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CAUT/ACPPU Bulletin Online


Vol 47 | No 9 | November 2000

The Good Enough Professor

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An Integral Part of the University

Allan Irving

I first came to the University of Toronto in 1945 - mind you, I was only eight months old. No, I was not a child prodigy, far from it. But that spring my father, who was teaching at the University of British Columbia, accepted a position at Victoria College (he was officially a philosopher but seemed to spend most of his time dabbling elsewhere intellectually) and as I grew up one of our weekly rituals was to go to the university on Saturdays where we would swim at Hart House and have lunch at Burwash Hall.

To his great disappointment, I showed no early scholarly promise, despite his attempts to have me read (at age seven) Bertrand Russell, and the collected works of L.T. Hobhouse one summer. I preferred sports and it wasn't until long after his death that I worked my way back to a PhD.

As I completed my doctoral work at Toronto I came to realize I had an intense emotional relationship with the university, its ways of life, its ways of being. To this day I love walking the grounds of Victoria where, from time to time, I have been able to contemplate the eternal. When I obtained a position in the faculty of social work in 1984, it was more than just getting a job; it was like a homecoming to the primordial house of my being.

At first, in my enthusiasm to be back, I failed to notice warning signs of what was to materialize over the next 16 years. The university grew rapidly away from how it seemed to me in the 1950s, a period that I was having trouble escaping in my mind. There were "stars" then, too - Kathleen Coburn, Douglas Jay, Northrop Frye, Marshall McLuhan -- a long list really. But these were not stars dropped in from the firmament but ones who emerged gradually and gracefully, over time.

Forward to the 1990s. First came the endowed chairs, about 131 at last count. Now the announcement of 251 Canada Research Chairs - stars both current and future -- for the university. Most, of course, see these developments as wonderful, even exhilarating. These are the main acts.

So why is it that in this atmosphere and mood of self-congratulatory inebriation my mind immediately goes to Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot where Vladimir says, "This is becoming really insignificant," to which Estragon replies, "Not enough." Perhaps because I have always been more interested in the humble and ignored, what Robertson Davies calls the "fifth business" meaning the bit players who only in a minor way and often indirectly have an effect on the plot action -- the sideshows outside the main attraction.

In the midst of all the "excellence" at the university surely there are others like me who are happy with being "good enough" professors. The idea of this was suggested to me after the birth of my first child when I read a book by Bruno Bettleheim called, A Good Enough Parent, the main theme of which was that one could never be the perfect parent any more than one should expect one's child to be the perfect individual since perfection is not achievable, at least by most.

"Efforts to attain it," wrote Bettleheim, "typically interfere with that lenient response to the imperfections of others ... which make good human relations possible." After all, everyone can't be excellent or the word loses all meaning -- there has to be some sort of contrast or comparison. I came to feel that my "good enoughness" ought to be recognized in merit pay considerations since by not being excellent myself I was able to let others, by comparison, be so designated. I was, I felt, performing a helpful and even desirable service for my more excellent colleagues.

At a faculty meeting a few years ago when we were discussing endowed chairs for social work, a colleague claimed that at Ivy League universities about 66 per cent of full professors held some endowed chair title or other. I wondered aloud how the other one-third not so endowed full professors might feel. Would counselling be provided to help them with what could only be a major issue of self esteem? A bit of nervous laughter followed but I'm not sure the point was made. Since then, I have been of the view that what we really should extol is the "good enough" professor, the one who makes the university work day after day.

What I have in mind is the professor who sees the quality of personal supportive relations between and among students, faculty and staff as more important than research; the professor who does not feel too competitive; the professor who sees teaching as the universities' most noble activity; the professor who is broadly intellectually engaged without necessarily having large research grants; the professor who sees the university as a place for meditation, contemplation and wisdom not just frenetic activity.

Postmodern philosopher Richard Rorty in Philosophy and Social Hope (1999) writes about philosophical pluralism "as the doctrine that there is a potential infinity of equally valuable ways to lead a human life, and these ways cannot be ranked in terms of degrees of excellence, but only in terms of their contribution to the happiness of the persons who lead them and of the communities to which these persons belong."

Rather than always swinging for the fences with the next large research grant perhaps we should forget about excellence (agree to never use the word again) and think instead about perpetually creating and recreating ourselves -- students, faculty and staff -- as a community or communities of friends. I think that scholarship and research would take care of themselves and we would be happier in the process.

Not being as driven by the need to acquire a specific research grant may free the non-star or good enough professor to be more attuned to our millennial condition of perpetual incompleteness and permanent unresolve and its multiplying anxieties. There is, I suspect, still the assumption that research can give us "objective" truth, yet, as Rorty maintains, "facts are dead metaphors."

Nietzsche remarked that we have art so that we may not perish from an overabundance of truth. I think one of the difficulties I have with the notion of stars and endowed chairs is that it all seems so certain, definite, complete. I am far from convinced that this should be the only way we see things. The marvelous poet Jorie Graham in her collection, The Errancy (1997), sees error as a heroic method in finding one's way -- "a wandering toward truth." The good enough professor is someone who is uncertain about things, who sees paradox, ambiguity, chaos, absence and silence as central to the human condition.

In the university we are expected to know things -- especially the stars -- and it is good that many do. But there is another dimension which I think is important too, a dimension that Samuel Beckett has given us. What appealed to Beckett was the notion of lessness, a taking away rather than moreness and adding to, an aesthetics of subtraction. He was of the view that "anyone nowadays, anybody who pays the slightest attention to their own experience, finds it the experience of the non-knower." Beckett, as he described it, worked out of impotence, ignorance and a sense of failure. He spoke of the need to throw away intellectual solutions and move away from the destructive need to dominate life. "It's not even possible to talk about the truth," Beckett remarked, "that's part of the anguish."

The opening page of Beckett's novel, The Unnamable (1958) twice uses the word aporia, which means lack of passage, so that in an aporia the intellect has no passage and can make no headway. There are, however, other ways of proceeding and constructing truths that lie outside the enlightenment paradigm.

In the sculpture of Henry Moore, for example, forms are continuously on the verge of becoming and are described as "vitalized by a dynamic harnessing of absence." We all are subject to experiential uncertainties and acknowledging the central role of absence points to an understanding of the human condition as in a suspended state of incompleteness close to a borderland state of something more. It is my contention that the good enough professor may be able to bring to the surface this kind of truth which no research grant could ever capture.

In the university we need both stars and good enough professors. They are different kinds of people but each makes an equally valuable and unique contribution to a diverse community. It is time to celebrate the good enough professor as well as the star although I fully expect when I look northward in the night sky from Philadelphia, where I now live and teach, I will see the Toronto skyline brightly lit from the addition of all the new stars. But I'll know too that another light is shining, one less visible, one that brings a different kind of illumination to our journey.

Allan Irving received his PhD from the University of Toronto in 1983 and was a member of the faculty of social work from 1984-2000, and served on the executive of the University of Toronto Faculty Association for several years. He is now a good enough professor at Widener University in the Philadelphia area.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of CAUT.