Groupies move from concert to classroom

NEW YORK (U-WIRE) — The groupie syndrome emerged in the early days of rock n’ roll. It is not surprising that young women were attracted to the hedonistic glamour of the music world. What is harder to understand is the rock star groupie’s unlikely offshoot: the professor groupie.
Let’s face it, Columbia is crawling with groupies. We all know people like John, who has chosen all his classes since freshman year according to who is teaching them, whether the class is on the history of the English novel, on political change in the Third World, or on the behavioral biology of living primates. There is no particular topic or even discipline that he is really interested in. In fact, he’s not even particularly fond of books except, of course, for the Columbia College Bulletin because that lists which universities each professor went to.
We also know people like Jane, who stumbled across a name-brand professor by taking his general education class. She decided that kissing up to him for two consecutive semesters was not enough. Therefore, she decided to not only take every single class he taught each semester, but also to arrange an independent study with him. Now she is on first-name terms with the professor, and they exchange air-kisses whenever they meet.
You probably know these people, too — the student who always invents an irrelevant and unnecessary question as an excuse to talk to the professor after class; the student who curries the professor’s favor by offering one token skeptical rebuttal of the professor’s argument per class; and the student who banters merrily with the professor during class as both try to top each other’s obscure academic references.
What is it that makes these professor groupies tick? Are they simply after a glowing recommendation for graduate school? Do they want to become acquainted with professors simply to legitimize future name-dropping? Or is it some kind of twisted father-figure complex that drives this obsession?
This phenomenon would not be so bad if it were simply a matter of coping with the irritation that these sycophants cause. But the groupie syndrome has a direct impact on the university’s quality of education.
The more bootlickers certain professors collect, the larger their already mammoth egos grow. Soon, they believe that nothing can damage their brilliant reputations. They use their “busy schedule” as an excuse not to reply to e-mails or phone calls from anyone who is not a book agent, reporter or adulating student. They stop preparing lectures for their classes because, after all, who needs substance when you’re blessed with dazzling wit, unmatched charisma and a natural propensity for clever anecdotes? They publish new books that simply rehash all their previous publications, expecting that readers will be too overwhelmed by the author’s name to notice the actual content.
Thus, the very professors that Columbia uses to sell the university turn into conceited pseudo-celebrities with nothing to contribute to the academic community. Meanwhile, other professors who are equally, if not more, deserving of recognition go unacknowledged simply because they have not built up the same personality cults as some of their colleagues.
As students, we are here to gather knowledge and sharpen our critical faculties. It is impossible to accomplish these tasks if by creating academic icons we lose the ability to question the competence of our professors. So let’s take advantage of our time here to actually learn something — something other than naive adulation and blind worship.

Carmen Van Kerckhove’s column originally appeared in Friday’s Columbia University Daily Spectator.