Professors of, not professors in…

So the LSE has appointed — appointed, not hired, which is important — Angelina Jolie Pitt (AJP) as a “Visiting Professor in Practice.” The importance of the hire/appoint distinction: there is a part of me that is somewhat perturbed that an institution that has not once but twice passed on the opportunity to have me join its ranks has made a space for someone whose scholarly CV is, shall we say, somewhat spotty, but the kind of position AJP has been awarded is a very different animal from anything I might have applied for — and presumably she did not have to give a job talk, secure letters of recommendation from senior colleagues, and have her latest book dissected by a faculty search committee, so I think it’s safe to say that there is a different game being played here.


It’s the game itself that interests me. AJP’s appointment says something particularly disturbing about the state of higher education, even though Dan Drezner is correct that policy schools make these kinds of not-by-any-stretch-of-the-imagination scholarly appointments all the time, and even though Aidnography notes that this is just the latest development of the dominance of the marketing and customer-satisfaction logics that are increasingly dominant in higher education globally. Nor is my concern really with AJP’s “expertise” or lack thereof; Megan MacKenzie does a nice job showing that AJP’s experiences as a UN Special Envoy don’t make her an expert on global development and gender issues, but even if AJP were an “expert” coming from the policy world her appointment would bother me. What I find particularly disturbing here is the idea that the proper role of the university, any university, is filling students’ heads with facts instead instead of providing the opportunity for them to learn. And for me this is summed up in one word: “in.”

I am not sure what it means to be a professor in practice, as the LSE title says, since simply to be a professor is — or at least, it used to be — to be a participant in the twin practices of the academic life, namely being engaged with students inside and outside of the classroom, and being engaged with one’s peers in scholarly discussions, both in person (say, on panels), and in print. I’m deliberately defining these practices broadly, since there are lots of ways to be engaged with students and with peers; my point is that the title “professor” means, or used to mean, that one was involved in both types of engagement to some degree. That dual engagement affects the character of academic knowledge, since it comes neither from an illusory no-place completely removed from the world nor from the middle of pressing worldly concerns, but from somewhere strategically detached from the day-to-day for the purpose of getting a clearer view. The two primary audiences, students and peers, shape the character of the knowledge we academics generate, ensuring that our knowledge remains suited to shaping future worldly practitioners by developing their critical capacities. If we lose either audience we fall off into an especially pernicious illusion of objectivity: the idea that scholarly knowledge can correct practice because it comes from someplace outside of practice, and so our role is to communicate those “findings” to practitioners, including our students, who can then go out and implement the lessons that we, through our research, have learned.

This is tremendously silly at best and extremely harmful at worst. The aim of scholarship as an enterprise is not to improve practice or to provide solutions to immediate problems, but simply to expand knowledge; engagement with peers helps to ensure that we remain devoted to that task. At the same time, engaging with students can help to ensure that we do not forget the tentative and tenuous nature of any of the things that we think we know, as there is nothing like having to explain a scholarly distinction to a group of students to foreground the way that scholarship takes place in a highly rarefied bubble — which at its best makes such scholarship able to raise uncomfortable, untimely challenges to students’ existing presuppositions. The professor is a person who is in a sense suspended between these imperatives to expand knowledge and to afford students the opportunity to learn, which is why the old joke about the correct scholarly explanation for anything — “it depends” — has such an insightful core. Of course it depends. Scholarship explores what depends on what, in ways that only the artificial splendid isolation of thinking from the complexity of everyday life can afford; engaging with students contributes to the students’ capacity to figure out what matters in what circumstances.

You will notice that I have carefully avoided the word “teaching” thus far. That’s because teaching, in the sense of “letting learn” and giving students an opportunity to develop their own critical capacities, is only one possible way of engaging with students. While I would argue that it is the best and most authentic way of engaging students, it is difficult to preserve unless one is also engaged in scholarly exchanges that make plain the nuances and foibles of particular knowledge-claims. Absent that engagement the temptation to treat knowledge as something relatively fixed and transmissible to students intact looms quite large, and teaching is replaced by something else: ideational force-feeding, the kind of thing Paulo Freire called the “banking model” of education, in which the instructor dispenses facts that the students memorize to spit back on exams. I want to be careful and precise here — I am not saying that only an active scholar can teach in a way that is different from the banking model, and I am not saying that active scholars will teach in that different way. Many do not, because the professional incentives run in the opposite direction: “publish your findings in high-impact journals” is homologous with “tell your students things that they need to know,” so in many cases the path of least resistance is to just treat one’s classroom as an opportunity to pontificate at length. But there is also an opportunity to do something different if one engages with the scholarly arguments as arguments and uses that as an opportunity to help students become better at reading and evaluating arguments, and better at articulating their own defensible stances on the issues at hand. Seizing that opportunity depends less on the professor being an active scholar who is publishing in academic journals and with academic presses, and more on the professor being involved in scholarly exchanges of various sorts, and thinking about the issues raised in those exchanges.

My point is that absent scholarly engagement, teaching runs an even greater risk of collapsing into fact-transmission. AJP’s appointment, along with the appointments of the three other new Visiting Professors in Practice at the LSE, say nothing about scholarly engagement at all, and it’s unclear what these four folks might be professors of. The logic seems to be: let’s appoint practitioners, by which is meant outside-of-the-academy practitioners, who then come to “expert workshops and public events” and deliver “guest lectures” in which they transmit information — presumably garnered though their experiences outside of the academy — to their audience. These four people don’t stop being practitioners, and indeed, their appointments seem to simply give their outside-of-the-academy practice another forum. You might as well just call them “visiting practitioners,” because there is nothing professorial about their appointments — and the simple fact of their occasionally hanging out at the LSE doesn’t require anything from them that would be at all different from any other public appearance in one of their campaigns.

Let’s contrast that to an appointment as a professor of practice, in which the person in question is appointed as someone who has knowledge of what it is like to practice in some field outside of the academy. Appointing such a person a professor of that subject means that they should now spend some time in the dual engagements constitutive of the professorial role: with students and with peers, having scholarly conversations with the latter and teaching the former. I know several former practitioners, and people on leave, so to speak, from the world of outside-of-the-academy practice, who enjoy just such appointments and use them as opportunities to reflect on their experiences. Such people are participating in the intellectual life of the institution, bringing the benefits of their years of experience into scholarly dialogues and student engagement in the classroom that affords genuine learning. But they do this by coming into the academy and respecting its rules and culture — the game they are enriching is the academic game with its dual engagements. Very different than what LSE seems to be envisioning for its professors “in” practice.

It’s not AJP’s fault. The condition of possibility for an appointment like hers is a much broader sickness at the heart of the academy, in which we have lost our way and given up our core mission of a dedication to the expansion of knowledge. That core mission is most healthy when we celebrate and reward the dual engagements with peers and students, when we are both scholars and teachers. Visiting Professors in Practice are neither.

  • CW

    Interesting points. In fact, the title ~in practice~ really says that she is not part of the academy.