The Real Lesson of Frederick Lutz

— This is a repost of today’s Teaching Reflection for Albion’s Center for Teaching and Learning.

Every day on my way in to my office, I walk over a bronze plaque in the pavement dedicated to Albion College professor Frederick Lutz. The plaque tells us Lutz was “Professor in this College 1885-1920.” LutzThe preposition has always nagged at me. These days we speak of ourselves as working at Albion College, not in it. Lately, however, I’ve begun thinking that there may be a lesson in that tiny word about our role as teachers and students and about Albion’s role in the wider community.

There is a valuable historical lesson in the change from “in” to “at.” The word “in” was once the more common choice. If Google’s Ngram is correct, the use of the phrase “professor in the college” peaked just before the Great Depression and then declined precipitously. By 1945, “at the college” had become the most common form. The reasons seem fairly clear. The Depression upended many traditional views of work and social class. It completed the process of alienation from one’s labor that had begun on the factory floors of the industrial revolution and extended it to higher education. After the 1930s, being a college teacher slowly became just a job. Professors became employees who worked “at” a college or university just as a machinist might work “at” Ford. Students underwent a similar transition, from studying “in” to studying “at” a college.

Something was lost in the transition, though, and not just genteel Victorian elitism. When we teach and learn “at” a college, we cease to be members of a community and become employees and consumers. We start calling Albion “the institution” and use corporate phrases like “the value proposition.” This process pulls students and faculty apart. The classrooms of the past may have been paternalistic, but they were also places in which faculty and students thought of themselves as being “in” it together, and for life.

The preposition “in” has another potential meaning when applied to the College that might be worth recovering. We use “in” to describe units within a larger whole. I usually say that I am in the English department at Albion College, and we even say someone is “in the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Michigan.” To think of ourselves as being in Albion College is to think of the College as part of a wider community. This community might be academia, but it is also part of the City of Albion (and its surrounding area). If we and our students can begin to think of ourselves as “in” the College, we may help ourselves to think of the College as an integral part of Albion as a whole.

What would it look like to resurrect the good parts of this in-dwelling attitude toward teaching and learning? We would make Albion not merely a place at which students and faculty work and study but a community in which we belong.

–Ian F. MacInnes

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