Peer at the Rear

Ashley Thorne

Congratulations to Kerry Soper on his brilliant satiric piece published in the Chronicle Review today. His article, “The Antiprofessor Speaks Out,” incisively comments on professorial behavior.  In it, he unveils “how I break down and then rebuild students' expectations of a healthy student-instructor relationship” using the model, “peer at the rear.” 

 “Now that the old teaching model of ‘sage on the stage’ has finally given way to the more progressive ‘guide at the side,’ academe is ready for another paradigm shift,” he explains. This sounds like the next phase in the division of labor between tenured scholars who just research and teaching specialists who just teach.

 To get students to trust him as an equal, Soper writes, he disguises himself as one of them. He sits in the back on the first day of class, decked in Old Navy and a baseball cap. After a while, he calls out, “’Well, dudes, it looks like Señor Soper's not gonna show; guess we'll just have to teach ourselves!’ That's when the students really begin to take charge of their own education…I can see a new sense of ownership over their ideas and lunch plans.”

 Finally! A professor who truly facilitates learning, who treats students as whole persons and doesn’t beat them over the head with head knowledge.

 Soon, says the article, Soper reveals himself as the instructor, relinquishes the class to the students, and inveighs against traditional “oppressive educational methods.” It’s difficult to get students to “confront the fallacies of the industrial/pseudo-educational complex, such as ‘grades matter’ and ‘professors know more than we do.’” In fact, he writes, “educational misconceptions are so deeply embedded that a large number of my young friends get frustrated with my progressive methods; sometimes they even mount a campaign for a new instructor or to get me fired. Right on! At least they're passionate about an idea or cause — they're no longer passive robots.”

 Soper (or should we call him by his preferred nickname, Kerr Dawg?) seems to have put into action the elusive ideals that educators have been pleading for years. He has grasped the true purposes of higher education: turn students out of robots and into activists; debunk every one of their preconceived biases; and introduce progressive systems of thought into all parts of the curriculum. Right on.

 “In the end,” he writes, “they get to choose their own grade, of course.” Well, that is what it means to take charge of your own education, isn’t it?

 Even “if I am fired, so be it.” Soper concludes. “I'll be remembered as the Galileo of my time, the "antiprofessor" bold enough to give power back to the students, where it belongs.”

Of course, Professor Soper’s piece is really a parody. As the director of the American Studies Program at Brigham Young University, he takes a great interest in satire. Two years ago, he wrote another Chronicle Review article about his ballet performances in the classroom (an energetic pas de cheval, he wrote, “nicely illustrated some of the more draconian measures of the Marshall Plan”).

Yet I must admit, when I first read the antiprofessor’s earnest desires to establish “egalitarian friendship” with his classes, I took this as the straightforward boast of some thoroughly postmodern professor. After all, these ideas are not all that far-fetched. At some colleges, you can get credit for what is essentially group dialogue. Actually, intergroup dialogue. There are some, like Colman McCarthy the peace-loving anarchist professor, who really do let their students choose their own grades. Many professors prefer being called by their first names. Friendship between students and faculty members in and outside the classroom has become more socially acceptable in recent years. A writer in Inside Higher Ed deplored the dressed-down trend among professors:

Trying to look like students is partly self-denial, but scruffily dressed faculty also have highfalutin goals. Some sartorial underachievement is aimed at furthering a “nurturing” atmosphere. The classroom setting should be non-confrontational, it’s argued, with professors and students hangin’ out as buddies.

It’s safe to say that Kerry Soper, as he imagines himself in his delightful fantasy of egalitarian teaching, would perfectly embody this kind of highfalutinism.

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