Rough Draft of Conference Paper on College Teaching

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When I submitted an abstract for this conference, I was retiring from three decades of teaching in high schools, colleges, and universities; public and private schools; urban and suburban; coed and single-sex; top-ranked national universities as well as second- and third-tier colleges. With a master’s degree in education and my own experiences as a student both at impoverished rural schools and at Ivy League institutions, I thought I might have some wisdom to share about teaching and learning.


Turns out I was wrong. After some months of reading and thinking, I realize that mostly what I have are questions.


Today there are 30 college students in San Francisco who will be studying for Monday classes at a college called the Minerva Schools at KGI. You may have read about this. It’s the brainchild of a Silicon Valley CEO. It has no library, no football team, no grassy quads, no tenure. Every class is taught as a seminar conducted via a proprietary video-conferencing platform. For its inaugural class, Minerva had almost 2,500 applications from 96 countries for an acceptance rate of not quite 3%. Tuition at this for-profit college is set at $10,000 per year, and Minerva aims to compete with the nation’s top colleges and universities.


Now, it’s important to note that whether this particular venture succeeds is of little consequence. Something like it will eventually become the norm in higher education, where tuition and fees are 560 percent of their cost when I started my teaching career, with the result that almost 60 percent of people today believe that the roughly $28,000 average cost of a year on campus is at best a fair or poor value.


I care deeply about education, as I know you do. My great-great-grandfather was superintendent of schools in Jefferson County, Georgia, during the Progressive Era, and so oversaw school consolidation there. My grandfather and father successively chaired our local school board for several decades, encompassing the difficult Jim Crow era in the South and the tumultuous period after Brown v. Board of Education. Despite what I know to be their own goodwill and hard work, it’s nonetheless true that today only 8.7% of people in my county have a college degree. Accordingly, median income is just $27,612; unemployment is almost 14%; and life expectancy is about a decade less than it is for people who live in, say, any county in New Jersey.


With that as background, you can understand why I might believe that the future in higher education can’t get here quickly enough. But here’s where I pause, and here’s where the questions start coming:


  1. Can affordable, computer-driven education do what we do on our best days?
  2. Is what we do on our best days imparting information? Is it transmitting structured knowledge? Is it facilitating understanding? Is it provoking conceptual change and intellectual development? Is it some combination of these or something else entirely?
  3. In the age of the virtual classroom, isn’t the most valuable thing that you and I have to offer, face-to-face with our students in our own classrooms, something like motivating them toward and guiding them along a path of sustained intellectual development?
  4. If it is, if we’re not just computers in tweed jackets, how can we defend the routine practice of handing over classrooms full of students to people who have been given little to no training in teaching and no instruction in curriculum design? Or put it this way: For 15 years, I was part of the 75% of college faculty who are not tenured or tenure-track. Over time, my stipend was increased to $5000 per course, which is generous compared to what others make, and I’m proud of how much time I spent on campus working with my students. But do we really and truly expect a full commitment on the part of contingent faculty to “motivating and guiding students along a path of sustained intellectual development,” when we may be teaching 8 courses a year at 2 or 3 different campuses? To ask the question is to answer it. Or put it this way: some research and a lot of common sense indicate that among the most promising ways to improve the quality of college teaching is peer observation. And yet, despite the flexibility that we college professors have in our schedules, it rarely if ever happens. I have many more of these “put it another way” statements , but let’s move on to the next question.
  5. If, therefore, expressing it in the kindest way possible, we have this gap between our noble beliefs and intentions about teaching, on the one hand, and actual practice, on the other, a gap (to be fair) that may often result from contextual factors such as class size or lack of support for students who need remediation … if, as I say, we have this gap, what do we tell a family faced with an annual bill of almost $28,000, when they ask us, “What exactly are we paying for?”


Here are four possible responses:


  1. A college degree.
  2. Your child is acquiring critical thinking, a.k.a. marketable, skills.
  3. Your child is learning about the erotics of violence and warfare in classical antiquity, and the influence that war, violence, and aggression had on the social construction of love in ancient Greece and Rome. (By the way, that’s an actual description of a seminar I once taught, during which I established a record, still standing, for the number of times I succeeded in causing at least one student to blush from head to toe.)
  4. She’s becoming a self-motivated, thinking adult, increasingly confident in her new knowledge and abilities, and beginning to be aware of the places to which that knowledge and those skills might take her.


You may be able to guess which of these responses I’d prefer to give. But no doubt you’ve already spotted the main difficulty with that. The difficulty is that the student herself, along her family, would almost certainly choose ‘A’ and ‘B’ from my list. That is, we pay our 28 thou, you provide me with a credential and some marketable knowledge and skills.


For centuries we faculty in higher education have been in a position to decide for ourselves and for our students the purposes of a college education. We could, if we wanted, consider what a young person needed to become a good citizen. A good soldier. A good parent. That era is over. At the previously mentioned Minerva Schools at KGI, for example, its arts and humanities major has four concentrations, one of which is arts and commerce. In the sciences, a student can concentrate in, for example, applied physics, biology and bioengineering, or chemistry and pharmacology. In this new environment, our “customers” will increasingly look to computers to set their expectations for our teaching. The watchwords will be “effective,” “clear,” “organized,” and “interesting.”


This is borne out by the results of an informal survey I conducted recently. Look at your handout. I drafted a list of 40 attributes of good teaching, drawing on studies of pedagogy and my own experiences in the classroom. I then asked my respondents to watch a short clip from the 1988 film Stand and Deliver, in which a teacher meets his basic math students for the first time. The survey respondents were invited to rate his teaching using my list. Next, I asked them to evaluate their own best learning experiences against those same 40 descriptors.


You see the results. The E and I in the far left column stand for “effective” and “inspirational,” respectively. These are my own categories, which I can explain most efficiently in the following way: think of “effective” as achievable by a well-programmed computer and “inspirational” as necessarily involving living, breathing human beings. However, I do provide on the third page of your handout a tentative and admittedly idiosyncratic breakdown of the emphases that teaching with one or the other aspiration might exhibit – an aspiration, that is, merely to be effective or also to seek to inspire and transform.


It’s instructive to note that if my results are any guide at all, on a comparative basis, we tend to value more highly what I’m calling effective teaching than we value inspirational teaching. We want organized, clear, and interesting. We care less about, if we don’t actually feel an aversion for, teaching that creates a community of learners, that helps students understand themselves, that takes risks that sometimes lead to failure, that treats students as partners in a quest for knowledge, and so on, as you can see on your handout. These results are consistent with some studies I have read. See in particular the 2000 study by Hativa and Birenbaum listed in the suggested reading on the final page of your handout.


Where does this leave us? With questions, as I said earlier. The authors of the study just mentioned express it well (230): Do we “regard students as adult, responsible learners who know and appreciate what is good for their learning and [so] respect their wishes and cater to their preferences”? Or do we “regard students as persons who are either irresponsible for their learning or unaware of what methods are really good for them or that will be beneficial for them in future life”?


Three or four months ago, I would have chosen the second of these without much thought. After all, I had the example of Hesiod on Mount Helicon, whom the Muses first revile as a “mere belly” and then both teach (edidaxan, Th. 22) a beautiful song and breathe a divine voice into (enepneusan, 31). There are also national surveys like the Harris poll from earlier this year (Shannon-Missal & Gosney 2014), in which more than a third of people say that their most influential teachers “challenged me to do my best” and “inspired me to want to learn.” These responses, along with “treated me with respect” and “seemed to enjoy teaching” were appreciably more frequent than “knowledgeable about their subject matter.”


Despite all that, the more I’ve thought and learned about teaching, the less I feel that I know. It’s frustrating. It’d be so great if one of you would just tell me what to think and do, as clearly and precisely as you can … Okay, okay, you see where I’m going with that.


Let me conclude on a less flippant note. One theme of my talk has been that radical change is upon us. That’s news to none of you. In many ways, moreover, we are ill prepared for the disruption that is underway. Too much of our teaching is done by people who are uninterested in it, not trained or equipped for it, not rewarded for doing it well, and/or poorly compensated for it. At the present time, we simply don’t have a good answer for the family that asks us, “What are we paying for?” At the moment, we’re ripe for the picking by every thirty-something entrepreneur who is sure he or she can provide a better product at less cost to the consumer.


There is a glimmer of hope, though, for those of us who believe that the best teaching and learning can only be a human and humane activity. Not something that amounts to a mere commodity. Not something capable of being reduced entirely to ones and zeros. It’s there near the top of my survey results. Again and again, students say that their best teachers appear to love their subject. They are enthusiastic, even passionate about sharing it with others. Whatever else they may say in the vein of “just tell me the answer and whether it’s going to be on the test,” it seems to matter whether we appear to mean what we’re saying. I suspect that in that word they use, “passion,” there is embedded an entire set of assumptions about what college is for. It’s our duty and our opportunity, I suggest, to search for those with the same diligence and acumen that we bring to our scholarly research, and having uncovered those assumptions, to put into practice an approach to college teaching that will preserve for future generations the same experiences that drew us into the profession.

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