During a recent telecast of Charlie Rose, a nightly PBS talk show, the host mediated a roundtable discussion about the rise of Massive Open Online Courses, aka MOOCs. One of the guests, Anant Agarwal, CEO of edX, said the growing popularity of such classes at the college level has made some of the participating professors, ‘rockstars.’ I thought about every college professor I knew and decided either they or their students’ perceptions of them have really changed in the last 20 years. A lot.
In New Orleans piano players are often referred to as professors- Professor Longhair likely the most recognizable musician carrying the title- and it is very much a term of respect. Understandably it carries a connotation of knowledge, experience, confidence, and an ability to convey those qualities to others. I certainly held many of my university professors in similar high regard. Not all, but many. But rockstar?
My chosen instrument is guitar and the time in my life where my ability to play accelerated at its highest rate was during my four years at Syracuse University. Ample free time coupled with a mind ready to sponge up all that it takes to learn an instrument happened to fall nicely in line with my dormitory days. Any extra money was spent on CDs which, in turn, became like books to me.
There were some that served as required text for a course, being sold back upon completion. Others like cherished novels that sit on the shelf to this day. Then, there were those CDs that were and remain indispensable reference material, with exacting purpose but eons more emotional weight than any dictionary or encyclopedia. The authors of those road maps, those bibles, the rockstars responsible for those invaluable tomes were my professors.
Masters like Stevie Ray Vaughan, Duane Allman, Dickey Betts, Lowell George, Paul Barrere, Mark Knopfler, and my dean of students Trey Anastasio. It brings to mind Lowell George and his great lyric from the Little Feat song “Rock and Roll Doctor.”
Two degrees in be-bop/ A PhD in swing/ He’s the master of rhythm/ He’s a rock and roll king
I did take a music theory class in college taught by a rapidly aging man who spoke loudly to the ceiling and had trouble with the overhead projector. I distinctly remember his insistence on starting nearly every sentence by pointing out middle C on the keyboard. A PhD in swing he may have had, but he was no rock and roll king. I, and likely the majority of the class, would’ve preferred Professor Longhair. I dropped after one session.
There is no question we learn more when we like the one teaching us. I don’t think it is a requirement, but the opposite you can be just as sure. It’s hard to pay attention to those we cannot stand. My guess is that most teachers land in the middle. They are not people we think about much after class, yet if asked we would speak favorably of them. Like a good pop song. The ones we cherish, whose voices we would hear in our head way beyond the bell, they deliver profundity. Like John Coltrane. At least, right up until they mess it all up.
For a rockstar it can be an arrest, some offensive behavior or remark, relationship or substance abuse troubles, or at worst, a really bad album and suddenly he or she doesn’t seem so rockin.’ Fortunately for me, while some of my aforementioned instructors have had their ‘human’ moments, for the most part they lead and/or led quite respectable lives both publicly and privately, and have made very few, if any, lemons.
I believe Mr. Agarwal was implying that the adoration and attention akin to say, Eddie Vedder that some of the MOOC professors are receiving from their students is a real positive. It certainly seems as though MOOCs are here to stay and spreading, and if that means higher education available to more and more people, perhaps millions, globally, it’s hard to disagree that it isn’t a tremendous innovation. My only hope is that anonymity of formal education is not supplanted by celebrity, that the bestowing upon professors the title of rockstar remains a by-product, not a goal. I still prefer my collegiate professors in cotton, not leather.
Recommended listening - Alice Cooper - School’s Out
Larson Sutton, 39,
is a writer/musician
living in Los Angeles.
Picture By Brian Gimmel
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