What a professor should be

Dec 22, 1999 at 12:00 am

Wayne State, where I manage to teach on my good days, has something the big prestige universities see little of anymore; students, many of them first-generation Americans, who are proud to be the first in their families to get a college education.

Some of them are even excited about it: Dalondo Moultrie, who worked for years to get a well-deserved journalism degree and now is, apparently, the first black reporter on the newspaper in Adrian. Affaf Arabbo, a young Chaldean woman who started putting herself through because of her love of literature and who is now about to take a position at the new magazine Arabica.

People like that are enough to make me forget to be cynical for as much as five minutes at a time. Not that Wayne is all working-class heroes; we have plenty of the modestly talented, some lazy rich kids and a few frauds, goof-offs and con artists.

But I wonder what our best students Ñ when they arrive Ñ think a professor should be. Thirty years ago, I didn't quite expect to find the equivalent of Socrates sitting on a log, but I was in awe of professors, whom I imagined as well-rounded, educated men and women who might be particular experts on genetics or poetry, but who could make learned and interesting conversation about many topics.

Alas, all too many were narrow specialists, and / or pompous windbags, some of whom seemed to resent teaching; they seemed to think the government ought to pay them to do full-time "research" into what really were their private little hobbies. Not that I'd argue that someone on the brink of a cancer cure ought to have to teach freshman chemistry. But to the bureaucracy, all "research" is sometimes seen as equal, whether into pediatric oncology or the frequency of certain adjectives in the rhetoric of Oliver Cromwell. And far too many academics exude a smug arrogance.

For example: Three of my more promising students this term were in a required history course taught by a graduate student who told them journalism was not a respectable academic discipline, and insulted the writing of one, who already has a job on a decent daily newspaper. The instructor then proceeded to do her best to rehash her Ph.D. thesis and make the most tumultuous century in history a confused, boring jumble. Sigh. Yet then there is Ralph Slovenko, professor of law and psychiatry, who single-handedly makes you believe in the concept of a "university." Slovenko is, as an account in Academy Forum noted, "the only lawyer in the United States to do something equivalent to a residency in psychiatry without attending medical school."

More importantly, he is the sort of original thinker that I, as a boy, imagined all professors should be. Hardworking and an excellent writer, he still pours forth a stream of scholarly works, including a number of now-standard textbooks on psychiatry and the law. One recent book, Psychiatry and Criminal Culpability, tackles brilliantly the issue of why the law considers Jeffrey Dahmer, say, sane and John Hinckley, insane.

No mere bookworm, he also was, a half-century ago, a varsity letterman in track, and has since done an interesting book on what motivates man to play sports.

But there is also the Slovenko who writes an amazing volume of witty popular essays for newspapers all across the nation. I first heard of him in connection with some gutsy writing in the mid-1980s challenging our worship of the automobile.

"A plague has covered our land mobilopathy," he intoned. "Cars take up our space, and foul our air. We have become a junky nation, turned into a parking lot," he said. Naturally, he has a car himself. "They are no longer an optional convenience, but a practical necessity. We have been forced to automobile dependency," he shrugs.

He writes about the nature of names, whether we should go in for hereditary titles, and about talking to our pets. "Of course, when the plants talk back it's time to worry." But though he does this all supremely well, he doesn't have a swelled head. Nor is he easy to fit into any neat category. For years, his favorite vacation spots were two countries thought to be opposites Ñ South Africa and the late Soviet Union. "I miss Pravda, and the gentle streets that weren't clogged with cars," he lamented. "I've seen plenty of changes in the past ten years, just about all of them for the worse."

Not all, however; for years, the love of his life was a speech therapist, Natasha. Russians weren't allowed to travel freely back in the bad old days, so they were forced into the ultimate commuter relationship. Finally, she came here. "She's still struggling to adapt" to the planet Detroit, said Slovenko, who lives near campus.

"In Confucius, wisdom, benevolence and courage are identified as the basic human values. Ralph is truly a man with all three," said Dr. C.G. Scrignar, editor of Academy Forum. "His courage separates Ralph from intellectuals who lack the conviction of their principles. Cross-fertilization of ideas has always been (his) strong point."

So why am I writing about him today? This is a time of year in which we celebrate doing for others, whichever ghosts you worship, and Slovenko, as one colleague said, "is one of those rare people who unselfishly gives more than he receives."

Here's to my resolution to be a tad more like him next millennium. Don't worry, though; unless the holiday drivers get me, I'll be back with a fresh venom pot next week. Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for the Metro Times.