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On office hours

Christopher Damian | Tuesday, September 25, 2012

The role of the professor in student life has changed dramatically over the years. In his autobiography, Fr. Hesburgh recalls attending a “beer keg party” with members of the Notre Dame Veterans Club. He recorded, “Years later, when I implemented my opposition to keg parties by outlawing them on campus, I could tell students that I spoke from experience.”

As president of Notre Dame, Fr. Hesburgh knew the Notre Dame community. Professor Ralph McInerny once wrote affectionately, “Fr. Hesburgh would have put on sackcloth and ashes if he ran into a member of the faculty he didn’t know.” This was a different time, when the President was not just the face of the University. He was also its heart.

Now, the president of Notre Dame cannot realistically know all of its faculty, and Notre Dame’s professors do not know all of their students (and some know hardly any.) The distance between professor and student increases with the size of the classroom and the demands of research. One could hardly imagine the campus scene were professors to don sackcloth and ashes upon running into students in their classes whom they did not know.

Shortly after beginning his teaching career at Notre Dame, Fr. Hesburgh noted that he could hardly find time to write. “I was trying to write ‘God and the World of Man’ at the time, but it was practically impossible to get anything done during normal hours. After dinner I had freshmen in and out of my office until lights went off at eleven.”

This habit did not change after Fr. Hesburgh’s promotion to president of the University. Here, we find a professor is not struggling to find time for students. He is struggling to find time for his research – putting students first is the standard. It is here where we realize the creation of “office hours” does not indicate our professors are more available to us today. It indicates the opposite. One only “finds time” for things that are secondary in his life.

Yet, these secondary things are the things that must be sacrificed as we aspire to be a “preeminent research university with a distinctive Catholic character,” as our current president once put it. Research is to be our defining trait, and tensions arise in the limitations such a definition could create on university life. Professors are limited in time they can spend with their students, but students are also limited in what they sense is appropriate to share with their professors.

Prior to this column, I never considered sharing this extracurricular work with my professors. It seems to be quite removed from the real work of the “research university.” Yet, this seems to be the most obvious thing to be done in any real university community. Realizing that the intellectual life intersects with all aspects of human experience, surely all students should want to discuss dorm life, relationships, newspaper columns, campus debates, summer plans, leisure books and club activities with their professors. If these things are worth being done at the University, they are worthy of discussion and consideration with our professors.

We find ourselves, however, caught in the divide created by the “preeminent research university.” We have deluded ourselves into thinking the thought and care necessary for a term paper is not the thought and care to be devoted to a Viewpoint letter. We have allowed ourselves and our professors to believe they can only offer us insight into Human Genetics and Foundations of Theology. We fool ourselves into thinking Saturday night does not affect Monday morning.

I lay some blame on administrators for a questionable vision and questionable standards. I lay some blame on professors for giving in to these standards, but I also lay some blame on students for not rejecting these standards. We must reject the fragmented academicism of the “research university” and ask ourselves hard questions.

If our professors are the intellectuals we aspire to imitate, surely we ought to ask them what they think about dorm life, relationships, newspaper columns, campus debates, summer plans, leisure books and club activities. Surely we ought to ask them what they did in college and why. Surely we ought to act in ways that would make them proud. If they are not the intellectuals we aspire to imitate, and these are not questions we would wish to ask them and these are not they ways in which we want to act, perhaps we ought to reconsider why we are even here in the first place.

Christopher Damian is a senior. He can be reached at cdamian1@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.