Like many academics, I use the phrase “the academy” to refer to my profession. But probably that phrase doesn’t really mean much. We know other campuses exist, but only in the same way that the White House exists: as a place where Very Important Things get done. It’s hard to picture how that business gets transacted there on a day-to-day basis, however. They’re abstractions, so “the academy” winds up meaning “my campus, and a couple of others that I’m somewhat familiar with.”

At conferences–those congeries of the very specific pathologies that come into play when someone has devoted her life to studying particle physics or poetic meter–ideas are important, maybe even central. But if you really want to capture the attention of a roomful of people who could all be case studies, start talking about the ins-and-outs of your campus. Suddenly ears perk, bodies lean forward, and foreheads crinkle with thought.

The reason for all this preamble is to communicate a sense of why an academic like myself was so fascinated by this dated new item from Harvard. Namely, because like any lover of campus novels I can’t resist the voyeuristic thrill of peeking behind the curtain to catch a glimpse of the little man at the controls:

Four members of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences have been selected as Harvard College Professors, an honor recognizing particularly distinguished contributions to undergraduate teaching in all its forms: in Core courses and in general education, in teaching within concentrations, and in advising and mentoring students.

[…]

Harvard College Professorships are five-year appointments that provide support for professional development, either in the form of research funding, a semester of paid leave, or summer salary. Recipients also receive additional support for their research and scholarly activities. The 24 Harvard College Professorships were established in 1997, with half of them derived from a gift of John and Frances Loeb.

A fascinating glimpse of institutional priorities at Harvard, when the reward for good teaching is more time and money for your research.

Kinda makes you wonder whether these professorships are considered booby prizes: “OK, Professor X, your teaching evaluations are through the roof and your students continue to write to us years later praising your influence. One of them even endowed a chair in your name. At least that’s something. But, seriously, get back to work and write another book already, will ya? Geez. What do you think this is, Boston College?”

EDIT: But what really interests me about this snapshot of what it’s like behind the ivy is not the obvious focus on research–clearly that’s always going to be the case at places like Harvard. Instead, it’s this episode as evidence of a larger establishment in the academy, of dividing and prioritizing teaching, research, and service. Is the only reward more research support? This prioritization actually makes the three categories incommensurate to one another. And by making them incommensurable, part of a very clearly defined hierarchy, the research institutions are not above suspicion of acting for reasons other than the purely intellectual or theoretical. Such hierarchies, after all, are at the root of their prestige and status. It’s not just that this conceptual model of the professorial life may be running out of steam, but that perhaps it should. I’m interested to hear what other people think about this.

Advertisements