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Not all the seminar courses I took in college or graduate school were as invigorating as that first one, but there was always the possibility for good talk — if not in the classroom, then over lunch or dinner, and in dorm rooms late into the night. This became central to the college experience as I understood it: sitting around a seminar table talking about Dickinson’s slant of light, lingering over lunch discussing Milton’s Satan, pondering the meaning of life over Kahlúa and cream in the dorm. Many of these discussions were naïve or foolish in retrospect, but they touched on things that felt important at the time and gave us an understanding of each other’s minds that we wouldn’t have had through any other means.
When I became a professor, I sought to make my classes like those that I had loved in college; I tried to both lead and be led by my students in lively discussion. I have had success with this up to a point. As any teacher knows, a class can be highjacked not only by a few sulky students but also by the temperature in the room or the view out the window (or the lack of a window). The cultural zeitgeist can inhibit classroom talk. If students fear deviating from an imagined party line or feel the need to weigh their words too carefully — this too can kill good conversation.
Increasingly over the past decade or so, my students seem desperate to talk about ideas but inhibited in doing so by the nature of their schedules, the atmospheres in which they find themselves, and a lack of practice in the art of conversation. When they have a free block of time, I rarely see them congregate together to talk. Yet their frequenting of coffee shops seems a symptom of their desire to connect. They sit side by side in these spaces, computers open, drinking their coffee and staring at their screens. By planting themselves in public spaces, they obviously want to talk to one another but don’t know how. They need the tools and the inspiration to bridge the barrier that separates them. Supplying these things is, in part, what the seminar classroom is for.
Conversation used to be a great draw for those contemplating an academic career. One could engage with a wide variety of people who loved ideas and had devoted their lives to them in an environment conducive to intellectual exchange. There was time for long lunches and summers off to do research and share new knowledge with interested peers.
Forty years ago, when I first arrived at my university, the faculty club offered three meals a day. There was also a cozy bar, tucked in the corner of the same floor, that opened at 4 p.m. and that a variety of faculty and staff, including the university president, frequented on a regular basis. One friend recalled how he and the president, after a few drinks, cooked up the idea of making a documentary film about the introduction of microcomputers to the university. (This was the early ’80s and the film was made, complete with a cameo from Steve Jobs, whose Macintosh computers the university had made available to all students.) Faculty members then looked forward to conversation; new courses, research projects, and partnerships were hatched over meals and over drinks.
By the early 1990s, however, the bar had closed. A decade later, the faculty club had ceased to serve breakfast and dinner. Lunch was offered but was woefully attended. People complained that the food was bad, but the real problem was that faculty members weren’t motivated to meet each other in the old way. They preferred to eat prepared salads at their desks, to catch up on grading or grant-proposal editing. They didn’t want to take time away from busy schedules to trek a block or two to the club. Only one table was regularly occupied — by a group of septuagenarian engineers. These men, the product of an earlier era than my own, were lively conversationalists. I would occasionally join them, and they were always welcoming. Their impresario was an electrical engineer who would expound, Dr. Johnson-like, on everything from opera to politics, the rest of the group chiming in at intervals. It was the last remaining vestige of the collegial university of yesteryear.
In 1999 the AAUP put out a statement about the use of “collegiality” in tenure decisions, and it was revised in 2016: “The very real potential for a distinct criterion of ‘collegiality’ to cast a pall of stale uniformity places it in direct tension with the value of faculty diversity in all its contemporary manifestations.”
Their viewpoint makes sense — the traditional focus on collegiality was sometimes a code for homogeneity, mediocrity, and support for the “old boy” network. But the combination of groupthink and careerism that has overtaken academe in recent years is another kind of blight. It’s important to have a community of scholars who gather together and talk. If faculty do not practice conversation of the best sort among themselves, it is unlikely that they can bring these skills to bear in the classroom.
The decline in conversation can be attributed to many things: a need to work harder in one’s field in order to succeed in a strained job market; the charged political nature of things where it can be difficult to speak honestly or in a nuanced way about many issues; and a culture dominated by social media where our phones are more our companions than our peers. With the reduction of tenure-track positions and heavier teaching loads, faculty simply don’t have the time to indulge in the free play of mind that used to characterize academic life. If one has to teach at multiple campuses and grade hundreds of papers, the quality of one’s conversation is bound to suffer.
The culture of the modern university deserves some of the blame. Nudged by society at large, our institutions are less fervent champions of humanistic values. They increasingly see professors, students, and staff in terms of quantifiable, bureaucratic goals rather than as individuals dedicated to the life of the mind. The conversations we do have are laced with terms like “research impact,” “retention data,” and “outcome assessments” — and as often as not, a slide deck is involved. Students, too, assume that any talk they give in class should include a visual aid, a crutch sure to stymie conversation.
We’ve become overly concerned with the tactics and strategies — rather than the meanings — of our jobs. We’ve placed obstacles in the way of talking authentically to one another about what we care about most. If we can resurrect a sense of wonder in what we teach and in the delightful idiosyncrasy of our peers and our students, conversation — and collegiality — will take care of itself.
This essay is adapted from Talking Cure: An Essay on the Civilizing Power of Conversation (Princeton University Press).