When your professor is dead, but teaches anyway

Originally published at: https://boingboing.net/2021/01/22/when-your-professor-is-dead-but-teaches-anyway.html


Normally, professors have office hours to discuss issues with students, and they answer questions in and after class and by email.

This was the saddest part for me*. When I had a prof I enjoyed as much as this fellow liked his prof I’d take full advantage of office hours. It led to great conversations and advice that stays with me to this day.

I’m all for preserving lectures, but not as a cost-cutting measure that dilutes the experiences of students while simultaneously denying work to new instructors. Although, while not worth the larger cost, I’ll admit that it would be sweet to see some Chicago School economists hoisted by this particular petard.

[* I’m not an academic – lots sadder for them]


I’m currently taking college courses online, in my experience when a class has prerecorded lectures by one professor, there’s often a different professor who actually runs the class and is available for office hours and for questions about the material. I don’t know about the person in the post, but I’ve never felt abandoned by the system.


Also, who’s grading the exams on the lectures? They could slap Richard Feynman’s lectures on their online courses and turn out thousands of people a semester claiming the prestige of being a 4.0 physics major studying under him.

How up-to-date are the lectures going to be? Given the penchant for cost-cutting, I’d imagine online courses are going to end up like the sex-ed and anti-drug movies we had to watch in the 70’s. “Little Jimmy, reefer is a slippery slope toward gonorrhea!” says the dad from My Three Sons…

Even for things like history there are new perspectives, new scholarship done continually. The best professors I had were always reading, always injecting newness into their lectures. This sucks so much.


that would be the teaching assistants, same as usual . . .


But in this case do the teaching assistants actually know the professor? Did he give them any direction whatsoever on what he expects? The teaching assistants that worked under my professors had been taught by the professor in question and were basically carrying the flame.


Professor Cuthbert Binns? Don’t worry about it, he didn’t even notice he’d died, and it hardly impacted his teaching style.


When the university you work for would rather keep replaying your predecessor than give you tenure.


Did the dead professor get paid? When he made the class did he get paid for one class or more?


Sad to say that I work with one or two faculty members who teach like this. They’re all online, each unit is a pre-recorded video, and all the faculty member does is grade exams. Same videos, syllabus, exams, etc for 5+ years. When the Department Chair moved one of them to face-to-face instead of online the faculty member filed a[n unsuccessful] grievance arguing for “academic freedom.” The sense of privilege was strong with that one.

This is not endemic, or even common, but it is an unfortunately public confirmation of stereotypes about university faculty and tenure. It’s incredibly hard to fight, in large part because people who do this as a means of getting out of a major component of their job are protected by the same system that is meant to protect faculty from being punished for teaching new edgy topics. In essence, protecting the two faculty members on my campus also gives us the ability to protect the faculty member who teaches 20th century gay literature and the art professor who assigns Mapplethorpe and others. It’s a highly imperfect system, to be sure.


After reflecting a bit, it occurs to me that ‘publish or perish’ is entering a new, confusing era…



That doesn’t really help when (to give a few examples from my own experience) I’m interested in discussing a tangential point the prof brought up in the lecture, or in discussing a part of a course reading that the prof herself wrote, or in exploring something discussed in the lecture in light of current events.

For those kinds of things I’m looking to talk to the actual person who gave the lecture, not a different professor. Professors run their office hours for those kinds of discussions as well as for answering questions about the material or clarifying things for students who missed something in the lecture.

Similarly, a lot of professors don’t simply lecture in class but incorporate Q&As and Socratic dialogues and such with the students about the lecture that the prof composed and delivered. A second professor can certainly conduct such discussions about a recorded lecture, but it isn’t quite the same (especially if prof 2 never studied as a grad student under the professor).

It’s not that students are being completely abandoned by the system, but they are being short-changed (though, again, not to the extent of the exploited professors).


This shouldn’t happen, unless the person doing office hours is the grad student working closely with the prof. It shouldn’t happen anyway. The person who is lecturing is the one who should be most closely connected to the materials, and should be available to answer questions.


When you look closely at the business model for the modern university (especially from the inside), it’s a racket just like all the other huge corporations. The product is suspect at best, and improving it is pretty low on the job list. It’s a credential machine for the students and a mutual masturbation society for the faculty. Some teaching and knowledge transfer does occur, but again, that is not the point of the enterprise.


None of this comports with my experience at five different institutions, ranging from a community college to an Ivy League university. But, ymmv.

For the most part I found incredibly hard-working faculty who were dedicated to helping students succeed and who were struggling to teach and conduct research in the face of declining state funding, attacks from the public about the value of what they’re doing (attacks not unlike yours), and students who believe that they are customers who are paying for a product (a product that, oddly enough, they want to get as little of as possible despite what they’re paying).

Modern public universities aren’t businesses and weren’t designed to be run as such.


Not the case for me. I’m recording the lectures, answering emails, posting announcements, grading assignments, etc. If a student emails or posts a question, I try and answer it in a timely manner.

But I’m also a part-timer, so…

It’s cheaper that way. I’m guessing that the budget line went away when he died. This has happened several times where I’m at.

That’s not how it works with tenured. You sign a contract with a set number of courses for the year. Only adjuncts get paid by the class.


A university shouldn’t function like a “business” because it’s not. As @Les_Pane notes, most of us bust our asses and actually give a shit about the students in our classes, about sharing our hard won knowledge, and about the end goal of educating our students and the public at large about our fields. But the corporate model has taken over the university and neoliberalism has infected many with the idea that any knowledge that can’t directly be used to expand your bank account is useless. It’s bullshit masquerading as common sense.



And to be clear, that product isn’t only a credential. An academic experience is what one makes of it, and many students are there to receive an education as well as a degree. Fortunately, there are a lot of dedicated and passionate professors who are there to instruct as well as to do research.

The fact that people outside (and many inside) the academy talk about university “business models” more than they do about “missions” shows just how debased and anti-intellectual the discussion about modern American higher education has become.


I see no reason why zombies should be barred from teaching university courses.


Yes, and thanks for clarifying that. I should have been more clear.

The fact that people outside (and many inside) the academy talk about university “business models”

People who are inside who make this argument drive me nuts. Some of my colleagues will say “Oh, a university is a business,” to which I’ll respond “so, you’re willing to give up tenure, and also eliminate departments that don’t generate more in tuition revenue than they spend on faculty?” It’s no to the first, but yes to the second, until I point out that the most expensive departments to run, with the least return, are generally physics, astronomy, and the entire business school. Then it’s “Well, it’s a business, except for a few things.” SMH.

ETA: The department on my campus with the highest rate of full-time employment upon graduation is Theatre. (around 98% over 5 years). Yet that’s the one that the public always say is most useless. WTF