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Revving up the ‘great engine’

Deepak Rikhye |

When merica’s famous playwright, Arthur Miller (1915- 2005), who was awarded The Pulitzer Prize in 1949, wrote his collected essays Echoes Down The Corridor, he did not only narrate his thoughts on America’s ideals or of his upbringing in Brooklyn, he even wrote of his travels to Russia, the luminaries he interacted with, and his experiences of the Great Depression, among many other topics.

Miller also wrote of the period devoted to his higher education and the essay, University of Michigan, enlightens a reader about studying in a university during those times. He asserts that in almost every field of study a student will probably find no better training anywhere than at Michigan. He believed that in forestry, medicine, creative writing, to cite a few examples, the university was “really the top.”

He wrote of a nearby radio station where students of drama, could try out their scripts. Miller writes that a student with a flair for literary pursuits could attempt writing for the university’s coveted Hopwood Award in poetry, drama, essays or the novel. He won this prestigious award in 1937 for his play, Honors at Dawn, and was motivated by his professor, Kenneth Rowe, who convinced Miller to be a playwright, after he graduated in 1938.

That signifies a great rapport between a professor and student.

The attendance in classes was large in the first year only but it was possible to get to know professors. Research was encouraged, through a project, and students received an annual allowance that worked as an incentive.

The Michigan publication, Daily, displayed two columns of invitations from corporations and government bureaus, for students to apply for vacant positions. Miller reflects on the mindset of students during his time at Michigan University. He states that students then believed in what they thought and did.

He writes that present students see themselves as “separated from the great engine that is manufacturing the student’s and country’s fate.” If one reads a book titled Campus Confidential, published this year by a professor, Jacques Berlinerblau, who is a faculty member of Georgetown University in the US, they will be intrigued to learn that one segment of Miller’s “great engine” actually involves professors. With remarkable clarity, the book has articulated how professors feel separated from the mainstream, rather than being integral to it.

Berlinerblau says that professors today are smothered with certain difficulties. He is disturbed to hear college presidents who talk on the joys of education and he questions the joys professors expect but do not experience. He explains in his book that the gap between rhetoric and ground reality is huge.

A lot of this rhetoric, he writes, is “doublespeak” by academic leaders who do not articulate how universities and academic institutions actually work in real life. This perception is indeed discouraging but is a fact.

The author expresses his disappointment on the value that part-time faculty members do not enjoy as they are confined to the periphery of the education system.

Part-time members include adjunct professors, who are hired by a college or university to teach, but are not a full member of the faculty. He exemplifies the sad ordeal of Margaret Mary Vojtko, who taught French as an adjunct professor in a university at Pittsburg, for 25 years. Vojtko was suddenly dismissed and she died of a heart attack when she was literally penniless.

However, Berlinerblau writes that her example was not unusual. He asserts that a quarter of part-time faculty members in the US, receive public assistance. He has at this point turned his focus on advising prospective students to carefully scrutinise course details and to verify the percentage of classes that are taught by “full time professors”.

They need to search for institutions with classes having fewer students. That could entail a student not opting for a prestigious university. Unprepared academia also reflects on inadequate research. He buttresses this assertion by a PhD candidate labouring at early European history or a dispirited associate professor disillusioned with “sacrificing three years of a routine to research a 9,000 word peer reviewed article.” Remember, Arthur Miller wrote that Michigan University in the 1930s paid a substantial allowance to research students.

These incentives appear to have disappeared in present times. Campus Confidential shows how higher education can fall short of expectations and Jacques Berlinerblau, by identifying critical issues, has advised parents/students to be wary of the following — A parent must find out who exactly teaches their son or daughter; when they interact with staff at the campus, they must ask how many students are in the class? How many professors are there? Are there many adjunct professors? Is the entire effort worth the fees? Or must they search elsewhere?

Berlinerblau is a professor in one of the best institutions, in the US, and writes from a viewpoint where he has seen it all. His book therefore is narrated with hard-earned wisdom and he has alerted the world of academics, on flaws, which need to be addressed in the realms of higher education.