“Call me Chuck”

What would Professor Kingsfield say to students today?

Jeffrey Denny

The Paper Chase, James Brooks’ 1973 classic film, is on my desert island list. Mostly for the legendary actor John Houseman’s commanding performance in the movie and follow-on TV series as the authoritarian, intimidating, demanding, and archly insulting Harvard law professor, Charles W. Kingsfield, Jr. His memorable line to an arrogant student in the film: “Mr. Hart, here is a dime. Take it, call your mother, and tell her there is serious doubt about you ever becoming a lawyer.”

Professor Kingsfield brooked no student nonsense and cared not about personal agency or triggers. His rigid standards and acerbic take-downs were part of his education and the privilege to be in his class. “You teach yourselves the law, but I train your minds,” he said. “You come in here with a skull full of mush; you leave thinking like a lawyer.”

Kingsfield’s students arrived fearing him. They left with thanks for his timeless lesson: Get over yourself. Climb down from your stupid pedestal. College is not about respecting your thoughts and beliefs. It’s about challenging them. You don’t know so much. Fighting those who do won’t help you, not to mention the justice you seek to uphold.

I recalled Houseman’s Kingsfield when I read the May 14, New York Times piece by Dr. Molly Worthen, assistant professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Headlined, “U Can’t Talk to Ur Professor Like This,” Dr. Worthen’s counter-counter-culture point is that students should return to calling college professors by their formal names (“Dr. Worthen,” “Professor Worthen,” or “Ms. Worthen”), instead of the informal (“Molly”), as if professors and their students are buddies, or to break down artificial walls, or defeat the Western patriarchal hegemonic hierarchical power structure.

Dr. Worthen argues: “There is a strong liberal case for using formal manners and titles to ensure respect for all university professionals, regardless of age, race or gender. More important, doing so helps defend the university’s dearest values at a time when they are under continual assault.” Also, “formal titles and etiquette can be tools to protect disempowered minorities and ensure that the modern university belongs to all of us,” she wrote.

She also suggests that using honorifics teaches or reminds students that respect and good manners — in speaking or writing — remain timeless and universal social and professional solvents.

I love Dr. Worthen’s point. Even amid our quick, constant flurry of email, texts, tweets and emoji exchanges, the fundamentals — spelling, punctuation, grammar, syntax and usage — still matter. So does addressing people we need to respect respectfully.

Yes, we all code-switch or -mix, adjusting our style to the circumstance. Friends understand our brief texts and ROFL when our Siri autocorrect creates malapropisms (“His serious is double sticky sticky tape on the hogs fanny”). Professionally, instead of texting the latest Urban Dictionary vernacular or the eyeball pile of poo emoji to a boss, we say, “Thank you for your feedback. I’ll incorporate and turn around right away.”

Most college students — including many of my friends’ delightful kids now adults in college and beyond — respect professors. They would never call Professor Kingsley “Chuck.”

But the self-righteous students are pushing back, guilting others to join the fight lest they align with the professor oppressors.

As Dr. Worthen quotes University of Rochester sophomore Alexis Delgado regarding titles: “I always think it’s a power move. Just because someone gave you a piece of paper that says you’re smart doesn’t mean you can communicate those ideas to me. I reserve the right to judge if you’re a good professor.”

Wow. Like a slow, fat pitch across the plate, it’s too easy to swing at Ms. Delgado’s comment with a fulminating rant, so I won’t.

Unless you’d like to hear it. If so:

Correct me, Ms. Delgado, but you, presumably at a tender 20, not long out of high school, and two years from graduating college, yet to land a job, or start a life, family or career, or do anything discernible to advance the disempowered you courageously speak for — or do anything notable for yourself or anyone — reserve the right to judge your professors? People who really have little power beyond the knowledge they worked hard to receive and are working to share with you?

And, Ms. Delgado, forgive me, but you get to decide if your professors are worth that “piece of paper”? By that paper, are you referring to the Ph.D. that cost your professors years of blood, toil, tears, sweat, debt, too many instant ramen meals and the daily torture of trying to teach arrogant, entitled snots as an unpaid teaching assistant or low-wage adjunct?

Aren’t you in college to learn, Ms. Delgado, which demands the humility to accept how much we don’t know and receive — as one of life’s great privileges — from those who do?

What standing do you have to judge, for example, Dr. Worthen, who graduated Yale and earned a Ph.D. there in American religious history, and has written two respected books and published numerous articles for the New York Times, New Republic and other major publications? All by age 36? Think you can do that?

How about the professors you might see around the Rochester campus, like Dr. Peter Lennie, Dean of the Faculty of Arts, Sciences and Engineering?

Is Dr. Lennie good enough, after seven years as dean for science and a professor in the Department of Neural Science at New York University, and previous leading stints at Rochester? “Lennie’s research is aimed at understanding how we see,” his bio says. “His work sits at the interface between visual perception and visual physiology and has a particular focus on neurophysiological mechanisms underlying color vision. His work is motivated by the idea that visual perception can be explained in terms of underlying neural mechanisms.”

In short, Ms. Delgado, note that Dr. Lennie has devoted his entire life’s work to advance understanding of the science of sight and perhaps help the blind to see.

Is that good enough for you use the titles he’s earned? Do you need to call him “Pete” to feel equal and have your personal agency respected? Does your high school degree and a few college semesters give you standing to question Dr. Lennie’s faculty?

Not to pick on Ms. Delgado for her sophomoric thinking. After all, she’s a sophomore. God knows, I said a lot of stupid things when I was 20 and continued to do so, including many times today.

But I’ve always known that respect is not about power. Ok, yes, as a child if I disrespected my parents, they would powerfully kick my behind. But a U.S. Navy stint from ages 17–21 reinforced the practical aspects of respecting those who know more: When things go down, titles establish authority and experience to decide; questioning authority can get people hurt or killed.

Many situations, from a friends’ bar crawl to the world’s top corporate, government and nonprofit organizations, work best when we put someone in charge, we respect their responsibility and authority to decide and lead, and exact the accountability that goes with that. Children and dogs act out when they don’t know, and can’t follow, who’s in charge. College students might when they enter the job market.

Had enough of my rant? If not, here’s more:

It’s not hard, Ms. Delgado, to respect your professors, even if, in your preternatural wisdom, you might find them inferior. Maybe — forgive me — you might put away the iPhone, listen and work harder, and earn the right to hear from your professors.

And remember: Millions of kids across America — many more across the planet — can’t even dare to dream of getting the college education that our carping students are privileged to receive. Those thrilled to get into college might never dream of sitting in judgement of their professors, treating them like waiters at posh restaurants who failed to replace a dropped shrimp fork fast enough. Imagine a Syrian refugee teen excited to get the fat college acceptance envelope, and then, second year, told the New York Times she reserved the right to judge her professors.

I wonder whether college students like Ms. Delgado, in challenging power, are making their own power move, asserting privilege and entitlements they believe they deserve, however earned or not.

This is not to pick on Ms. Delgado. I don’t know her. She might be a lovely person, the child of lovely people. I respect her courage to speak her mind, even if it’s a squishy past-date Whole Foods eggplant of unformed yet self-righteous indignation, Professor Kingsfield’s “skull full of mush.”

And not all professors are great teachers. Too many universities (and they know it) count too much on low-paid and part-time adjuncts and associates while competing for and allowing the most brilliant tenured professors to devote their time to academic papers and talks for a confined hothouse of fellow experts. Not every professor is Dr. Kingsfield.

Moreover, as college costs and student debt explode, parents and students they fund become sharp-eyed, capitalist customers, wondering if they’re getting money’s worth. What is the cost-benefit ratio and return on investment for a college education? When a four-year Rochester degree and at other top private colleges can cost up to $400,000, far exceeding the average 30-year mortgage, tuition payers understandably might fall to Oscar Wilde’s cynic who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.

Even though, whatever the price, a great education is impossible to value.

Most of all, my point to Ms. Delgaldo and college students who share or succumb to her righteousness: Swallow your unearned pride and send it quickly to the plumbing system. Arrogance deters learning. Rate your professors online if venting pleases, but know you may sound spoiled and entitled because professors always know more than you do, even if you don’t understand what they’re trying to teach.

Professors might stink as teachers. Perhaps you might stink as a student. When you don’t connect, humility and openness to learning demands you first assume it’s your problem, not the professor’s. Trust me: When you look back, you’ll wish you had.

In The Paper Chase film, one of Professor Kingsfield’s most tortured students is chided by his girlfriend (who — narrative twist! — happens to be the professor’s daughter): “You’ll get your little diploma. Your piece of paper that’s no different than this” and points to a roll of bathroom tissue.

Slamming academic credentials is delicious for moviemakers, moviegoers, college students, Trump devotees and those who’ve never done the hard work, with little pay, for the academic life that’s inspired not by financial gain but the chance to expand learning.

When naïve, self-satisfied, so-called progressive students disrespect and mock a professor’s hard-earned Ph.D. as “a piece of paper,” they might raise a righteous power-to-people fist, or text the emoji. But they’re no different than Trumpsters who slam people with smarty-pants educations.

Sayre’s Law — named for 1950s Columbia University professor and political scientist Wallace Stanley Sayer — says academic politics are so vicious because the stakes are so small. Meaning, in closed circles, we fight hardest over things that matter least to the rest of the world.

The Dunning-Kruger affect, which conservative columnist David Brooks just cited in explaining our current president, says — as he puts it — “the incompetent person is too incompetent to understand his own incompetence.”

In that vein, let’s ask the Alexis Delgados of the student world to recognize their incompetence to judge their professors and let go of power fight that matters less than the point of being in college: To lose the attitude and learn from those who know more.

As Professor Kingsfield taunted his students, “Fill the room with your intelligence!”

Jeffrey Denny is a Washington writer

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