Athletic trainer
  • Strength and conditioning coach
  • Senior associate athletic director

But, lest you think they all work in the athletic department, there’s also…

  • Student support program coordinator
  • LAN/systems administrator
  • Writing tutor
  • Laboratory/greenhouse manager
  • Academic counselor
  • Director of academic services
  • IT specialist
  • Math/science tutor
  • Senior associate registrar

These folks are in addition to all of the more traditional adjuncts who are otherwise unaffiliated with the school. These “staffulty” are already in the HR system, and thus easy to tap. And, to be fair, they are able to offer one of the traditional roles of the faculty member, which is to offer an enduring presence within the community, someone to whom students can turn over time.

But let’s reverse the circumstances. How about if we had this list:

  • Professor of mathematics, part-time soccer coach
  • Associate professor of music, part-time registrar
  • Assistant professor of physics, part-time academic advisor
  • Associate professor of economics, part-time IT coordinator

What if we imagined that a terminal degree was an inherent, immutable requirement for working in ANY job in higher education, and that all of those faculty members also got some other institutional stuff done in their free time? What if we imagined that the deeply ingrained curiosity of intellectual life was in fact a treasured skill to be required of every single person at work among our young adults? What if we imagined that teaching and research were the fundamental skills of college life, and that being decent at spreadsheets would be enough to work a few hours a week in accounts payable?

I think it would work.

I think, in fact, that the entire culture of a school would be turned inside out. I think that intellectual dissatisfaction and curiosity and rigor would become the benchmarks of the organization, even if their soccer team sucked.

Put another way, I’d rather have a PhD faculty member in sociology doing a little advising than an advisor doing a little sociology teaching. Teaching is not merely about delivering a skill. It’s not “teaching” to show someone how to tie their shoes. At the college level, teaching should absolutely and always be about helping students see themselves as part of an intellectual community, about developing curiosity about the workings of the world, about discovering their right livelihoods and becoming vast.

This little thought experiment is one way to frame the question: What exactly is at the core of the college endeavor? Are we running a business that happens to teach classes? Or are we scholars who happen to run a business? I would absolutely, unreservedly, choose the second.

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