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Professors Making Their Mark: A Thought Experiment

Professors want to make their mark on the world, their profession, and on their students. They spend years perfecting their talents and often receive far less remuneration than those in more lucrative fields who prepare for careers in far less time (such as lawyers). They often sacrifice money (and security, at least before tenure) for meaning. The vicissitudes and foibles of academia are aptly recorded in places like The Chronicle of Higher Education. We read of scholars in the limelight, on the witness stand, in print, out of work, promoted, demoted, outraged, accused, excused, and, of course, always wanting to be taken seriously—to make their mark.

Let us engage in a thought experiment tailored for the humanities, where written papers are necessary for students. What if a professor’s imprint was limited to one thing, a thing seldom discussed in The Chronicle (or anywhere else, for that matter), but something paramount to all of their students: the professor’s comments on their papers. What if all the copious documentation of personal achievement of the curriculum vitae were wiped away and all that remained was what these various scholars wrote on their student’s work? What would remain? It is these words, never published or celebrated by the guild, that often strike into their student’s souls, imprinting them for life—for good or ill.

I vividly remember a comment that Professor Arnulf Zweig (a Kant scholar) made on a portion of one of my undergraduate philosopher papers: “This is an assertion, not an argument.” He was exactly right. I had stated an opinion without rational support. It was not philosophy at all. I cannot count the number of times I have written just that line on my students’ papers. It inflicts a wound that can heal the mind. While struggling to come up with a doctoral dissertation chapter that would please my advisor, I was thrilled to find a short vertical line next to a few sentences of my text besides which Professor Robert Herbert had written, “Good patch.” I lived on that for weeks. A bit later, he remarked that an entire chapter was “heartening.” This has become of one my favorite words. (And eventually the dissertation, “To Prove or Not to Prove: Pascal on Natural Theology,” was accepted in 1993.)

I cannot here expand on my philosophy of professorial comments on student efforts, but I simply commend to you the thought experiment. What if every professors’ written worth were gauged only by comments he or she wrote on student papers?

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