February 18, 2005

Some profs use classroom to promote careers, book sales

With any busy quarter comes a heavy pile of books and readings. And these books can often bring supplementary income for academics who have the opportunity to publish.

Professors at the University are at the top of their fields. They win Nobel Prizes and are featured in the nation's most prominent media outlets. On top of that, they manage to teach undergraduate classes. As often as not, however, students find themselves in classes with bigwigs who seem to value promoting their own careers over teaching the subject at hand.

"I always feel like I've had a lot of professors that push their own career," Spencer Martin, a fourth-year in the College, said. "They teach exclusively their own material and discount articles and other theories."

Students at the University are supposed to value the life of the mind above all else, so perhaps it is unsurprising that most complaints about egotistical professors center around the fact that, by only focusing on their own works, they do a disservice to the subject they ought to be teaching.

Martin likened it to the debate over human origins: "Some don't even bother to teach the opposite viewpoint," he said. "It's sort of like they hate evolution and only teach creationism."

A cursory glance at the course books in the Seminary Co-op leads one to question the intent behind professors' selections. Only about five to 10 percent of the course books at the Co-op are required books written or edited by the teaching professor, but several classes required nothing but marterials by the professor. Anthony Yu's "Journey to the West" class required two books, both written by him, published by the University of Chicago Press, and bearing the same title as the class.

Richard Shweder, who has a reputation for favoring his own works, had two required books at the Co-op, one of which was his. David Bevington had eight required titles; seven were $5 Bantam Press editions of Shakespeare plays, and the last was his 2000-page, $80 Complete Works of Shakespeare.

But besides assigning their own books, all of these professors have something else in common. They are all giants in their field¬óDistinguished Service Professors rather than grad students pushing their own theses.

"I've had several professors whose material is mainly their own work," said Catherine Baggett, a fourth-year in the College concentrating in psychology. "But I could never tell whether it was because they're so seminal in their field."

"Some teachers are good enough that they have a right to promote themselves," said Ivi Ivanov, a third-year in the College concentrating in economics. She cited economics professor Steven Levitt.

Martin, also a student of Levitt's, added: "With him it's okay because he's really done the only research in the area. So it's like he has no one else to teach."

When one is so revered for his or her body of work, it can be difficult to see the benefit of teaching lesser colleagues, but professors should be aware of how easily students come to view the style as mere posturing.

According to students, even the masters ought to temper their presentations and give students a chance to make informed conclusions. "Teaching only themselves is good if they're right," Martin said. "But how can you know they're right without seeing the other side?"