Beware of professors who assign their own
books. Be more than ware. Be vigilant. Avoid these people as
fiercely as you might avoid a boy you used to date if you saw him
walking in your general direction on your way home from a
three-hour bluebook and you’d neither slept, nor showered, nor
changed your clothing in the preceding 72 hours, even if it means
ducking conspicuously behind a flagpole or a sorority girl or
crinkling papers noisily into your backpack as you prepare to walk
out of class the moment the phrase “my book” escapes the
professor’s lips.

Janna Hutz

Think of a professor who assigns her own book the way you’d
think of a used car salesman who calls himself “Honest Jack.” It is
entirely possible that the professor’s book is the most
groundbreaking and/or comprehensive scholarly piece in Field X and
it is entirely possible that Honest Jack sells quality used cars at
low, low prices. But for the same reason you’d be disinclined to
trust a man so eager to let you know how honest he is that he’d
capitalize the word and proudly display it in front of his first
name, it’s probably wise to think twice before entrusting your
instruction in Field X to someone who tells you she wrote the book
on it.

Because probably (cold and cynical as this may sound) all Honest
Jack wants is your money and all the professor wants is 300
students who will spike her book sales and dutifully ingest and
regurgitate her every theory. Authentically honest people – be they
used car salesmen or construction workers or professional
manicurists – very rarely identify themselves as such unless
provoked. Professors who write truly monumental books often don’t
bother with them in the classroom, choosing instead to expose
students to the work of those who inspired the monumental books in
question.

Some of you precious overachievers are scratching your heads.
“But wait,” you are saying, “If I’m taking a class on the
development of the cotton gin and Eli Whitney is my professor, why
should he assign anything but his own work?”

First of all, if you’re taking a class with Eli Whitney – who
is, by most reasonable accounts, dead – you’ve probably got more
important things to worry about than his textbook choice. But I see
your point. You’re right. Sometimes, your professor will be the
foremost authority on the material he or she teaches.

But usually not. Usually, like Honest Jack, Professor
InmybookIsay has something to prove. She dances on the fine line
between paralyzing self-doubt (left over from that time in third
grade when Mr. Morris, the social studies teacher, called her
stupid when she couldn’t remember who Eli Whitney was) and snide
arrogance (nourished by the knowledge that since the Eli Whitney
incident, she has earned three whole graduate degrees – take that,
Mr. M.).

Even worse, once a professor’s own work becomes central to her
class, the usual level of student brown-nosing skyrockets to a new,
almost perverse high. No matter how dismissively the professor
chuckles and says, “Of course you don’t have to agree with me” the
week before the each paper is due, the damage has already been
done. When a teacher thinks highly enough of herself to devote some
or all of her teaching time to her own book, pupils censor
themselves accordingly – in discussion, in papers, on exams. When
Honest Jack gazes honestly into your eyes and tells you what you
really need to make this dependable old hatchback run smoothly is a
$200 cap for your oil, you tell him he’s full of shit. But if
you’re like most people, you’re probably not going to be so candid
with your highly paid, well-respected, multiple-degree-holding
professor. But you should be. Everyone should be. Don’t honor her
syllabus with your presence or your tuition dollars. It’s not worth
it.

Teaching shouldn’t be about the teacher. A publishing contract
and a biography on a book jacket do not a genius make. If the
book’s really that amazing, you’ll read it eventually, hopefully
without all the pressure not to wound its author’s ego. Selling
used cars shouldn’t be about honesty. At least not explicitly. If
Honest Jack is as virtuous as his name suggests, he won’t sell you
so much as a spare hubcap ’til he’s sure you’ve shopped around.

Henretty can be reached at
“mailto:ahenrett@umich.edu”>ahenrett@umich.edu.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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