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05.26.10

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Academic Alchemy

The chemistry between teacher and student is what drives learning

By Jonah Raskin


Of the 24 offices on the third floor of Nichols Hall at Sonoma State University, only five doors are open. I've knocked loudly on all the doors that are closed—in case someone inside might be napping—and there's no answer. It's 2:28pm on a Thursday afternoon, and one would think that more faculty members would be at work. The halls are empty; there isn't a single student waiting to see a single faculty member. Final exams are happening now. Final projects are due instantly. But there's almost no visible sign of the imminent end of classes or graduation. This is not unusual. These days, the halls are mostly empty and the doors to the offices are usually closed.

I've just returned from the swimming pool to my own office on the third floor of Nichols. It wasn't a problem, but I didn't have a lane to myself. No one did. The pool was thronged with swimmers. It always is.

Welcome to the wonderful world of academia. I love it. I have taught at SSU since 1981, and I would not trade my job for any other in the world. I get to teach what I want to teach; I have academic freedom. I enjoy the action of the classroom, and I love lecturing, discussion and debate with students. I enjoy reading their papers. I don't even mind assigning grades, though it's my least favorite activity, and also the single most important act in my job. If I don't assign grades, I don't receive my paycheck.

Sonoma State University—which celebrates its 50th anniversary next year—is not alone in being weird; schools all around the country are. I know because I talk with colleagues at other colleges. I visit them, and I see what's going on. The world around us—the "real world," as the students call it—has changed a lot in the last 500 years, but colleges are more or less the same. Yes, I know there are computers now, and Facebook, but the academic world is largely the same as it was in Medieval times, when universities were first born.

There are still teachers and students. We still meet in classrooms, we still read books. Students are tested, take exams, and pass or fail. Of course, nowadays everyone passes—except for the total losers who don't show up the whole semester. There are students like that; they pay their money and enroll, but never come to class. Weird!

Today, in my office with my door open—yes, I am bragging, I am here—I received an email from a member of the California Faculty Association that says, "We survived a hectic, pretty horrible year of furloughs, job losses and reduced opportunities for our students." Well, hurray for us! Aren't we wonderful! From where I sit, it was not a horrible year, the furloughs were not a big problem, and on the whole, students did not have reduced opportunities. Some of them have bought into the big myth that they're missing out and are being cheated out of their education. If anyone is doing the cheating, it's the students themselves.

The reality is that despite the fact that office doors are closed today and that most faculty members aren't here now, the quality of education at SSU is exceedingly high. It is high because of the collaboration that takes place between students and teachers in the classroom. It is a magical performance. Those who don't teach don't really understand or appreciate it. Bring them into a classroom and invite them to interact with 18- and 19-year-olds, and on the whole they're lost. They don't know how to communicate. So people who say that "those who can't do anything else, teach" don't have a clue.

Teaching is an art; it's at the heart of the university, though it's also very, very nice to have a swimming pool here, and an office and a computer. I am sorry that there have been lay-offs. I don't like it when anyone loses his or her job—not in this economy or any other—but teachers are no worse off than any other workers in the economy, and there is no guaranteed right to teach. It's a privilege to be able to teach at SSU or any other university.

I started college in 1959. There hasn't been a time since when scholars and researchers haven't been alarmed by what they call "the crisis in education." There is always a crisis in education. The crisis does not matter. It is irrelevant. All that matters is what happens in the classroom. All that matters is the magic that takes place there between students and teachers. So I'll be back to teach next semester, to lecture, to ask questions, to invite students to think critically. I'll swim in the pool, and I'll sit in my office with the door wide open.

Jonah Raskin is a professor of communications at SSU. His latest book is 'Field Days: A Year of Farming, Eating and Drinking Wine in California.'

Open Mic is a weekly feature in the Bohemian. We welcome your contribution. To have your topical essay of 700 words considered for publication, write openmic@bohemian.com.


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