Obama the Professor

Obama Chesh 5

“How is it that not one of you has actually read the syllabus?!” Heh. Via Wikimedia Commons.

There have been a lot of profiles written about Barack Obama, and I have read many of them with interest. As usual, I tend to read them with half my mind thinking about the difference between these kinds of profiles written in the moment, and the versions of a life written by biographers and historians long after the fact. It’s the sort of exercise that entertains me.

I don’t claim to have any profound predictions about Obama’s legacy, or even unprofound ones. I’m merely interested to watch it unfold. Right now, what interests me is the huge variety of interpretations about a man who is alive and working and accessible (more or less) to the journalists doing the writing. Historians are used to trying to re-construct the life of a person who is long dead, whose friends and coworkers and family are all long dead, and who may, in many cases, have left precious few written traces of his or her actions, let alone thoughts (chances are, in the case of a “she” there’s even less than in the case of a “he”). To me it seems like an embarrassment of riches to write a life of someone still living, with the benefit of interviews where you can ask whatever you want, with extraordinary documentation, and access, potentially, to thousands of people who know and work with him.

With this touch of envy in mind, I always feel a bit dissatisfied by contemporary profiles of important people. Especially when there are a lot of them, as there are with Obama, it seems like the more you read, the more it becomes noise, and the less you can pin down who this person is.

I have particular difficulty with the classic lengthy profile that often appears in periodicals like Vanity Fair or The New Yorker. You know the kind, where the author plucks from obscurity a handful of random but colorful anecdotes, asks some random but colorful questions, and mashes the whole thing together into a rambling “think piece” that feels profound, but…isn’t. It leaves you knowing less than you did before you read it, and somehow all the anecdotes taken from interviews and in-person observations feel inauthentic. One has a sense that the writer was gathering them like a preschooler collects bits of paper for a collage — “ooh! A red one! Score!”

I don’t mean to sound snarky. I really enjoyed the recent piece in Vanity Fair by Michael Lewis. It struck me as unusually insightful about what it’s actually like to be president. And I think he may have asked the most brilliant question I’ve ever heard asked of a president for the purposes of finding out his character:

“Assume that in 30 minutes you will stop being president. I will take your place. Prepare me. Teach me how to be president.”

But I came away from the article having little if any insight into Obama.

One of the most insightful people writing about Obama, I think, is Andrew Sullivan. Sullivan tends to characterize Obama as a conservative, even a paragon of a conservative. I’m of the school that thinks that’s incredibly accurate on a number of levels (whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing and on which levels is another question, of course).

Much more often, Obama is accused of being a kind of Bambi — too soft on this or that, unwilling to take a stand when stands need to be taken, unwilling to push hard, unwilling to ram his will through no matter what. (Of course, he’s also accused of the opposite, but I’m trying to pull some of the more prominent threads out of the infinite cacophony here).

But the thing about Obama that has always struck me as most obvious, even blinding, is something I don’t really see get mentioned in these profiles. I’m talking about the fact that Obama is a professor. He was literally a professor when he taught law at the University of Chicago law school (disclaimer: at the time he was doing that, I was living in an undergrad dorm next door, and some friends and I may have gone wading in the law school fountain once and been yelled at by some law school prof who almost certainly was not Obama, though I like to tell myself that it could have been). Less literally, he’s always struck me as being a professor type, and I say this as a professor type with a lot of professor-type acquaintances, in addition to having done my time (and then some) staring at a podium from the other side of the room.

Of course the media has not missed the fact that Obama was a professor. This piece was particularly interesting. And he’s fairly often criticized as “professorial” when he’s being stiff and wonkish (but even more often, in 2008 especially, he was criticized as speaking in a “lofty” way devoid of detail or substance — another example of the media not being able to make up its mind about him).

I think he’s professorial in much deeper ways than speaking style, and I think it explains the sense people get of his conservatism (which often outrages his base) as well as the “Bambi” meme.

Run with me for a minute here. Imagine a college classroom, a small seminar class. The subject doesn’t matter. You’re the professor, and it’s your job to (a) get the students engaged and talking (b) to get them to understand the material being covered and most importantly (c) to get them to think critically, for themselves, about that material.

In that situation, you don’t go in guns blazing and force people to obey your will. Why would you? That’s just a completely irrelevant, as well as unethical and pointless, approach.

You also (if you know what you’re doing at all) don’t go in there and tell the students what’s what. Even when you’re really, really sure you know what’s what. Even when you’re feeling frustrated with the impossibility of the task in front of you and you are incredibly tempted to just skip to the end and tell them the answers already. Tempting as that can sometimes be, you do know it would be a hollow and temporary victory, because they wouldn’t really take anything in, and telling people what to think is not your job.

You also don’t go into that classroom with a goal of changing the world. You don’t even aim to turn those students in that room into scholars. Most of them probably couldn’t get there, and more importantly, there’s no reason for them to get there. They have other things they need to do, and it’s your job to help them do that. You’re not making clones of yourself. You’re giving people the knowledge and skills they need to define and pursue their own goals.

You aim when you go into that room to move the students forward from where they were when you got them.

You leave your own ideologies and convictions behind when you walk into the classroom, because you know they’ll just get in the way of the process at best, and completely undermine your ability to do your job at worst.

You don’t preach to the choir. You work with ALL the students. Even the ones who seem hopelessly behind.

With experience, you learn that students can always surprise you. All of them. Some of them that seem really with the program can turn out to be putting on a show for a grade, and not really understand or care about the material or learning in general. Some that seem like they don’t even belong in that room will work their butts off and ultimately make you feel stupid and lazy with their hard work and original insights. You never know. And it’s not your job to guess, or care, what each student is ultimately capable of. You take them as you get them, and you work to move them forward from wherever they are.

Sometimes, as part of that work, you play devil’s advocate. You find yourself saying things you don’t remotely believe, and you actually try to put conviction into your face and voice because you’re so focused on seeing the lightbulb go off in the students’ eyes, the expression on their faces that means they’re thinking, really thinking.

You willingly give up a lot of control of the classroom — control you know how to use, and would on some level love to use — because you know from experience that you can’t do the thinking and acting and learning for them. You can only push, facilitate, re-direct. They’ve got to do the thing for themselves, ultimately, or it won’t stick.

And then, after a semester of all this hard work, which you do pretty darn selflessly because you really — REALLY! — believe in the inherent value of the process…at the end of the semester, after you’ve turned in your grades, you get your evaluations. And you find out just how many students blame you for their own unwillingness to invest themselves in learning. In other words, you find out that their failures will be billed as your failures, while their successes are their own.
What does all this have to do with Obama? I think his personal convictions are so hard to read because as a representative of the people, whose job is to govern, he actually tries to represent the people, and part of doing that well is putting your more idiosyncratic attitudes out of even your own mind.

I think he listens to all sides — even the sides that hate him irrationally and eternally — because that’s his job. Like it or not.

I think he’s not saving the world because, well, first, he can’t, and second, because he realizes that. I really doubt he sets his sights that high. And I would be astounded if he looks on politics as the epic battle between Democrats and Republicans that it is often portrayed to be by the media. He’s a problem-solving type of thinker rather than an ideological type — that’s been widely observed and is after all pretty characteristic of many post-Boomer Americans — but more than that he’s a professor type. That means focusing on taking what you’re given and moving it forward, doggedly, semester after semester. That’s very different from viewing your job as a matter of wins and losses.

A professor is rarely confrontational toward students, except perhaps temporarily to make a point. Most professors genuinely don’t even feel confrontational about their students’ ideas — if you get into this gig at all, you care pretty strongly about the integrity of the process. Truth, to an academic, should be not this answer or that answer to a problem (there are rarely neat and final answers to the questions asked at college level and beyond), but the rigorously honest pursuit of a solution, using all available tools. To do that, you have to listen to everyone, even the ones who seem nuts. They are the most likely, in fact, in my classroom experience, to insert something really innovative into the conversation (though often unintentionally), and they are often the ones to name the elephant in the room. (Naming the elephant in the room is something most academics welcome; most politicians are the ones putting curtains up around the elephant.) Even the students who don’t actually contribute have to be included in the process, because otherwise the process loses all meaning and integrity.

In the Michael Lewis profile, Obama is quoted saying some remarkably professorial things. In a passage about the writing of Obama’s Nobel speech, for example, he is depicted as instructing his speechwriters to put together his favorite authors’ ideas on war — he gathers his sources first, in other words, like an academic would — and he apparently explained to his interviewer that, “[h]ere it wasn’t just that I needed to make a new argument. It was that I wanted to make an argument that didn’t allow either side to feel too comfortable.”

That’s how you lead a classroom discussion. That’s how you compose an argument that gets people to think, instead of telling them what to think.

Then Obama explained his goals for the speech: “What I had to do is describe a notion of a just war. But also acknowledge that the very notion of a just war can lead you into some dark places. And so you can’t be complacent in labeling something just. You need to constantly ask yourself questions.”

This is professorialism at its best. Nothing is black and white. The devil is in the details. Caution. Never get ahead of your evidence. Always. Ask. Questions.

Narrating Obama’s decision not to approve a no-fly zone over Libya that was intended to give an appearance of protecting innocent civilians but could not possibly have helped, Lewis quotes Obama as saying, “I know that I’m definitely not doing a no-fly zone. Because I think it’s just a show to protect backsides, politically.” This stance could read as noble. A president who puts morality (and practicality) above politics. It could be that. It could also be the overwhelming impatience of the true scholar with anything that confuses the fundamentals: the questions, evidence, and reasoning that can solve problems. Arguing about how this or that method of problem-solving looks — or finding ways to avoid the problem altogether — is a waste of time when one could actually be coming up with an answer. Even if it’s not ultimately a satisfying answer, at least you tried, and learned something from the effort that may help future efforts. That’s the pursuit of knowledge.

This professorial quality implies a few things. Most importantly, it implies that Obama believes in and is animated more by the process of governing democratically than perhaps any general policy principle. Compare this to his record, and I think you find a lot of consistency, especially in places where allegiance to party platform or political expediency is sometimes absent. I don’t want to imply that Obama’s professorial tendencies define him completely. None of us are defined by anything so simple. There are no doubt many sides to his character and his decision-making, as there are for all of us. But I think this one part is often unrecognized. I also don’t make any claims about whether these tendencies are good, great, suspect, or terrible in a President of the United States. Like any good prof, I’m just throwing it out there, to see if it makes people think.

This entry was posted in Profession, Random and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *