The public perception of the academy
I arrive earlier than most of my colleagues in the English department because I teach a 9am class and like to prep beforehand. Because of this, I often encounter students looking for instructors or something like that. The other day was a strange one. I came out of my office on the way to the printer and I found a guy, mid-thirties with dark hair and a puffy black jacket, looking for help. Here’s a rough transcription of our conversation:
Guy: Hi. Can you tell me who’s in right now?
Me: Um, pretty much nobody. What do you need?
Guy: I’m looking for some information on a poem by John Dunne. I have a pretty good idea of [bzzt bzzt bztt arcana about what he understands and doesn't about the poem. He reaches to his bag as though to get out either notes or the poem.]
Me: Hrm, well you’d probably want to email one of the poetry faculty to set up a meeting.
Guy: Do you have a list of people I could contact? Or would someone else have that list? [Looks around at the empty office] Or would there be a better time for me to show up?
Me: If you came back in about an hour, someone working the front desk should be able to help you get that list.
Guy: Okay. I just thought the English department would be the place to go — straight to the experts, you know.
I thought about telling him that his basic question was probably misinformed — that English departments are not like reference desks where you can go to have a conversation about a poem. But I might very well have scheduled an appointment to talk with him for a few minutes if he’d been asking about something I do know. As an educator, I’m generally open to having conversations with people, students or no. It’s why I rarely turn down interview requests. But I might be the rarity in that regard.
But the intent was interesting as well — this man was looking for a person who could shed light on this poem. He didn’t pursue the subject in the library or the internet, but sought out an individual with which he could debate and perhaps hash out his own thoughts. We in the academy too often forget that this service, the individual expert well-versed in pedagogy and able to speak intelligently, is the core of what we offer. Alex said this much better a while ago, but when we consider what the university offers to students, it’s practice in this wrestling with ideas. That’s the thing we do well that can’t be replicated by copying our syllabi or our reading lists.
Of course, under that umbrella my poetry colleagues ought to check that he’s a tuition-paying member of the Columbia campus before chatting with him. Our scintillating conversations don’t come free.