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The Professorial Life

Question: Beyond a simple title, how would you describe what you do?

Harris-Lacewell: When people ask I say, “Well I teach at a little school in New Jersey.” (Chuckles)  So what I do for a living is that . . .  You know in other words the thing that if I did only that I’d still get a check from Princeton University is, you know, I teach their students, right?  So I spend time in the classroom prepping and preparing ideas, spiting them back out, and assessing students on the quality of the ability to tell me what they’ve learned.  At the most basic level I’m a teacher.  I really am a teacher.  And if I did nothing else but that for the rest of my life, apparently because of tenure I’d keep getting a check.  So just for a living I do that, but that’s my . . . that’s my . . . that’s my vocation.  That’s the thing that I have to do.  The joy, or the pleasure, or all of the other things (11:50) that I do come from the fact that I have that particular stability in my job.  So I’m able to say at my most fundamental level I’m a teacher.  I’m a classroom teacher.  But on a much broader level I’m a much bigger kind of teacher.  So in other words I see my research, my scholarship, and my public intellectual engagement as all being about teaching, but the best kind of teaching; teaching that is not just about regurgitation of ideas, but teaching which is about engagement in dialogues and discussions with a whole population of people who are my students, and who are also teaching me back.  So when I write a book, the amazing thing about books is that they go out there into the world without you.  I don’t get to stand there with it and explain, “Well what I mean on page 10 was . . .”  It goes out there and it does all kind of teaching for me.  It says things that maybe I mean it to say, and some things that I didn’t mean it to say, and that are unexpected what people find in it.  But it’s a tool and a method for me to be engaged in conversation with folks beyond sort of who I’m able to stand in front of a classroom with.  And then I spend a lot of time on the Internet talking to journalists; spending time, you know, on television.  And when I’m doing that, again I’m engaged in teaching – oftentimes teaching the journalists, because there’s a great deal of teaching of the journalists that goes on.  You may get one quote or one line in the New York Times, but you spent an hour with a reporter kind of helping them think through the central issues.  Or when I get, again, an opportunity, for example, to blog, or to appear on television, I always try to see that as an opportunity for teaching and engagement; to bring some of what we know from the academy out into the public view.

"I teach at a little school in New Jersey."

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