Advertise My Courses? How Demeaning!

Brian Taylor

December 01, 2011

Question: My courses, in a traditional academic discipline, no longer get the enrollment they once did in the good old days. Sometimes they've even been canceled for lack of students, and I'm quietly given some small administrative slot so it looks like I'm staying busy. I wonder if the next step is a cubicle.

Now I've been told I should advertise my courses, by making posters that make them seem sexy or up-to-date, or whatever the current term is for "relevant." I think this is obnoxious and anti-education. Why should I have to be a seller and spinmeister?

If the subjects are good—and they are—the best students will find the courses. Those are the ones I want.

I feel like I'm in middle school, getting cardboard and making a poster for the pep rally. Do I have to do this?

Answer: Ms. Mentor sighs. When has mature wisdom ever been honored by the feckless young? Disobedient youngsters ate the forbidden fruit; the prodigal son was the first unruly frat boy. Disrespectful youth, "impatient of restraint," were deplored by Hesiod in the eighth century B.C.—quite like students who don't want to take required courses.

Authorities have sometimes given in. When Harvard dropped Greek as an entrance requirement in 1896, "the growing illiteracy of American boys" was widely bemoaned. Harvard has, of course, never been the same.

As always, the youth look for immediate gratification instead of taking the long view. They run wild in the streets, setting things aflame instead of reading the classics. The work of civilizing them falls to you but, alas, you can't sit them down with a copy of King Lear and expect them to learn about generational ingratitude.

They'll probably start texting instead.

So what do you do, as an educator who believes students should learn your subject, whether it be Carpocratian theology or Etruscan pottery? Ideally, students would be enthralled and would race to compete, elbows flying, to sign up for your hot courses.

But today's students are intensely practical. They're in debt, they have time-consuming jobs, they're worried about health insurance. They haven't the serenity to contemplate what doesn't seem useful—unless it's presented as irresistibly exciting.

You, meanwhile, do have a mental hurdle, a feeling that it's somehow more virtuous to fume in your cubicle than to take arms against a sea of—well, underappreciation. Marketing your courses may seem tawdry and slimy, and you do have an existential choice. You can fall on your sword, choosing cubicle virtue above all earthly things. Or you can decide that educators should reach out, as Plato wrote, and profess the subjects that they love.

You might consider how your subject has universal interest, even "relevance."

"Cora," a community-college teacher, watched enrollments shrivel every semester in her "Introduction to Comparative Literature" course. One day, desperate, she grabbed some bright purple cardboard and wrote on it in big black letters: "LOVE SEX DEATH: Comp Lit 105." She hung the sign in the most-traveled corridor in her building. Her course was full in no time.

Other courses might be similarly renamed "POWER GREED FAME: Intro to Contemporary Politics," "TENSION FASHION MONEY: Fundamentals of Architecture, or "SECRETS SEX DREAMS: Intro to Psychology."

You may consider it corrupting to distill your course's essence that way. But if the alternative is that you cannot share what you know, and you're relegated to courses you don't care to teach, or demoted to meaningless tasks ...? Life does not always present the neatest of moral or intellectual choices. You're unlikely to be teaching at the Elite Research University where you got your Ph.D., and where students still flock to courses in semiotics. Many students don't read for pleasure or share your passion for esoterica.

Ms. Mentor no longer sends them to read Herodotus for the good parts.

Some professors just give up. "Nelson," an Ivy Leaguer, chose to retire when his students wanted to "watch movies" instead of "reading long books" (Victorian novels). "Phyllis," an award-winning poet, retired from her West Coast University when her students refused to read poetry that didn't rhyme and insisted on studying song lyrics instead.

Thoughts of the future can be consoling. Ms. Mentor has met Vietnam-era dropouts who now appreciate existentialism and read Sartre, as well as Hegel and Spinoza, on the Internet. When you teach the students that you have—not the Platonic ideal students you would like to have—you are also teaching the people that they will become.

But, you whine, do I have to do a poster? Didn't Sartre teach us that "Hell is other people"?

Indeed he did, but his students weren't Americans who had to be seduced. If he were lecturing on the "anthropology of food" to infinitely suave French undergraduates, for instance, he wouldn't dream of tacking on his office door a tomato-red poster proclaiming "LUST! GLUTTONY! FOOD IS LOVE!"

You might, though. While professional dignity has its value, so does reaching the masses. A Web site query that asks "How Would You Cheer Up Sartre?" offers the kind of interdisciplinary thinking that professors might encourage. One contributor calls Sartre "not exactly a fun guy to go pubbing with unless you're touring the goth bars." Another offers a Zen parable. Still another proposes a perfect solution for academics who like to curl up with a good book and a hot toddy: Get Sartre to "love his pajamas and be better than anyone."

Ms. Mentor suggests that you think outside the cubicle, about the ways that your subject is better than anyone else's. Reach out to teach; find where your subject meets the needs, the goals, the yearnings of your constituency. Besides, if you don't have to sit every day in a cubicle, you can hold leisurely planning and reading sessions at home. For the life of the mind, you don't even need modish pajamas.

Question: For my first Skype job interview, do I need to clean up the part of my apartment that will show, or will the search committee think I'm much too fussy, because a truly dedicated scholar lives in a messy abode and cares only for the life of the mind?

Answer: Clean.

Sage readers: Ms. Mentor recommends minimal-to-no house cleaning during the busiest times of the semester, when Exploding Head Syndrome is lying in wait for you. Time management, one of the many skills you can teach undergraduates, will serve you well in our barbaric times. So will faking cleanliness as well as goodliness.

As always, Ms. Mentor welcomes queries, rants, and gossip about the troubles and the delights of academe. She wishes she had the secret to conjure up jobs for all her eager, intelligent, talented and ambitious readers. Ms. Mentor regrets that she can rarely answer letters personally, and never speedily. All letters are confidential, and identifying details are always masked. No one will know whether you're an existentialist, a nihilist, or some new sort of philosophical wonder not yet named.

Ms. Mentor, who never leaves her ivory tower, channels her mail via Emily Toth in the English department of Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge. Her latest book is "Ms. Mentor's New and Ever More Impeccable Advice for Women and Men in Academia" (University of Pennsylvania Press). Her e-mail address is (c) Emily Toth. All rights reserved