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Saturday, February 19, 2022

When mater ain't very alma

Teaching at Augustana College in Rock Island was like living through episodes of Mean Girls.  It demonstrated the one main thing I have in common with poet Sylvia Plath:  when you teach at the school which you once attended, you find your relationship with some faculty is quite different.  For some faculty, the change in relationship from mentor to colleague is an upsetting change in status.  Some faculty expect a permanent deference from students, and the expectation of equality by former students is regarded as a rather unforgivable impertinence.  

My eight years of teaching at Augustana had pleasant and productive aspects, and there was only one person on the faculty of my department that I had for a professor as a student. However, I found out eventually that there was a tradition instilled into the department that endured through many personnel changes.   While on the surface the department did its work delivering quality courses of study, it worked in a mire of petty treacheries and betrayals that defined the relationships of its members.  Some faculty asserted their sense of superiority with malice toward many.  It had its effects.

The Augustana experience made two of my young colleagues decide that college teaching was not for them. One of them returned to college teaching at a place he said was not possessed by a malicious competition for status.  I also found in 20 years of teaching at a public university that most faculty conduct themselves with measured good will and equality.  But I spent what I call one of the worst evenings of my life with English faculty from St. Olaf dominated by a woman who could not seem to utter a word that did not convey malice and disparagement.  As an officer in a faculty union which was involved in resolving charges of hostile work places, I saw the necessity for having contractual procedures for dealing with contumely as it creates irreconcilable divisions among faculty.  Malignant personalities can bring otherwise reputable organizations to moral, if not intellectual, dysfunction.  The Augustana department never reached that point because it had faculty of good will and good purpose who countered the Nazi-like intensity that possessed a few.  

I am a graduate of Augustana and regard my time as a student there with bright memories.  But as a faculty member, I came to recognize a lurking darkness of intention that resided in some.  It can be transmitted to students.  That's why adherence to a statement of ethical principle must be enforced to legitimize an institution of higher learning:

Professors, guided by a deep conviction of the worth and dignity of the advancement of knowledge, recognize the special responsibilities placed upon them. Their primary responsibility to their subject is to seek and to state the truth as they see it. To this end professors devote their energies to developing and improving their scholarly competence. They accept the obligation to exercise critical self-discipline and judgment in using, extending, and transmitting knowledge.

Sometimes this means confronting the administration of college and the way academic business is done.


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David Newquist said...
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