A Real College Guide: Humor and Care From the Source

At the heart of any good college are dedicated faculty. Architecture, athletics, traditions and social life may capture the public’s attention, but what really matters are the faculty – the professionals who educate, research, and define their institutions of higher education. Understand that – really grasp what the means and how it plays out – and the mysteries of how a college education works will become a little less mysterious.

Jacques Berlinerblau gets it. He’s a professor at Georgetown University, where he directs the Center for Jewish Civilization. An accomplished scholar and an increasingly prolific public intellectual, he taught at community colleges, CUNY, and Hofstra before landing his post at Georgetown. His latest book, Campus Confidential: How College Works, or Doesn’t, for Professors, Parents and Students is a brilliant, funny, and dead-on look at how college professors can make a difference to their students. He wants students and their families to make informed choices about colleges. The aim isn’t just a college guide for traditional students heading away to a residential four-year institution. He also, in flight of ambition, wants to raise thorny questions in the minds of colleagues. It is candid, refreshing, and a delightful read.

This is book from the viewpoint of someone who cares deeply about student learning, loves the good that comes with a high-quality education, and has been around academia enough to recognize our many foibles, shortcomings, and idiosyncrasies. He estimates that his fondness and focus on undergraduate teaching is only shared by about 10-25% of his fellow professors at “destination” colleges. That is not to say that his colleagues are ineffective or uncaring. Instead, Berlinerblau explains the perverse ways that institutions reward scholarship at the expense of teaching, the gaps and failures of graduate education, how professional development and the tenure process work and don’t work, and the many disincentives faculty encounter on the self-selected journey to becoming a superb college-level teacher. He does this with great wit. Campus Confidential is funny – snarky and witty – and is laced with insight that comes with sharp points. Why aren’t all of us in higher education more focused on student learning?

Berlinerblau’s criticisms are as on-target as his recommendations. He helps readers separate the wheat from the chaff when it comes to college reputations and how to obtain a good education. That knowledge is helpful at the admissions process, to be sure, but it can be equally useful when it comes to choosing classes, finding professors, and making informed choices about getting the most from a college experience. He goes into depth about what it means to be a full-time professor and what it means to be contingent – an adjunct – and how those kinds of employment have an impact on how one thinks about teaching and the profession. He shines a light on the college “formula” that prioritizes research or teaching for faculty in the tenure processes. He asks hard questions about a college’s center for teaching and learning. Is it a meaningful place of inquiry? Or is it “housed in the old tractor shed on the outskirts of campus?” I repeat: Campus Confidential is an entertaining read.

Berlinerblau goes into this level of detail to give students and their families a better understanding of what goes on in a college so that they can get more out of the educational experience. He has little patience for rankings and reputations. He casts a critical eye on them and many of the “gamed” metrics that appear in college lists. He makes some very good suggestions about how students can find – and connect – with good teacher. Berlinerblau does not believe that there is one best type of instructor. Instead, he believes that good teaching requires faculty to think a lot about their students. He is adamant, too, that the real impact of a college education is found in those hours of meaningful back and forth between students and talented, committed faculty.

Initially, one may read the book’s tone as curmudgeonly. Stick with it, and you realize that Berlinerblau’s complaints are deeper and more substantial. This is a serious book. Stay the course, and you’ll appreciate his deep and passionate commitment to students and student learning. He may joke, he may be sarcastic- but at bottom he’s the kind of professor we admire. We want to take his classes because we know he will care about us, as students, as individuals. He will be demanding, fair, and wildly entertaining. Further, I would wager my last dollar that students in Berlinerblau’s classes think. There’s no greater gift from a teacher.

David Potash

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