Tag Archives: teaching

What Is In a Name?

What is in a name?  A lot apparently, if this recent essay in Inside Higher Ed is any indication.  In it, Alexander Bolyanatz vigorously rejects the appellation of “teacher,” largely because of the connotations he believes it carries.  Drawing on the example of K-12 educators, he argues that these individuals, who should be called teachers, are called upon to be disciplinarians, to act in loco parentis, and are often perceived by their students as adversaries.  These associations, he believes, should not characterize the work of university faculty.  Further, he contends, he is not trained to be a “teacher” since teachers have “formal training in fields like pedagogy and learning” and he does not.


The pushback against this essay has been hard-hitting.  And it has been heartening to see many college and university professors embrace not just the title but also the responsibilities of “teacher.”  Where I would like to enter the debate is to address an issue that I encounter frequently and have written about previously: the extent to which we as college faculty should be engaged with pedagogy and research on the science of learning.

The author is correct in asserting that most college and university professors do not receive preparation in pedagogy.  So add that to the list of things we should be changing about graduate education since the vast majority of us will not teach at R-1 institutions and will regularly and frequently stand before students and TEACH.  But in the meantime, shouldn’t we WANT to engage with this material?  I have written before about the perplexing–to me–phenomenon of some university professors ignoring the vast literature on how students learn and persisting in outmoded and ineffective forms of instruction.  I have several theories about why this is the case, but Bolyanatz’s essay highlights one of them: the unspoken and uncomfortable hierarchies by which we (sometimes) divide the world of education.

I suspect I am not alone in having heard and observed the following sentiments.  Being a college professor is better than being a high school teacher.  Within the post-secondary world, being an English professor who teaches literature is superior to being one who “only” teaches composition.  Those professors who teach “Math Ed”?  Not as good as those who teach advanced subjects.  And yet ironically we expect those whose work we rank lower to be the ones engaged with the literature and research on how to teach effectively and enhance student learning.

So when the author relegates the work of pedagogy and learning to K-12 teachers I believe that doing so is symptomatic of a larger dilemma in education writ large: the chasm that often divides post-secondary education from its secondary counterpart.  Though the author credits these teachers with having expertise in pedagogy and learning, he also simultaneously denigrates them by saying in the next breath that they act as adversarial disciplinarians.  In this he exacerbates the divide by fueling negative characterizations that separate these two worlds one from the other.

Some have generously argued that the problem in bridging this gap between the findings of pedagogy and the science of learning and university faculty is one of “communication.” We should communicate the results of the work on pedagogy and learning more broadly and that will change minds.  I wish I could be as sanguine.  I think the problem is deeper and rooted in these hierarchies which in turn foster prejudices and disdain.  So the remedy is interaction.  In my experience these hierarchies do not hold once one begins to interact with K-12 educators, composition professors, my colleagues who teach math education at the post-secondary level, and others whose work we are typically quick to trivialize or criticize.  Is teaching high school different from teaching college?  Absolutely.  Are the challenges of teaching freshmen composition different from the challenges of teaching literature?  Of course.  But different does not mean that one is better or more valuable than the other.  I am convinced that we have much to learn from each other if we open a dialogue across these gaps and subvert these hierarchies.  I doubt any one of us–regardless of what we teach–has cornered the market on pedagogical knowledge and insight.  I know I haven’t.  With any luck at all, the best teachers–yes, I said, teachers–are the ones who aren’t done learning how to teach.


Try a Little Empathy

As an administrator, I hear lots of complaints from faculty about students and from students about faculty.  It is part of my job to adjudicate these complaints.  But the longer I do this the more I am struck by a seemingly simple observation–but one that is not acknowledged frequently enough–that is at the core of many of these conflicts.  The uncomfortable truth is that the professor-student relationship is predicated on us having power over them. We can seek to mediate that to make it less intimidating. We can seek to be more collaborative and to become their partners in learning.  But at the end of the day we occupy a position of authority and we do powerful things like evaluating their work and assigning grades. I say this not to suggest that we should lord our power over them. Quite the opposite, in fact. Instead, I think we need to remedy our (occasional) failure to fully appreciate how our students experience the power that we have over them.  We need to try a little empathy.


Too often, our reactions to students assume a disrespect or malice that I don’t think is there. I think instead that students are worried and anxious. I am not saying we should be pushovers. Or that students should be coddled. But I am saying that a little empathy could be constructive. And in my experience, coupling that empathetic disposition with listening can really keep the situation from escalating.

So, like you, I get emails and have interactions with students where they make requests that rankle me: they want extra time to turn in an assignment, they want a detailed study guide for the exam, etc.  There was a time when I would have gotten my hackles up: “how DARE they make these unreasonable requests?”  But I have found that doing so was a failure on my part to consider the anxiety that might reside behind such petitions.  Unreasonable requests are often the last-ditch effort of students who are panicking about a grade.  Is it likely that they got themselves into this pickle to begin with?  Absolutely.  Do I accomplish anything by responding with outrage?  Probably not.

Instead, I have found that if I make my default setting empathy and I take just a few moments to ponder the concerns and fears of my students I am usually able to work towards a more constructive response.  Better still, if I have the opportunity to engage students and talk to them, and even more importantly, listen to them, they are more likely to eventually acknowledge their responsibility.  So whenever possible, find a way to engage with the student–easier to do if they approach you in person, but if they email, invite them to come to office hours or talk to you before or after class.  Email is notoriously bad at communicating tone and intent.  My point is this: oftentimes, students just need to be heard and give voice to their anxieties.  As a chair and now as a dean I continue to be surprised at how often a situation can be defused by just listening.  At least half the time, once a student has finished giving voice to the complaint/concern/frustration, the unreasonable request has evaporated, the student feels heard, and all of this without an escalation of the situation.

But if the unreasonable request hasn’t disappeared after a conversation, your response to that unreasonable request might still be “no.”  That said, I am still persuaded that a momentary flirtation with empathy costs us very little and may keep a situation from worsening.

Empathy has other roles to play in our interactions with students.  Your empathy should include, for example, never assuming that students know how higher education works. This is especially true, of course, for first-generation college students. Even a super-rigorous college prep high school cannot prepare them for the bureaucracy and interactions that define higher education. And this means that they may not know how to interact with you at first.  They may call you by your first name. They may express frustration when you don’t respond to their emails right away. Rather than take these things as a personal affront, take the opportunity to explain the rules of engagement.

As you interact with them, your empathy should also extend to realizing that you might be scary–or at least perceived as such. I like to think that I am nice, approachable, and reasonable in my interactions with students. And I suspect that eventually they are persuaded that I am. But for a student who has never taken a class with me or never come to my office hours, I may be scary and intimidating, no matter how relaxed or jokey or unpretentious I am.  I’m the one who graded that exam they want to discuss. I’m the one who will be hearing, and presumably evaluating, that comment they make in class. An appreciation of these potential tensions and apprehensions that sometimes result from the power dynamic in the professor-student relationship might go a long way to easing interactions with our students.

Some will say that this amounts to coddling students.  I couldn’t disagree more and am inspired by Prof. Sara Rose Cavanagh‘s wise work on the science of student emotions and learning.  She contends that we need to reject the false dichotomy of assuming “that we have to choose between rigor and care.”  Are students sometimes irresponsible and immature and even disrespectful? Absolutely.  My admonition to empathy is in no way meant to deny this.  And there may be situations where a more stern response is required.  My proposal, however, is modest: we should err first on the side of empathy.  Acknowledging the anxieties that adhere to the power we have over our students is a relatively small gesture that may have a large impact on their experiences and our interactions with them.

Building Better Teachers

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.