What is the use of a professor

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.