obama as professor

The Long Run: As a Professor, Obama Enthralled Students and Puzzled Faculty,” is an interesting article by Jodi Kantor that will appear in tomorrow’s print edition of the New York Times. Kantor has some wonderful phrasings, like here when she is yoking together his political successes and the topics of his courses:

Before he pushed campaign finance legislation there, or outraised every other presidential primary candidate in American history, Mr. Obama marched students through the thickets of campaign finance law. Before he helped redraw the map of his own state Senate district, making it whiter and wealthier, he taught districting as a racially fraught study in how power is secured. And before he posed what may be the ultimate test of racial equality — whether Americans will elect a black president — he led students through African-Americans’ long fight for equal status.

Also great to see is Obama’s syllabus for his 1994 course, “Curent Issues in Racism and the Law” (.pdf). (Especially great to see is the topic of racially-motivated gerrymandering, which I saw in 2003 in Texas when Tom Delay drove the Texas legislature to re-drew the districts along appallingly obvious racial lines). Also included are several of Obama’s final exams and answer memos.But there is also a general misunderstanding of the goals and responsibilities of part-time faculty. Kantor says, “Other junior faculty dreamed of tenured positions; he turned them down. While most colleagues published by the pound, he never completed a single work of legal scholarship.” What she does not say is if those “other junior faculty” were part-time (like Obama) or tenure-track (or show how all junior faculty everywhere have the same exact goals). The distinction is important because there is an underlying suggestion in the article that Obama’s desire to be a politician made him too career-driven, too afraid to put his ideas out there because they could be used against him one day, too disinterested in being a full member of the faculty. Kantor buries the fact that Obama was simultaneously teaching part-time, working in the state legislature, and working at a private law firm. The effect is one that casts Obama as an outsider, but the portrait is oxymoronic. Obama is seen as too weak to stand up for what he believes, yet his courses address controversial topics that he would later use as platforms for his larger political successes.

I found it refreshing to read that Obama’s part-time teaching experience was similar to those journeying academics who work multiple jobs and teach on multiple campuses. In the late 1990s when I taught part-time at Rutgers (New Brunswick), DeVry, and Middlesex County College I didn’t engage with any real community on any of those campuses. I was lucky if I had an office. I held office hours in the student union. Like so many part-time teachers, and Obama, I focused on my teaching, honed my pedagogy and classroom presentation, found topics that interested me, and was fortunate to have students who were receptive and gave me excellent evaluations.

Ultimately, the portrait of Obama as teacher is one that I am pleased to see. He seems to be my kind of teacher, one who does not shy away from difficult, yet important topics:

Mr. Obama was especially eager for his charges to understand the horrors of the past, students say. He assigned a 1919 catalogue of lynching victims, including some who were first raped or stripped of their ears and fingers, others who were pregnant or lynched with their children, and some whose charred bodies were sold off, bone fragment by bone fragment, to gawkers.

Education is too often given the short-shrift in political discussions with politicians too eager to point to standardized tests. One notable exception is from Wes Clark, who in a 2003 interview with Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo (.pdf), made me a supporter with:

For example, take the idea of competition in schools. OK now, what is competition in schools? What does it really mean? Well, competition in business means you have somebody who’s in a business that has a profit motive in it. It’s measured every quarter. If the business doesn’t keep up, the business is going to lose revenue, therefore it has an incentive to restructure, reorganize, re-plan, re-compete and stay in business.

Schools aren’t businesses. Schools are institutions of public service. Their job–their product–is not measured in terms of revenues gained. It’s measured in terms of young lives whose potential can be realized. And you don’t measure that either in terms of popularity of the school, or in terms of the standardized test scores in the school. You measure it child-bychild, in the interaction of the child with the teacher, the parent with the teacher, and the child in a larger environment later on in life.

So when people say that competition is-this is sort of sloganeering, “Hey, you know, schools need this competition.” No. I’ve challenged people: Tell me why it is that competition would improve a school. Most of them can’t explain it. It’s just like, “Well, competition improves everything so therefore it must improve schools.”

If you want to improve schools, you’ve got to go inside the processes that make a school great. You’ve got to look at the teachers, their qualifications, their motivation, what it is that gives a teacher satisfaction, what it is a teacher wants to do in a classroom. We’ve got to empower teachers. Give them an opportunity to lead in the classroom. Teachers are the most important leaders in America. All that is lost in the sloganeering of this party. And the American people know it’s lost. So you asked me to give you one thing about this party that’s in power — it’s the sort of doctrinaire ideology that doesn’t really understand the country that we’re living in.

Obama seems like the kind of educator who would share these ideas. I’m anxious to see what he does. It’ll be nice to have an effective educator in the White House for the first time in a very long time.

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