Education Quote of the Day

21 November 2008 at 11:55 am 4 comments

| Peter Klein |

There is a settled mediocrity in American college teaching, surpassed here and there by talented and energetic individuals, but seldom disturbed in its languorous self-satisfaction. On most campuses, mediocrity can rightly pride itself on being a whole lot better than the conspicuous dreadfulness of a handful of professors who dedicate themselves variously to the nine muses of bad teaching: Boredom, Mumbling, Disorganization, Confusion, Forgetfulness, Stridency, PowerPoint, Textbook, and Vacuity.

That’s from Peter Wood, whose subject is actually the division of labor at many large US universities between tenured/tenure-track faculty, who do research and teach small classes to graduate and advanced undergraduate students, and the specialized, non-tenured teaching specialists who handle the bulk of the undergraduate instruction, assisted by a “small army” of graduate and undergraduate TAs. Wood points out, rightly IMHO, that one day the universities may decide that the prestige and grant dollars and other bennies generated by the research faculty isn’t worth their high salaries, perhaps choosing to go the University of Phoenix route instead.

Entry filed under: - Klein -, Education, Institutions.

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4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Michael F. Martin  |  21 November 2008 at 2:12 pm

    I don’t know about that, but I have often wondered why the model followed by a few departments and schools of requiring their tenured faculty to teach intro level courses isn’t more prevalent. (I’m thinking of Berkeley’s Chemistry department under Lewis and the University of Chicago law school more recently.) I think tenured faculty systematically underestimate the value that being forced to articulate and rearticulate fundamentals of the discipline to an uninitiated audience can have. My personal experience is that some departments and schools can develop a clubby atmosphere that sneers at naive questioning.

  • 2. Rafe Champion  |  21 November 2008 at 4:57 pm

    Yes, on articulating the fundamentals, it would be good for academics to give (say) two lectures a year on their specialty to a lay audience. That would force them to abandon the special code that they habitually use to communicate with their peers and spell things out in simple, clear terms. That could even enable them to take a fresh grip on their problem by going back to the basics to work out what they are really doing, something that is impossible in the clubby astmosphere that sneers at naive questioning.

  • 3. Rafe Champion  |  21 November 2008 at 10:28 pm

    Another quote, on the topic of complaining academics (wanting more money).
    Apart from cases like the 15% reduction in content, if there has been any deterioration in university teaching it is almost certainly the fault of the academics themselves.
    How many of them can look you in the eye and say they have been doing all the things that diligent academics and teachers should be doing – keeping up with the literature in their field, re-reading the classics, fine tuning their lectures and reading lists to take account of recent advances and also their evolving understanding of the fundamental problems and issues in the discipline and the way these relate to the concerns of related fields. And so on. Or is that too much to expect?
    How many of them claim that they have a vocation, not just a job?
    How many are prepared to engage in the public debate about the meaning and purpose of higher education? [comment no 9]

  • 4. David Hoopes  |  22 November 2008 at 1:43 am

    I think how faculty approach teaching varies greatly across schools and types of school. In the Cal State System, and I would venture to say at other “teaching schools,” the overwhelming majority of faculty take their teaching very seriously. As to Wood’s comments about how much effort faculty put into teaching: teaching is a boundless pursuit. You can never do everything possible. Class preparation like many other activities is often characterized by diminishing marginal returns. As each of us knows, we have to balance teaching, research, and service. And the the fourth hour of preparation for a particular class may have a much lower marginal benefit than using that as the first hour of research.

    Honestly, I get tired of hearing “college faculty do this and college faculty do that.” I love my job (not the administrative part: being department chair). But, it really is a good deal of work and effort to do it well. And, when people like Wood describe what we do, it generally is pretty far from my experience. And as a few of you know, I’ve taught at a very broad range of schools.

    At Wharton there were a number of faculty who did great research but were not very popular teachers. And students might not like it. But Wharton is ranked as it is because those researchers do good work. There are plenty of students every bit as good as the ones at Wharton who could take their place. But, you couldn’t very easily replace the faculty there (even if some of them are not very popular teachers). So, even at schools where teaching is a bit less emphasized, it’s worth considering the costs and benefits of different activities. The marginal benefit to the students of the faculty producing important research may be unclear to the student. But, my belief is that in the long run, the schools that make a serious attempt at serious research generate a great deal of value.

    Of course Wharton and Cal State have a few people that don’t do much of anything except create headaches for others. This is not so different than my experience in business (about eight years). At Wharton those people are excellent posers who look like professors but are terrible teachers and do little research or do really bad research. These people tend to be well connected. I’ll tattle on Cal State DH some other day.

    Okay enough.

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