High profile, high prestige: U. courts celebrity profs

Senior Staff Writer
Thursday, September 22, 2011

One comes from an American political dynasty. One won the Pulitzer Prize — twice. Another is the most translated African author of all time.

And as of this spring, all of them will teach at Brown.

The three — former congressman Patrick Kennedy, journalist David Rohde ’90 and author Chinua Achebe — are part of the University’s recent string of high-profile appointments. But John Donoghue, who is the director of the Brown Institute for Brain Science, where Kennedy is a visiting fellow, said he does not like to use the term “famous professor” to describe Kennedy. The phrase conjures up images of movie stars and musicians — celebrities whose connection to academics is tenuous at best, he said.

Indeed, hip-hop artist Wyclef Jean, who was named a visiting fellow to the University last year, did not teach or interact much with students, said Corey Walker, associate professor of Africana studies and chair of the department. Jean’s impact on campus might be best remembered by his surprise appearance at last year’s Spring Weekend.

“It was a one-year appointment for him to spend time here at Brown to learn from Brown,” Walker said. “But he was not a member of the faculty. He was never a member of the faculty.”

But in general, Walker said, famous professors bring distinction and “intellectual excitement” to the University.

“Students’ levels of curiosity are piqued,” he said.


Teachers, not ‘teachers’

Donoghue, a renowned neuroscientist in his own right, emphasized that big-name professors are hired for their experience, not glamour. “We’re bringing in people with different perspectives,” he said. “Not even different — it’s unique perspectives.” These appointments, he said, add richness to campus life, bringing in viewpoints that “are not ordinarily on campus.”

Kennedy, for instance, is not a neuroscientist by training. His national initiative, One Mind for Research, which fights stress-related brain disorders, brought him to the University. Kennedy will co-teach an upper-level seminar for undergraduate and graduate students on effectively using resources to research cures for diseases.

Donoghue said Kennedy brings “many years of experience,” — from his work in Congress, knowledge of health care and family history of brain disorders. He also hopes to involve Kennedy in campus life so that “many people can benefit” from his presence.

 Rohde, who will teach ENGL 1160E: “Advanced Journalism: Investigative and Online Reporting” this spring, said a famous professor can add expertise and enhance a student’s learning experience. A  former New York Times correspondent and author of a book detailing his several months of captivity in Afghanistan, Rohde is now a foreign affairs columnist at Reuters.

Brown is not the only University to hire well-known professors. For example, Jill Abramson, executive editor of the New York Times, was formerly a member of Yale’s faculty, and writer Joyce Carol Oates works on the faculty at Princeton.


‘The catch-22′

Though real-world knowledge can be valuable, Rohde said professional work could also distract a famous professor from teaching.

“That’s the catch-22,” he said. “You’re away from campus, so you’re bringing a certain expertise, but when you’re there one day a week, it could be difficult for students to fit seeing me into their schedules.”

Rohde will have to travel abroad  to research his column during the semester. Though he said he hopes to spend as much time with students as he can — he plans to hold office hours and be accessible by phone and email — he knows it may not always be easy to do so.

“I think being there all the time makes it easier for students to interact with you,” he said.

Donoghue also acknowledged that students may not have as much access to big-name professors — Kennedy, like Rohde, will continue with his own work and initiatives while at Brown.

“I don’t know if it’s a drawback, but it’s a limitation that you don’t have as much access as you’d like to have,” Donoghue said.

Achebe, a professor of Africana studies and the author of many novels including “Things Fall Apart,” joined the faculty two years ago. He co-teaches a literature course and speaks in various colloquia and panels, Walker said.

Though Walker said Achebe holds office hours and is a “visible” presence in the department, his schedule sometimes makes it difficult for him to interact with students. Achebe was not available for comment because he is preparing for a campus speaking event.


A famous ‘presence’

Jessica Bendit ’12 shopped an Africana studies class in spring 2010 because Achebe was listed as the instructor. But she soon found out the class was being co-taught. Achebe attended two classes the whole semester and participated in a symposium the students attended, she said. Most classes, though, were led by Michael Thelwell, a University of Massachusetts Amherst professor.

Though Achebe was not available to students during the class, his “presence was felt,” Bendit said. Listening to him and having him in classes was an “incredible honor,” and she said his involvement allowed her to connect uniquely with the class material.

Sergei Khrushchev, senior fellow in international studies and son of former Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, said teaching is any faculty member’s most important obligation, regardless of fame.

“We belong to the past — sooner or later, we will go and you will come,” he said. “The quality of the knowledge we will present you with is most important, so to me I’m putting my students in the first place and all other activity outside Brown just second or third.”

Khrushchev, who teaches the undergraduate seminar INTL 1800R: “Post-Soviet States From the Past into the Future,” said his experiences in Soviet Russia might make him a more effective teacher.

“I came from that environment, from that culture,” he said. “So I can tell students how it looked like from the inside.”

Khrushchev’s class is targeted primarily for seniors, though he said underclassmen are also welcome to take it.

Donoghue said most students he had spoken to were interested in Kennedy’s course because of its subject matter — not because they wanted to “rub shoulders” with a big name.

Gillian Horwitz ’14 said she found Kennedy’s class interesting because it might introduce her to a new perspective on science. In general, she said, students are drawn to courses by a combination of the subject matter and the professor’s name.

If a famous professor taught the “worst class ever,” Horwitz said, the person’s name alone wouldn’t be enough to draw her in. At the end of the day, you still want a professor who “excites you.”

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