The Role of Professors Today

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Today’s academic world calls on professors at a university like Fresno Pacific to fill new roles, and to approach teaching and education differently than we have in the past.

Liberal arts institutions had at their center the development of students as they matured into adults, guiding in moral and spiritual development, exploring giftedness and educating for judgment. We retain this mission. It is inscribed in our motto: “Faithfulness, Wisdom, Service.” Liberal arts colleges fulfilled these traditional roles remarkably well. Research has consistently shown that students from such colleges are more likely to graduate, gain leadership experience and become executives and high-level managers. Most of us who have had the privilege over many years of working at FPU have former students who are now friends and who have gone on to careers and prestigious graduate schools. Many alumni come back and recount stories about the influence of particular professors on their lives and futures. This success was and is supported by residential, spiritual, athletic and student life programs that encourage that same development, and the creation of lasting friendships between students.

While all of this is still necessary, expectations of the public and the academy require a new approach. Students, families, churches, government and accrediting agencies expect colleges and universities to adopt new priorities and different approaches to teaching and mentoring. What used to be a characteristic of adult and graduate education has trickled down to the undergraduate experience.

Priorities have shifted to put career and professional preparation first and foremost, with professional mentoring followed in a Christian university by personal relationships and moral and spiritual development. The value of an education is measured by the ability of students to find jobs and enter professions. What used to be the first and foremost priority—the personal and spiritual development of students—is now an added benefit. With this shift have come demands for higher levels of technology, and more and better quality facilities in music, science, athletics and residence halls. The changes also brought increased competition between schools and scrutiny of tuition levels.

We might lament the loss of the older ways of teaching. We might conclude that the demands for careers and utilitarian academic majors are a lowering of purpose. I have done so. But then I remember that majors like contemporary Christian ministries, liberal studies for teachers, and social work, which have at times been our largest programs, are much needed in our world. These build on the goal of wisdom, and point to faithful service, but they do not hesitate to prepare the student for professional service in society, churches and schools.

For those of us in the humanities and social sciences—I teach history—this has been at times an unwelcome shift. We want to teach our subjects for their intrinsic worth. Sometimes l feel like the two professors in that great scene in the movie Chariots of Fire, when two students race the clock around the Caius College Quad. Looking out the windows, the old profs lament the loss of the days of the noble amateurs who would become leaders in government and business, but gain their professional training on the job. The college was for intellectual and personal development, not training. We who have been here a long time sometimes feel the same way.

But the new expectations are invigorating, and can also have lasting influence on our students. I hear examples from our professors, and feel the energy they bring to their teaching, scholarship and work with students. We are keeping the best of what we were, and adapting to the expectations of today.

So how have we changed our approach? By applying the essence of graduate education to undergraduate studies: more and more, mentoring now comes through professors and students collaborating on scholarship. The professor now guides the student, both undergraduate and graduate, into professional work. Some students have delivered papers to national conferences, written for investment journals or participated in cancer research. And we have done this not as a research institution, but as one dedicated to the teaching and preparation of students.

Professors are expected to be active scholars, researchers, writers, performers and at the forefront of our areas of expertise, whether in business, psychology, chemistry, music or biblical studies and church leadership. We cannot remain on campus, we must be actively engaged in the forward movement of our professional fields.

All is not entirely new. We continue to build upon the liberal arts and sciences. An FPU education is still grounded in, founded upon and building on this tradition of learning related to the small college experience of the past. But we start differently, recognize student demands and needs, and work from that newer direction.

Fortunately we are not alone—for the last 20 years, the academy has developed its understanding of scholarship with the teaching institution in mind. “Scholarship” is no longer limited to research, the “scholarship of discovery.” There is also the “scholarship of application,” where we apply research to meet needs; the “scholarship of integration,” where we bring together kinds of discovery into larger wholes; and the “scholarship of teaching,” where we develop more effective methods of instruction. The world of scholarship has opened up for the teaching institution.

As professors in all fields engage in these forms of scholarship, we draw in our students and mentor them for their entry into professions as they develop personally and spiritually. I suppose this is not so different from trends in other forms of education. My wife, who has taught kindergarten and the primary grades for many years, reminds me that when she first started, children learned to read in first grade. Now they are expected to be ready to learn to read when they enter kindergarten.

Our task today in this changing world of higher education—changing faster than it ever has—is to keep the best of what we have been as a liberal arts college while serving the new public good as a regional university. We continue to use the arts and sciences to educate and develop our students, but instead of just teaching subjects, we bring students into our professional worlds. We guide them into deep ways of understanding and knowing through professional practice.

Now more actively engaged in the ongoing development of their disciplines, professors model being students, seeking, applying and integrating knowledge and teaching it with the explicit purpose of preparation for service in the world. And the best of this kind of service comes when the student develops morally and spiritually, and is ready to begin to serve as a leader wherever they are. If something might be lost, much is gained as we strive to meld best of the past with the best of today. It works for our students. It meets their needs and demands, and we continue to accomplish our mission. We have a powerful and exciting way of working, as we launch our students into areas of service and leadership for Christ and his kingdom.

May you have many blessings in this season of “God with us.”

Steve Varvis