Friday, May 11, 2007

My Students Think I'm a Teacher...the Fools

Driving in yesterday, I was flipping around the radio dial and came across a couple of morning drive-time dj's ribbing a station administration type about how much he was paying to send his kids to college. The claim they were making is that college is nothing but a four year drunken orgy that is not worth the time or money in any pragmatic sense. Most people learn nothing of value, they contended, and a smart kid will learn everything he needs on the job, so college is an unnecessary waste.

Then I come in to see that Aspazia put up a post on teaching commenting on this New York Times article on the efforts of Harvard to begin to take teaching seriously.

Sitting here at the end of finals week, it seems a good time to reflect on whether this whole industry really is the scam that the dj argued it is and if so, whether Harvard is just making noises about fixing it.

Every once in a while, when someone asks what I do for a living, I say "philosopher." I think the looks I get are pretty funny. But often, TheWife will shoot in, "He's a college professor" (partly to bring the person's understanding in line with reality and partly because I'm kind of embarrassing in public sometimes). Most people don't realize that my job is actually two jobs; I teach philosophy and I write philosophy. These are two radically different undertakings that only occasionally, with really good students and just the right question, overlap. The assumption from those outside the academy is that I am like a high school teacher whose full-time job is teaching, only I teach at a higher level. And since I am teaching at a higher level, surely it's the case that I not only received the sort of educational background in how to teach that a high school teacher gets, but even more rigorous and robust instruction on how to maximize instructional efficiency, how to fine tune my teaching to correspond with learning styles and the most recent understandings from neuro-science about how we take in and assimilate information.

This is so wrong it makes you want to laugh and cry. College professors receive no training whatsoever in teaching. We are given no idea at all about the interior workings of our students minds and what would be the best way to present material. We are given poverty wages in graduate school and assigned as teaching assistants to professors who also have no background in teaching. In that capacity, you do the grunt work, not as an apprentice learning the trade from a master, but as a domestic servant freeing up time for your employer to do other things than worry about trivialities like grading, meeting with students, and writing assignments and exams.

But the kick in the groin is that these profs you are working under serve as the model that you dream of becoming. They are the big names, the most successful, recognized, and rewarded members of the community you are working your butt off to join as a journeyman. They are famous not for being teachers, but for being scholars. They are famous for their "real work" and the classroom is a bother, a distraction that keeps them from doing their "real work."

These university professors have three jobs: research, teaching, and training graduate students, the next generation of scholars. In training upcoming technicians in their field, they stress that which made them successful...hint, it isn't teaching. Newly minted Ph.D.'s are sent out into academic world with explicit instructions to pay as little attention to teaching as they can get away with in order to be able to focus on their research, their "real work." If they are lucky enough to get jobs, they have to labor for the next seven years with the sword of Damocles hanging over their head; if they are denied tenure, they lose their job. Imagine that you've just put in five to ten grueling years working your tail off in grad school, have miraculously achieved your dream of finding a job at a college or university, and have a family to feed. Tenure decisions are largely based upon publication, scholarly research, and networking with the powerful in your scholarly community so you can get good "external evaluations." When your department chair warns you about spending too much time trying to help your students, what do you think these folks are going to do?

The entire reward structure in colleges and universities is centered around research. How many publications? Were they in elite journals? How much grant money did you bring in? How many times was your work cited by other scholars? Important ones? This is what makes your reputation. This is what lets you keep your job and earns you raises. This is what you are "supposed to be doing." It's funny that even our own students don't realize this. They think we're here for them simply because they are putting themselves in debt for life to take our classes. I even had a student, one of my best, ask me honestly, "What is this research you say you're doing?"

There is also a vague sense that teaching matters; more in some places, less in others. True, if you are incredibly awful as an instructor, you could be let go before you are given tenure, but I remember in grad school, a member of the department won the university-wide award for teacher of the year and was denied tenure and fired the next. Indeed, we don't have good vehicle for even measuring good teaching. Student evaluations are well known to be flawed. Male instructors get higher marks than female, good looking people better than less so, funny teachers higher than serious ones (all this, of course, explains why my evals are sterling...that and the fact that I fill them out myself...) Colleagues sit in on classes, but we have no training in effective teaching and classes inevitably react in funny ways to the presence of a senior colleague suddenly showing up in the classroom.

But as Aspazia points out,

there are faculty around doing the kind of work--i.e. innovative course design, service learning courses, team taught courses, courses with travel/field research built in, doing active research with students, etc.--that epitomize what many of the administrators would like Gettysburg to look like (at least according to the Strategic Planning documents). So, it seems that one way to drive change here would be to reward, and really reward, faculty who are doing what we think best embodies the mission of of this college. As it stands now--like at many colleges--there are not a lot of incentives for creative and innovative teaching (outside of intrinsic desire) and there are NO DISINCENTIVES for bad behavior.
There is little appreciation for work in the classroom and few penalties for being a lousy teacher who phones it in in the classroom.

This is not a local, institutional concern, but something much more global, infecting higher ed as a whole (community colleges excepted). Gettysburg College, I would argue, is better than most. Everyone here has been very supportive of my ventures and I've had administrators bend over backwards to help me figure out ways to find the resources I've needed to do creative things. Aspazia is incredibly creative pedagogically and much more experimental than I am, something that she has been not only free to pursue, but encouraged in within our department. But we do this because of our culture. We are peculiar in that when we hire, we first look for outstanding teachers and then among them, who would do interesting work. But it is something you do out of the goodness of your heart. I taught three independent study courses this semester with five students. That's three extra classes (doubling my teaching load) and I got not a penny for it, in fact, to do it, I sacrificed time that could have been dedicated to my research which would most likely make me more eligible for a merit raise. I'm not looking for pity, admiration, or more money here (any Gettysburg administrators who are reading, please ignore this sentence), I am simply trying to illustrate the fact that Aspazia makes that going the extra mile in teaching is not built into the reward structure of higher education and that not doing for our students is not discouraged.

And it's magnified beyond belief at places like Harvard. Those institutions are able to attract all the big names in every field exactly because they go there to research and not to teach. They have a two-tiered system. Junior faculty are the rising stars coming out of the best graduate programs. They are given "tenure-track" positions where they will work for six years and then find a real tenure-track position at a very good institution just before getting denied tenure. Places like Harvard are good places to be from. They then spend the middle of their career at the new place, or a series of new places, to establish themselves and climb the ladder in hope to get back to a joint like Harvard in the end. You see, when the big boys want a tenured professor, an established star, they just go out and buy one. These prima donnas move into the prestigious universities with contractual terms that allow them to do minimal teaching, often none at the undergrad level. If Harvard is indeed committed to becoming a top flight teaching institution, I wish them luck, but I wouldn't bet my money on it. There is an institutional culture and a long history in the other direction that has to be overcome. And even the teaching institutions don't do such a great job at it.