Over a decade ago Times Higher Education published an amusing essay on the academy’s seven deadly sins. This sins, which are certainly not confined to the academy, included sloth (or, in its academic equivalent, procrastination), avarice, malice, and pride.
Four of the sins that the essay described struck me as especially characteristic of academics, beginning from sartorial inelegance. After all, frumpy, drab, scruffy, and unfashionable are, far too often, synonyms for professorial dress, and symbols of a deeper flaws, including a lack of concern for the sensibilities of others.
Here are the other three:
Snobbery: Evident in the preoccupation with pedigree and institutional placement, and summed up with the phrase “all academics are equal but some are more equal than others.”
Pedantry: What non-academics mean when they call someone “professorial”: Not just erudite or hyperintellectual, but affected, pompous, bombastic, arrogant, condescending, and didactic.
Bookishness: In an academic context, to be bookish isn’t simply to be studious or learned, but unsociable, reclusive, taciturn, and detached. Of course, there’s also its antonym: The overly zealous, the pushy, the self-promoter, and the overly ambitious.
Many of the academy’s worst sins, however, are not personal failings. These vices are institutional or endemic. As professionals who are supposed to be self-reflective and self-critical, academics should be especially attentive to these systemic shortcomings.
Nooruddin Merchant of Pakistan’s Habib University and The Learning Network wrote a delightful essay entitled the “Seven Deadly Sins of Our Educational System” that alerts academics to the institutionalized traps we often fall into:
- Knowledge without wisdom: Transferring knowledge, but failing to reflect on its utility or broader significance and implications.
- Competence without morality: Building skills, but failing to instill a capacity for critical reflection.
- Curriculum without relevance: Failing to explain to students the value of the knowledge and skills they acquire.
- Teaching without compassion: The unwillingness to attend to the emotional and psychological dimensions of teaching or to treat students with empathy and understanding, including the reasons that they might cheat or plagiarize or fail to actively participate in class.
- Competition without collaboration: Favoring those students who are the quickest studies, while letting others struggle without encouragement and support.
Decrying higher ed’s flaws and failings is, of course, like shooting fish in a barrel – our shortcomings are everywhere. But what should we do if we wish to atone for the academy’s sins? Here are my suggestions.
Step 1. Broaden your conception of the professorial role.
At our best, we’re not just content area experts, disciplinary specialists, skilled lecturers and discussion leaders, or dogged researchers: We’re also mentors and learning architects. Embrace those roles and responsibilities.
Step 2. Strive to educate the whole student.
It’s not enough to focus exclusively on students’ cognitive development. We need to promote their emotional, ethical, social, and metacognitive development, even as we build students’ research, communication, and critical thinking skills and open windows into possible careers.
Step 3. Remember why your students are in college.
For most, it’s to prepare for a secure, decently paying job. Make sure you don’t devalue skills building or career preparation. Integrate career development into your classes.
Step 4: Ensure that your classes are learning- and learner-centered.
Embrace evidence-based teaching practices and enhance your pedagogical skills repertoire. Design activities that actively engage students in the learning process and assessments that allow you to monitor their learning in real time, and, at the course’s end, provide a valid, reliable measure of their learning.
Step 5: Design and deliver courses that go beyond subject mastery.
Among the most distinctive features of American higher education is its embrace of liberal education, an education that seeks to foster the qualities we expect of an adult, including the ability to manage time, collaborate, communicate effectively, and extract, evaluate, interpret, and convey information. Of equal importance is cultural development, instilling historical and cross cultural awareness, numeracy, and a familiarity with all the liberal arts.
What does that mean? Integrate writing, ethics, critical thinking, close reading, and reflection into all of your classes.
Step 6: Stand for equity.
Equity must begin in our own classrooms. We must ask ourselves: Are we building genuine connections with our students, since connections with a faculty member are among the best contributors to student success? Are we intervening proactively when students are off track or confused? Are we doing everything we can to help all of our students master the course material?
Step 7. Be utterly transparent about what you want your students to achieve – and why.
Most institutions now require faculty to list learning objectives on their class syllabi. But enumerating learning outcomes shouldn’t simply be a box checking exercise. Ask yourself how your class contributes significantly to students’ learning and growth. Think long and heard about the skills they will acquire and those skills’ relevance beyond your classroom.
In today’s highly secular society, the notion of original sin, as articulated by Augustine and Calvin (and in non-spiritual forms by Kant and James Madison) is a non-starter. But, as we all know in the depths of our hearts, we are all flawed, arrogant, appetitive beings, who all too often confuse our personal self-interest with the well-being of others.
So, let me intentionally use religiously-inflected language and call on us to repent in the only genuine way we can: By fundamentally rethinking our professorial role, our pedagogy, and the very purpose of our classes.
Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.