And yet, to a last, we here at ISW have been bemoaning the disengagement compact and envisioning ways, at both the institutional and individual level, to resist or unravel the compact. (This strikes me as a theme throughout our AA reading group.) The fact that the teachers who post and comment here sense (and resent!) the presence of the compact tells us that, of these constituencies, faculty are most likely to find the disengagement compact a bitter bargain.
Simply put, the compact enfeebles our ability to realize our self-conception as educators. The compact makes our work harder as teachers, for one. If you're the only one on your side of the rope in tug-of-war, you're going to get awfully tired, awfully exasperated, awfully disillusioned, awfully fast. And as tempting as it is to give up and sign on to the disengagement compact, that's a recipe for professional schizophrenia: As I've argued before, you won't have a very rewarding career if the task that pays your salary and occupies the majority of your time is one you resent, or at best, merely tolerate.
But again, those desiring to break the compact face a collective action problem: For the untenured and those without secure employment, breaking the compact is probably imprudent. For the tenured and the secure, the personal risks are less, but busting the compact is a herculean, even futile, task. How can one faculty member counteract a trend that, as Adam rightly observes, is rooted in long-standing features of institutional cultures?
No possible solution to this will be easy, but here's my own stab: We should try to model the culture of teaching in higher education on the model of research in higher education.
Now, hold tight: Yes, there's probably too much research produced by those working in higher education. Yes, we should be concerned about the relative strength of the incentives to teach well versus those to produce research. So I'm not saying that everything about the research culture is rosy. But say what one will, I don't think anyone would deny that the research culture of higher education is much healthier with respect to its aims (the creation of peer-reviewed research, etc.) than the teaching culture is with respect to its aims (producing learning and educating citizens).
My hypothesis is that the research culture has features we should want our teaching culture to have but (in my estimation) that culture lacks:
- Modern academic research operates on the basis of a guild-like culture, with groups of research practitioners articulating, applying, and policing their own disciplinary standards. While these standards are not as codified in, say, academic philosophy as they are in medical licensing, most all the practitioners in a field can distinguish amongst research items of varying degrees of quality. So the first feature of the research culture I'd hope we could 'borrow' for the teaching culture is implicit standards.
- How do people in the field acquire these standards? The standards are part of the tacit knowledge they gain through their education, particularly in graduate school. The research culture thus relies on elders who help the next generation master these standards. Of course, a newly minted Ph.D. has shown some mastery of these standards, but the quality and quantity of their research is expected to increase as they approach tenure, full professorship, etc. The research culture thus rests on mentoring and maturation.
- Most academic research in the humanities is single-authored, but of course everyone gets help with their research products along the way. Colleagues give informal feedback, as do conference audiences, journal referees, grant application evaluators, etc. The research culture is thus collaborative.
- Even the most pathbreaking research builds on existing research. Researchers aren't expected to reinvent the wheel, but they must be aware of the history of the wheel and strive at least to improve the wheel. The research culture is cumulative.
- For the most part, research is an expectation of academic life. An academic can of course opt not to conduct research or keep her research under wraps. But that has significant professional drawbacks. The research culture thus values transparency.
- Finally, no one conducts research about everything. Research is by its nature specialized — some more specialized than others, of course, but the research culture seems to benefit from divisions and subdivisions of intellectual labor. Just as not everyone can research everything, so too cannot everyone teach everything (as Chris forcefully reminded us!), and just as different intellectual problems are solved with different methodologies, so too are different skills or subject matters best taught with different methodologies.
Still, a teaching culture with these features would be one in which pedagogical disengagement (of the sort outlined in AA) is, in a sense, not a professionally respectable option. Having lax standards for students would be a source of shame, akin to not having any published research. We'd watch each other teach — often. There'd be bodies of scholarly literature, both disciplinary and general, to which we could turn to improve our teaching. We'd learn about teaching from our mentors, but we'd also seek to add to the body of collective knowledge of teaching. We'd retain our existing autonomy with respect to teaching content, but we wouldn't use that autonomy (or 'academic freedom') as a cudgel to resist constructive criticism of our teaching. Nor we would succumb to the myth that teaching is a calling done best by those blessed with a gift. The differences between excellent, good, satisfactory, and poor teaching would be a subject of ongoing discussion instead of mystification. Peer review of teaching would matter more. Student evaluation would still matter, but probably less. (Do we let students review our research?) If the teaching culture were modeled on the research culture, teaching would be a scholarly endeavor on a par with research — if not in terms of tangible rewards, at least in terms of rigor, sophistication, or esteem.
I'm not sure of the first steps to take in this direction. (Establish a teaching blog?) But who's with me?