Teach a Course

It has been said that teaching a course is like learning twice. In other words, teaching forces you to learn more deeply the subject you are presenting. Why is that? When you lecture or lead a seminar, you need to linger over certain concepts and make sure that students understand what you are saying. You cannot work from simple assumptions, since everything and anything can be challenged. You also need to be able to explain practices and concepts in plain language that can be understood, or, at least, you need to repeat yourself often, and this is often much more difficult to do than you imagine. Good teaching is not about PowerPoint slides or the adoption of other technologies no matter what you are told; students are smarter than this. Even at a time, now, when innovation in teaching is associated primarily with technology, we ought to be able to recognize that successful teaching, where students learn something, is far removed from digital gadgetry and tricks.

Another familiar idea is that if you cannot do, you teach. In one Big Bang Theory episode, Sheldon comments to Leonard, when reflecting on teaching as an indication of a failed or failing career, about whether Leonard had started to think about teaching. Everyone laughs. It is a common idea, that teaching is a lower form of academic or scholarly work than research and publishing. Good teachers don’t necessarily get tenure, but good researchers, even if they are abysmally bad as teachers, always do. In reality, teaching is a form of scholarship, and it can be very important in adding to knowledge, so it is the universities who have confused matters, sending out mixed signals about what are their priorities (erring on the research side of the fence because of the possibilities of generating external funding). But there are more important things. Sorting through the intricacies of a topic, re-sorting them into intelligible notions, and figuring out ways to get students engaged and in a learning mood all requires careful scholarly work. Changing lives and preparing people for their lives are really important. Teaching also requires a lot of other things.

Teaching requires intense preparation. Instructors must stay current with research and scholarship in their field. This requires not just being connected to the primary outlets of publication in their discipline, but it necessitates critical reading and reflection. It takes years to build a solid foundation in any field, and then it takes persistent work to build on top of that foundation. Although it seems close to being lost in today’s university, much of the work of a faculty member is sitting quietly somewhere (in their office, at a library, or at home) reading. All of this is preparation for either teaching or writing for publication (again, both teaching and publishing are forms of scholarship). To the outside world, this life style must seem luxurious, but it can be exhausting and tedious. However, at times, the intellectual or research breakthroughs all make it worthwhile, and sometimes-such moments of insight occur right in the midst of the classroom.

The more one teaches on particular topics, the more one becomes comfortable with such topics and the teaching. Some of my best lectures have occurred with reduced quantities of notes, where I can talk as if extemporaneously, even though it is really the result of endless repetition and practice, often accumulated over the years. The two primary approaches to teaching — the lecture and the seminar — easily blend together in potential effectiveness and efficiency, even though they have been repeatedly targeted in recent years as the death knell of education. Added to these quite traditional forms of teaching are the many new digital approaches to teaching, such as distance education and MOOCs, with many accompanying promises about reenergizing society and reaching many people thought not to be reachable because of their inability to quit jobs, leave home, and attend university classes. As universities have become ever more focused on eliminating or, at the least, down playing the importance of humanities and liberal arts education, it has become more difficult to bring such well-rounded perspectives into the classroom and into the curriculum. Michael Roth states, “Aversive thinking that challenges the status quo . . . is key to the power of liberal education today: instigating doubt that will in turn spur innovation. What we need is not just new apps to play with but new strategies for dealing with fundamental economic, ecological, and social problems. Only by creatively challenging the prevailing consensus do we have a chance of addressing these threats to our future.” (Michael S. Roth, Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters [New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014], p. 194.)

Discussions about teaching these days have become considerably muddled because innovation in teaching seems to be completely associated with the use of new technologies and teaching online. For the record, I have taught online and I have become convinced more about its limitations than its strengths. There are many who have discussed the limitations of such teaching, reassuring me that my negative views are not unique. Elizabeth Losh argues that whatever advantages these new technologies might have in reforming or strengthening higher education have been squandered because we tend to view higher education as a product rather than a process. It also skews our perspective about the very purpose of teaching: Unfortunately, online learning often takes the sharp edge off of what works best in traditional higher education, where biases of students are challenged, and comfortable generalization must be tested.” (Elizabeth Losh, The War on Learning: Gaining Ground in the Digital University [Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2014], p. 235.) William Deresiewicz, in a book that generated lots of discussion both within higher education and in the public realm, sees education as more than accumulating skills or building a resume and argues that the solution to the “crisis” in higher education is to put teaching back in the “center of the mission.” (William Deresiewicz, Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life [New York: Free Press, 2014], p. 188.)

Indeed, everyone, before critiquing any aspect of teaching, ought to try teaching a course, at any level (from Sunday School to a doctoral seminar). Not only will you learn something, but also you will begin to have a better understanding about how important teaching is and how elusive it is to achieve any sense of good teaching.

Yet, in the university, there seems to be a declining interest in teaching amongst faculty and doctoral students. I recently addressed this issue in an essay, “The Ethics of Teaching,” portal: Libraries and the Academy 16 (April 2016): 247-261. Here is the abstract: Ask any tenure-stream or tenured faculty member about how well prepared he or she was for entering the academy and the sense of a lack of preparation is clear. One estimate is that only about fifty percent received any preparation for university teaching, and, to compound problems, most doctoral students are being prepared to be researchers Teaching is often something taken for granted, as a task anyone can do. Yet, teaching is a complicated, time-consuming responsibility. Fortunately, we are seeing more studies and descriptions of the characteristics of good teaching. University teaching is not something to be seen as a burden or dismissed too lightly but rather it is at the heart of the academic’s work and calling. This essay draws on the author’s personal experience of three decades in the university. The ethical approach to teaching is to move it back to a central position in higher education. An early version of this essay was presented as a lecture at the Rutgers School of Communication and Information.

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