Professors who aspire to be teachers

Like nursing, teaching implies selfless maternalism. We imagine the underpaid young elementary school teacher, spending her weekends and salary to buy construction paper and flash cards, compelled, like a mother, from sheer devotion to her young charges. “Professor,” by contrast, is a decidedly manly word, and connotes, not service, but authority and expertise. Young people flock to sit at his feet, even if he is quirky and distant, because they admire him and are drawn to his genius. Is it any wonder that many professors balk at being referred to as mere “teachers”?

In a society that has long feminized, denigrated and devalued the teacher and that is now energetically denigrating and devaluing the professor, we have an ever more complicated relationship to these labels. Here on the Virtual Pedagogue, I regularly slip between “teacher,” “instructor,” and “professor,” not from sloppiness (usually), but because I resist solidifying my own self understanding into any one of these labels. I aim to use these terms intentionally, both to call attention to the similarities and differences among all of us who do this sort of work, and to subtly challenge stereotypes that surround them.

“Instructor” is perhaps the most generic and seems to apply to anyone habitually engaged in showing another how to do something, be it to fly a plane or solve quadratic equations. It’s a sterile word, without the ethical import of the other two, but can be useful when emphasizing functional commonalities, say, among teaching assistants, tenured professors, and high school coaches. Despite the trend of diminishing respect for higher ed, “professor” is a status word, weighed down by advanced degrees, heady scholarship, and a workload that may actually include no instruction whatsoever. Though “teacher” is, perhaps, the most common word, I also find it to be the most nuanced, rich and attractive.

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When I refer to those who’ve helped me change my life — for example, the passionate, brilliant women with whom I studied yoga in Minnesota — I call them my teachers. It’s one way I (lovingly) highlight that I didn’t primarily learn facts or strategies from them, but, rather, was supported in developing my whole self. So, when at some jagged point in my own pedagogical career I felt called to work more holistically with my students, I experienced a dramatic shift of consciousness and my labor became both more humble and momentous. It was, I determined, my serious and joyful responsibility to support students on their human journey while disguised as a feminist philosophy professor discussing Kant.

I am, then, both despite and partly because of its feminized humility, quite taken with the term “teacher,” though I appreciate the other ones too. When I get my hair cut at a new salon, I answer the “what do you do?” question with “professor.” I am happy to help dispel stereotypes about women’s work by claiming the full measure of my teetering professional status. But in the realest beating heart of my life, I am happiest and proudest being a teacher, sitting alongside my students, trying to find even one small way that our time together might make us all more inquisitive, daring, and demanding of ourselves and one another.

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