Your invisible professor

When I started at Duke 40 years ago, classes seemed important. Students were here to learn new things, and professors were here to help them do that. The new things included old things — history, classics, literature, philosophy, religion — along with the sciences and social sciences. 

Basketball was just another sport, along with golf and volleyball. We had a dreadful football team. 

The Bryan Center did not exist, and what we now call WU was a dark, scary, Gothic-tinged dungeon. There was a bat-and-mold-infested place called Central Campus where some students actually lived. Frats, by contrast, had the best residential spaces on West. Durham was a distant planet. The Art Museum was in one of the brick buildings on East. I parked every day on Chapel Drive — for free!

Extracurriculars were informal. There were clubs with faculty advisors. You did not have to apply. 

I had a colleague who held a “Happy Hour” (счастливый час) on the front porch of the Language Building every Friday afternoon. He poured a free shot of chilled vodka to any student, irrespective of age, who stopped by. This was a kind of pre-gaming before student “kegs” later that evening, where the real drinking started. I have an old document, a message sent out by a dean before LDOC, limiting each student to no more than one-half case of beer over the course of the day (I think that’s 12 beers each). 

There was no Krzyzewskiville, or even Krzyzewski. East Campus was for the arts, and “freshmen” were thrown upon arrival onto West, where they were hazed and indoctrinated into the informal, secret, rock-solid rules of campus life. At some point a couple dozen of them (white males) were given academic robes and drilled in an elaborate quad-marching ritual, with yelps, which they continue to perform to this day on LDOC. 

Dorms did not have AC. Campus food was served in “cafeterias,” and it was rubbery.

Refreshments were not served at guest lectures; students just came because they were curious, I guess. It was exciting when a professor showed a movie. There were no Certificates! We did not have a shadow business curriculum. Faculty did the advising. Professors — mostly white males — stood at the front of classrooms and read (yes, “read”) yellowed lecture notes — the same ones every year. One time a professor read the exact same entire lecture two class days in a row. People hired typists and everyone had a stash of white-out. We used “mimeographs” and “carbon paper” and “microfiche.” 

There was no internet. Letters were sealed in envelopes and dropped into mailboxes. Phones were things that stood on your desk, attached by a wire to the wall. Students knew where the libraries were and took books out of them! We had an actual bookstore. It sold the daily newspaper. 

Free T-shirts were not a thing. Concerts were classical. Coffee was coffee. 

Duke students could expect the full range of grades (A-F) in every class — from Chemistry and Econ to Literature and Music History. If you got a C, you figured that you had earned it. It wasn’t too hard to get into Duke; a full-on hippie like me could have been accepted in 1980. There were no websites and you registered for classes using paper cards. Faculty sat in Wilson gym and tried to persuade students to sign up for their classes. We dirty-recruited for Russian that way, pretending it would be fun. There weren’t a lot of administrators, and somehow things got done. 

A lot can change in 40 years. Duke has become a world-class institution. It is no coincidence that this has come along with our biggest change — from a mostly all-white, homogeneous English-speaking student body to a vibrant community of people of diverse backgrounds and identities from all over the world. Just walking between buildings, you hear a chorus of different languages. And students just keep on getting more brilliant and interesting. 

Our faculty has become more diverse too. Sometimes I hear from students about hierarchies and inequalities in their campus communities. Duke professors, too, find themselves arrayed along a socio-economic hierarchy that feels significantly more rigid than in years past. On your educational journey you will undoubtedly be taught by some low-paid laborers, most of whom — despite being just as brilliant as Duke’s full professors, and some of whom are among our best teachers — will never rise out of that marginalized social class or be integrated into Duke’s intellectual community. A few years ago, they voted for union representation, which allows them to tend to their basic human needs, earn predictable salaries, and get some benefits. Graduate students, who also teach you, have followed the same path. 

At the other end of the spectrum, the highest social classes at Duke are the tenured faculty, whose research dominates the university’s mission and profile, and of course the top administrators, whose salaries, which you pay, will leave you gasping for air.

In between these extremes — the basement and the penthouse — toil your Professors of the Practice. Check the Department websites and see if your favorite professor might be a POP. We are performing artists, practicing professionals, scholars, writers, analysts, musicians, journalists, scientists, translators, and educators. Many of us are internationally recognized leaders in our fields. We straddle different worlds — the Duke classroom and our practice outside of academe. 

I was one of Duke’s first crop of POPs, and I have been proud to see us grow into our role as Duke’s elite educators. Now, as I say goodbye to my intellectual home, I want to share my admiration for these incredible, brilliant, underappreciated colleagues. Duke’s POPs (except possibly the famous ones) earn far lower salaries than the tenured faculty, yet we perform a disproportionate share of the institution’s boots-to-the-ground mission. We are often marginalized even within our own departments. 

POPs are master teachers. We are passionately involved with the cultural, arts, advising, and student communities across campus. These contributions tend to go unrewarded and uncredited at salary-decision time, as they go up different administrative “siloes.” The prestigious forms of service — that is, those that entail meeting with high-level Duke decision makers, dining with them at the Wa Duke, and going on retreats — are closed off to your POPs. 

We contribute quietly and invigorate every corner of your world.

On my way out, I send out a big cheer to you, my invisible, brilliant, hard-working colleagues. I thank you for inspiring and supporting me all these years. And I challenge the administration to imagine what Duke would be without us, and to find ways to recognize and reward our service. 

Professor Carol Apollonio has been teaching Russian literature at Duke for 40 years, and this is her final semester. Her column, "Final Rants from the Podium," typically runs on alternate Wednesdays.


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