What's the point of a professor?

When college is more about career than ideas, when paycheck matters more than wisdom, the role of professors changes. We may be 50-year-olds at the front of the room with decades of reading, writing, travel, archives or labs under our belts, with 80 courses taught, but students don’t lie in bed mulling over what we said. They have no urge to become disciples.

Sadly, professors pressed for research time don’t want them, either. As a result, most undergraduates never know that stage of development when a learned mind enthralled them and they progressed toward a fuller identity through admiration of and struggle with a role model.

Since the early 2000s, I have made students visit my office every other week with a rough draft of an essay. We appraise and revise the prose, sentence by sentence. I ask for a clearer idea or a better verb; I circle a misplaced modifier and wait as they make the fix.

As I wait, I sympathize: So many things distract them — the gym, text messages, rush week — and often campus culture treats them as customers, not pupils. Student evaluations and ratemyprofessor.com paint us as service providers. Years ago at Emory University, where I work, a campus-life dean addressed new students with a terrible message: Don’t go too far into coursework — there’s so much more to do here! And yet, I find, my writing sessions help diminish those distractions, and by the third meeting students have a new attitude. This is a teacher who rejects my worst and esteems my best thoughts and words, they say to themselves.