Thursday, April 10, 2008

The Problem of Privatization

I am participating in a professional development faculty learning group this semester. We're reading The Courage to Teach, by Parker Palmer. On the whole, I like the book. Even when I disagree, I find that Palmer gives food for thought. Palmer argues that a problem for teachers in the university is that we teach, generally, out of collegial sight.

In the cases of surgeons and trial lawyers, who practice their profession before the eyes of others who are also experts in their profession, professors almost always teach out of the sight of their colleagues. As Palmer puts it, "Lawyers argue cases in front of other lawyers, where gaps in their skill and knowledge are clear for all to see. Surgeons operate under the gaze of specialists who notice if a hand trembles, making malpractice less likely. But teachers can lose sponges or amputate the wrong limb with no witnesses except the victims (p. 146)."

One result is that when teaching is evaluated, undue weight is placed upon student evaluations, the results of which can be manipulated (If we want to get rid of a faculty member, their strong student evaluations are merely evidence of "popularity". If we want to keep a faculty member, their weak student evaluations are irrelevant because they impart rigorous scholarship).
Palmer's solution is to learn about teaching and learning in community with our colleagues. Though there are barriers to this, such as lack of time and lack of trust, Palmer argues that we can and should take the time to know enough about each other's teaching to ask real questions of each other and aid one another's professional development as teachers, along the following lines:

1. Does this person take teaching seriously, as signified by her involvement in conversations about it?
2. What kind of process does this person go through in designing a course?
3. How does this person identify and respond to the problems that arise as a course proceeds?
4. Does this person learn from past mistakes in designing and implementing future courses?
5. Does this person attempt to help colleagues with issues in their teaching?

These questions seem useful not only to ask of others, but for personal reflection as well that ultimately will include but go beyond mere technique to the heart or soul of the teacher, as Palmer puts it.


  1. Mike,
    I agree with your remarks wholeheartedly. It always surprises me how few opportunities academic life provides us to actually observe others teach. This is part of the reason why I advocate (and try to embody) a scholarly approach to teaching, one informed by existing scholarship and theory. It's also a good reason to have high-quality disciplinary-focused weblogs on teaching. !!

  2. Michael,
    I agree--while reading Palmer on the lack of high-level conversations related to teaching, it struck me that ISW is just the sort of thing that he's calling for. This blog has contributed to my development as a teacher, and while there are many time sinks in the form of weblogs out there, this is one that is beneficial and never a waste of time to read.


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