Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Why I'm not (and won't be) a Professor

A cursory glance at the world's dictionaries (or indeed Wikipedia) confirms that the title Professor does not carry a unique definition. In France for instance, my daughter's pre-school teacher was Professeur Gendt. In other countries such as the USA, Japan and several others, it refers to someone who is a member of faculty of a college or university. There are also various other definitions around the world ranging from referring to a person who is on tenure to the head of an academic department.
I must confess that in all of these senses, I am a Professor and am often referred to as such by various communities that meet at International meetings and conferences for the past decade or so (I used to correct them at the beginning but realised its futility as most of them couldn't understand what I was making a fuss about!).

In most commonwealth countries however, the term has a more specific meaning. It is the highest position within the hierarchy of academics in a university or college. The Latin term itself refers to a person who professes to be an expert in some art or science, a teacher of highest rank. This highest of meanings is what characterises the definition in these countries, including Sri Lanka.

Unfortunately, much of what constitutes that high ideal is missing in academics who are conferred that title in our university system today. Of course many of them possibly do profess to be experts in some art or science and so would qualify under the Latin definition (though whether they are so, is often unclear since the term expert itself has no unique meaning!). I do not consider myself as someone who has dedicated his life to research and academia to an extent that fits this lofty definition. To be sure, like everyone else, till around 2002, I did march along that road to promotion, collecting points to earn my right to be called a Professor, as could be seen by my online CV (in a frozen state since then). I wrote academic papers, presented them at conferences, supervised research projects, did my bit of administration, spent sabbaticals in prestigious research centres and reformed my teaching. I even totted up my points to see if I had enough to be at least an Associate Professor!

The current Professor promotion scheme in Sri Lanka, is so minutely specified, that it can be targetted by any academic without any interest in research or teaching leave alone the lofty ideal of contributing to the global body of knowledge! Indeed anything in life that is so tightly specified often falls into the pitfall that renders the system quite useless. In case of doubt, consider whether we really are identifying all those who are really gifted learners in our Grade 5 scholarship exam – or is it only those who can retain the most from a particular year in school (Grade 5) that is turning out to be as good a definition of hell for them as we can device!

As someone has said, in most cases, we value what we can measure (read: reading, writing and arithmetic – or for that matter: quantitative, analytical and verbal; and call it IQ) rather than trying to measure what we should value (read: kinesthetic, spatial, musical, interpersonal, intrapersonal skills also; including measures such as EQ).

All this is not to refute the claim that Sri Lanka has indeed produced some men and women who have dedicated their lives in the pursuit of knowledge and its sharing. Indeed there are even a handful to be found in the universities these days! There are also several who were never bestowed the title since they were either not in university employment or their contributions were not recognized at the time.

This brings me to my top 10 reasons for not being (and not striving to be) a Professor.

10. Some of the best researchers in my field, and many other fields I am aware of, around the world are simply Mr. (and some Dr.)

9. Professor is nothing more (and arguably, nothing less) than a designation in a university – not a qualification to be flaunted in public for all purposes

8. If professors call themselves Prof. why not directors, Dir., managers, Man., executives, Exec. or indeed architects, Arch., philosophers, Phil. or composers, Comp.?

7. Whether one is a Distinguished Senior Professor at Harvard, MIT or Stanford, or an Associate Professor (or Assistant in some cases) at one of the many tens or hundreds of colleges of a little known university in some far flung country, your title would be the same, simply Prof.

6. The fraternity (of Professors) is not one particularly honouring to belong to anymore in Sri Lanka – check out any university Senate here these days!

5. The quest to give yourself in service, and that of collecting points to become a professor are not always aligned – often one is done at the expense of the other

4. The title Prof. is often used as a title of elitism rather than one signifying a dedication to a life spent in the creation and dissemination of knowledge

3. Professorship has made most who posses it become conceited and puffed up rather than making them humble and indebted to the society that nurtured them (as I personally believe it should)

2. The title Professor is aspired to more often than not by those who rely on it as their main source of identity (which I personally am not in need of)

And my top reason for not being (nor wanting to be) a Professor is:

1. I do not consider myself as having spent my life (or spending what's left of it) in the pursuit of knowledge creation and dissemination the way the masters of scientific research did in the past (nor I suspect are many of my colleagues who have joined that fraternity or are frantically striving to!)

1 comment:

Sameeraj said...

Interesting thoughts! appreciate your openness.

It’s an eye opener to understand how the people are looking at their titles. And to see whether they are justifiable:)

What I believe is, the most important thing is what you have done to make yourself useful for the society and the way you do it