What is the Powder Room?

(I don't think he's particularly worried about that, but still.) A thought experiment: think about the most annoying stereotypes you can about college professors. What would you say? Indifferent (at best) to teaching? More interested in a professor's "real work"—namely, his or her own scholarship? [Quick note: I'm not in any way denigrating scholarship, which of course is a major part of the "real work" of being a professor...I'm talking about the perception that some professors see teaching as a nuisance that must be endured to pay the bills.] Elitist toward people outside the academy?

Well, I've got good news and bad news, depending on your opinion of academics. On the one hand, those stereotypes don't really hold for probably 98% of working academics. On the other hand, courtesy of Rebecca Schuman's column over at Slate, here's noted philosopher, cultural critic, and Highly Important Public Intellectual (and I mean that both ironically and unironically) Slavoj Žižek talking about the perils of teaching (the relevant bit starts at around 7:35):

The audio isn't the best, so here are some of the highlights (emphasis added, and apologies for any transcription errors):


Talks are okay, but I hate giving classes, because then all the baggage you get by it, which means office hours, grading the papers. I never did that. I'm proud to say, I did teach a couple of semesters here, and all the grading was pure bluff, and I even openly told the students. I told them, I remember, at New School, for example, in New York, if you don't give me any of your shitty papers, you'll get an A. If you give me a paper, I may read it and not like it, you can get a lower grade. And it worked—I got no papers. Office hours are a problem. This is the main reason I don't want to teach. Yeah, because office hours, students, they're like other people; the majority are boring idiots, so I cannot imagine a worse experience than some idiot comes and starts to ask you questions. Which, it seems tolerable. The problem is, here in United States, students tend to be so open that if you're kind to them, they even start to ask you personal questions, like private problems, could you help them, and so on. What should I tell them? "I don't care; kill yourself. Not my problem. . . . I like universities without students.

Now. To get an important caveat out of the way, it's very likely that he's being hyperbolic, at least to an extent. I'm pretty sure that he wouldn't encourage a student to commit suicide, just as I'm pretty sure that he doesn't, as he's said elsewhere, get depressed from "Seeing stupid people happy." (Okay, that one might not be too hyperbolic.) Or when he refers to Burmese Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi as "that Myanmar girl."

Still, I take Žižek mostly at his word when he says he wants a university without students; it seems that he'd be happy with a university of listeners, perhaps, who come in, get their lecture, and then go off so that he can be left alone with his real work.


So why does this matter? Whenever something like this pops up, I worry that some people will see it and say, "You see? That's what I've been saying about those ivory tower types all along."

Žižek is an outlier, in terms of both his stature and his attitude. Most working academics can't get away with being dismissive of students, and even if we could, almost all of us wouldn't. I've known a lot of academics, and none of them think of teaching as simply that percentage of their tenure file that they have to fulfill to get to their scholarship, although some do resent having to teach certain classes (from my experience, the classes in question seem to be Gen Ed, and the resentment, in many cases, comes more from working with students who don't care about the class and less from thinking that the class is "beneath" the teacher).


I'm also not necessarily calling for the non-dismissive teachers to get extra credit. I get paid to teach, to work with my students' papers (some of which can be described as "shitty," but it's also my job to help them get better), and, yes, on occasion field questions or concerns that go beyond the course description (we can have a discussion of the limits of empathy some other time). I take my job seriously, and even though there are parts of it that I like more than others, I don't get to pick and choose which ones are worthy of my time.

On seeing the video, my first response was, "Not all academics," but then I thought about it some more. Putting aside that "Not all..." is a cliché at this point, it's also inadequate. Forget not all—this is a case of "Not most" (or, to put in a form that's close to grammatically correct, "Most academics aren't close to like that." We do care about teaching. We don't feel put upon by questions. Although we'd prefer them to be a bit better (and for God's sake, enough with "In today's modern society..."), a good many of us are okay with your shitty papers, as long as you're okay with working to make them better.


We're not all Žižek, and for his sake, I hope Žižek isn't Žižek.*

*-Okay, I'll cop to putting that last sentence in because I wanted to work "Žižek" in a couple of more times. It's a fun word to use.

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