Mark Twain once memorably remarked, “Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.” The same could be said of teaching. It’s what we do, it’s part of our identity, it’s what we get paid for. But do we really understand it? Do we really want to think about it? Above all, do we really want to look closely at our own practice and try to improve it?
My own experience suggest we do not. As a young assistant professor at an avowedly teaching institution, I was put on the “teaching methods committee”, which sounded like a great assignment until our first meeting. After about half an hour it became clear that everyone around the table thought of themselves as good teachers, were comfortable with their own methods, and were reluctant to engage in any surveys, interviews, observations, or discussions that might lead to questioning or challenging the methods of their colleagues. I could feel the resistance build, thicken, and congeal; by the end, it was stiff and opaque as wax. No change or knowledge would be coming from this committee.
What was going on? I liked my colleagues; they were all devoted teachers, well-read and empathic toward students; they were good citizens in the campus community. Why would they resist learning and self-improvement? Why would they not want to engage their colleagues in dialogue about our essential work?
In my own case, the resistance seemed easy to understand. I was young, untenured, and under the gun. It was an anxious state, but I was used to it. Everyone expected people like me to be earnest, motivated, and nervous. But what about the others? Something else must account for their resistance.
In reflecting on this meeting, and many situations like it over the years, I’ve found it helpful to think about teaching across the three dimensions of persona, profession, and institution. As a vocation, teaching is something that many of us love to do for its own sake. It comes naturally, draws on our native ability to empathize and communicate, feeds our spirits with the satisfaction of nurturing our students’ growth. To pursue your calling is to follow your bliss, to feel the joy that comes when your work and your identity move into phase.
Teaching at its most satisfying and effective always rests on a personal transaction between the teacher and the student, where the teacher’s passion and excitement sparks a kindred interest. That is why most learning actually occurs outside of class, and why teaching is so hard to evaluate. What works for one student may not work for another, and the results may not be apparent for years. True teaching arises out of relation, as Martin Buber observed, and how can you measure a relationship?
Evaluation is of most concern to the profession and the institution. The profession consists of one’s (mostly senior) colleagues, who function like a club or a guild: to get in you must qualify and must also be chosen. In practice the boundary between these criteria tends to blur. Much time and effort go into rationalizing decisions about the merits of someone’s work that have been made quite subjectively. And “peer review” is simply another name for professional privilege, besides being a contradiction in terms: how can the parties be considered equal when one has the power to judge the other? All professions work to secure their own existence; they assiduously protect their identity, status, and privileges, and academia is no exception. When you are on the inside, tenured and all, one of your privileges is not having to be evaluated; that’s one reason, I think, that my senior colleagues on the teaching methods committee did not want to investigate. They did not want to rock the boat by challenging, even implicitly, the privilege of their colleagues. That’s how they all got along.
The institution also comes into play. In this context, teaching is merely a job. More on that next time.