Add the Association of College and University Educators to the list of for-profit consulting firms that have arrived on the scene to save the day and help those of us in higher ed get it—in this case teaching—right. Their consultants offer hour-long modules on a particular topic—increasing class participation in discussion, for example. The website is slick and professional. The modules seem (you can only access samples of their content without paying) to have a well-conceived structure that provides feedback, includes videotaped classroom presentations, and well-defined objectives. The faculty that are listed on the site as experts represent a range of disciplines and come from all different kinds of institutions (public and private, community colleges and 4-year institutions, etc). The materials on the website rightly incorporate some of the latest research and evidence from the scholarship of teaching and learning (SoTL). But despite what seems to be a well-executed product, the model proposed by ACUE and its clients is deeply troubling for several reasons.
The first reason is a fundamental question about the structure and process of teacher training. ACUE is seeking to remedy ineffective teaching, which, it rightly notes “costs” institutions in terms of poor retention and graduation rates. In its comments on its mission, ACUE has specifically stated that a PhD in a particular field is not necessarily evidence that the candidate is an effective teacher and that many graduate programs do not provide adequate training in teaching and pedagogy. There is evidence, albeit not universal, for both of these assertions. However, addressing this after faculty have already been hired and arrived on campus is wrongheaded. Our efforts to create effective teachers should begin in graduate school. And several disciplinary associations are working on exactly this. The Executive Director of the American Historical Association, James Grossman, has issued apersuasive call for PhD programs in History to address this issue: “Teaching is an essential skill for every historian, whether in a secondary school, college classroom, museum, archive, historical site, or even the public square, presenting evidence persuasively to legislators and fellow citizens. Historians teach. Learning how to teach should be equal to and intertwined with learning to become a research scholar.” The American Society for Microbiology has a Teaching Fellows Program. And I’m certain there are other examples. Who better than the disciplines to tackle this gap in preparation?
As a corollary to this, teacher training of this sort—a certification offered by a non-discipline-specific-for-profit company—risks divorcing research and scholarship from the practice of teaching. While many graduate programs probably still need to work on strengthening the connection between the two as they train future faculty, this alternative model of credentialing could potentially devalue the PhD.
The second reason that this model is objectionable is because it ignores the resident knowledge and wisdom present on all campuses. Most campuses have a teaching center. These centers provide workshops, resources, and are run by individuals who are experts in the scholarship of teaching and learning. All campuses have great teachers. Further, a group like ACUE assumes a smoothing out of institutional differences and risks proposing a one size fits all approach. I can already here the pushback from faculty who have to participate in these modules: “what you’re proposing won’t work with my students because they work long hours/they don’t have ready access to technology/our classrooms aren’t set up for what you’re proposing, etc” And these centers and these faculty are already familiar with the institution and its students. They know the local culture and are ready to jump in with ideas and solutions that will immediately suit the situation. The ACUE model devalues existing faculty expertise and experience on every college and university campus. Why would a college or university spend precious funds to hire an outside firm to provide something they already have at their fingertips?
The third reason to be troubled is the burden that this model puts on faculty. ACUE places most of the onus for weak retention and graduation rates (and their website makes painfully clear to administrators what the financial cost of low rates is) on faculty teaching. Adopting the remedy of improved teaching as the solution to low retention and graduation rates implicitly suggests that other factors—high school preparation, income disparities, other campus support systems, etc—are less important or relevant. Effective teaching is absolutely essential to student success, but if faculty can be blamed for poor retention and graduation rates because bodies like ACUE have not credentialed their teaching, we are definitely in trouble. Could retention and graduation rates become a metric for faculty performance? And what is the impact of this on contingent faculty? Will the absence of such credentials (presumably harder to attain if they do not have stable, long-term relationships with the institutions where they teach) risk further compromising their status within the profession?
The ACUE rightly identifies the importance of effective teaching. The model it proposes, however, is one that faculty should push back against since it devalues their knowledge and experience and threatens to place undue burdens on them. Administrators should also avoid this model because it is a bad investment. They should invest instead in building up teaching and learning centers and leveraging the existing expertise of the successful teachers already on their campuses.