In \”The Forever Professors\”, Laurie Fendrich warns us (in no uncertain terms) that \”the inconvenient truth is that faculty who delay retirement harm students.\” She has a special animus for over-70 faculty members such as myself who ferociously cling to our full-time equivalents. We are, it seems, \”greedy, selfish, and bad\” for students. However, if Fendrich’s diatribe was supposed to drive me to walk down the hall and apologetically inform my chair that I could no longer morally continue to inflict myself on students and colleagues, it simply wasn’t on. What the article did do was to make me ponder how being an aged professor supports both the students I teach and my institution.
One of Fendrich’s main points is that we, the elderly, are no longer au courant with the latest work of our fields. She is probably correct. But we also have a much better perspective on the long-term continuing development of our fields than younger scholars do. Having been through quite a few of the intellectual fads that regularly permeate the academy, we have a healthy skepticism that may make us a little more critical of the latest theoretical flash-in-the-pan.
Then there is her dubious assumption that the FTEs we inhabit will remain intact after we retire. This is wishful thinking. At my own state university, which has experienced a fairly catastrophic decline in support from our governor and legislature, when positions such as mine are exorcised, they are gone. Period. No new young scholar will be taking my place.
I agree with Fendrich that my students perceive me as \”old.\” I look every bit of 70. To make things worse, I am fairly technologically inept and rely on the help of departmental clerical people to operate the \”smartboard\” in my classroom. On the other hand, the consciousness of my age and somewhat diminished capacities makes me work much harder at organizing and preparing my syllabi and class lectures, visuals, and discussions than I did 20 or 30 years ago. I read more in the field and beyond, and stay attuned to the latest relevant cultural interests and national and world news events to bring them into class in meaningful ways. I take more risks in teaching and research than I used to.
And some of this belief is being vindicated. This last semester, for instance, student evaluations were glowing enough to be embarrassing. These, in fact, were the overall best evaluations I ever received. I notice that some of the over-70 professors I know at my university feel the same urgency and sense of mission I feel and are taking new initiatives with their scholarship and teaching.
Finally, there is \”institutional memory.\” I have been at my university since the early 70s: This gives me both the gravitas and memory of past policy failures to be effective when issues arise that require faculty members to deal with administrators, regents, and legislators.
Laurie Fendrich tells us that leaving the university has made her \”free.\” But curiously, some of us over-the-hill profs find that rededicating ourselves to teaching and scholarship at the end of long careers is also liberating.
Author Bio: Noel Kent, Professor, Department of Ethnic Studies, University of Hawaii-Manoa