Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Falling into the 'teaching trap'

At Inside Higher Ed, Kerry Ann Rockquemore engages in some intelligent self-diagnosis about why she ended up burned out about teaching. Here's her description of this "teaching trap":

The trap is when new tenure-track faculty spend the vast majority of their time on teaching at the expense of their research and writing and then find that their limited research productivity endangers their ability to be promoted at their current institution, or move to another one. And if you are at an institution where your advancement will be based largely (or entirely) on teaching, the “teaching trap” occurs when you fail to manage your boundaries around teaching so that you have no time or energy for the other things that matter in your work and in your life. If you find yourself coming to campus early and staying late, if you’re spending every weekend grading and preparing for the next week’s classes, if you’re sacrificing sleep and/or pulling all-nighters in order to get ready for the next day’s class meeting, and – as a result -- you haven’t spent any time moving your research agenda forward or investing in your long-term success, then you may have fallen into the teaching trap.

Kerry then offers a set of indicators for when you've fallen into this trap. I won't reproduce them all here, but these two merit special attention, I think.
  • You believe it’s somehow possible to please everyone so if you just spend more time, you will teach better and receive unanimously positive evaluations.
  • You have never thought about how you're spending your time and have unconsciously fallen into the teaching trap because of the built-in accountability that standing in front of a classroom full of students several times a week provides.
In my observation, these are the factors that sometimes push conscientious teachers over the edge. For most in the profession, teaching is a constant stream of responsibilities. The next class meeting, the next batch of papers, the next term; they're always just a day or two away (or so it seems). There are breaks, yes, but attending seriously to the tasks of teaching tends to underscore the "built-in accountability" Kerry mentions. And since the time investment is already significant, it's easy to think that the solution to a teaching challenge is to do more of what you already do. One thing I've noticed here at ISW is that while everyone acknowledges that teaching well is hard work, success as a teacher is not linearly proportional to effort or time spent. There is a technique or a craft to teaching, and perhaps those who excel at the craft succeed as educators more effortlessly than those who think of teaching as more like manufacturing, as if the amount of product created is a direct function of the labor and other inputs.

I've recently shared an idea for working better by working less. And I'd be interested to know if others see themselves at the precipice of Kerry's teaching trap and how you are working to avoid it. More deeply, how can we, as teachers, work better but not work more?


  1. I can appreciate that there are often strong pressures -- perhaps even unreasonable ones, given one's teaching load -- to increase one's research output. I can certainly see that it will often be _prudent_ to scale back on the amount of energy one devotes to preparing one’s classes. Perhaps, in a tiny number of cases, there is a good _moral_ argument to make in favour of ceasing to worry or care all that much about one’s teaching, so that one can do one’s research. I can see this as a possibility in cases where far greater tangible benefits to the world as a whole arise from one’s publications than from one’s teaching. Certainly, nearly all academics tend to tell themselves that sort of story; but the evidence for that seems quite thin. All in all, it is difficult to see how most of us could possibly be justified, ethically, adopting the sort of cavalier attitude toward teaching that appears to be endorsed in Rockquemore’s article.

    Rockquemore suggests that instructors who are driven to give a great deal of attention to preparing for classes by the fact that they are concerned about the quality of their teaching need to relax. She advises such concerned teachers to visit their colleagues’ classrooms to see how well they fare compared, which she suggests should be “a tremendously liberating experience”. No surprise there: the great majority of teachers in higher education seem hopelessly incompetent when it comes to teaching. And why wouldn’t they be, given the remarkable lack of teaching training they receive, and the lack of emphasis on teaching performance in most schools?

    She talks about the drive to be the professor you wish you could have had as though it were a sign of mental illness. What a frankly disgusting attitude to one’s work! Why take on a position that involves teaching philosophy if one does not want to do the best job possible? Through teaching, one has the power – and responsibility – to help each of one’s students read, write, and reason a little better, and to teach them to value the life of reason. Students come to a place of higher education, in my experience, eager to be led through the steps of a meaningful discipline. As far as I can see, we, and not they, bear much of the blame for their disillusionment with it. But we are seldom, if ever, held to account for this horrible betrayal of those we are employed to serve, and so we learn to rationalize away this most important duty we have taken on.

    One final point: what would Socrates do? Would the great gadfly on the Athenian conscience, who took any chance he could get to teach all and sundry, who made it a principle never to charge a fee for what he took to be his calling, and who gave his life for it, ever write or endorse such an article? How appropriate is this attitude for those of us with a claim to stand ‘in Socrates’ wake’?

    As far as I can see, there are two kinds of philosophy instructors: those who are perpetually ready, willing, and able to devote their lives to excellence in teaching and in whatever research their position requires, and those who have chosen the wrong profession. Sorry to put it so bluntly, but there it is.

  2. I'm baffled by Justin Kalef's response to what seems to be sound advice to early-career, tenure-track faculty for whom teaching is perhaps their primary but not sole job responsibility. It's a week too early for an April Fool's Day joke; perhaps it's an object lesson for his students about how not to "read … and reason a little better." Is it a spot the fallacy exercise? Strawman: "the sort of cavalier attitude toward teaching that appears to be endorsed in Rockquemore’s article"; false dichotomy: "there are two kinds of philosophy instructors…"; blogviating hyperbole: "the great majority of teachers in higher education seem hopelessly incompetent when it comes to teaching." What gives?

    Even at a "teaching school" such as mine, scholarship is an important part of evaluation for reappointment, tenure, and promotion. Someone whose commitment to teaching excellence leaves no space for scholarship will find such a strategy (though it's usually too accidental to merit this name) self-defeating.

    Early on the tenure track I found myself falling into precisely the trap that Rockquemore warns of. It's not just that the demands of teaching left little time for scholarship, they left little time for many of the enjoyments that partly constitute a good life. I found that mapping out a schedule, and indeed one that would launch every time I booted up my computer, helped me focus some of my energy and attention on the demands of scholarship. It's an over-used word on my campus, but being intentional about how I was dividing my time and energy made a huge difference -- even when the demands of teaching ate into some of my scholarship time, as they invariably, occasionally did. Without a plan to avoid it, I found myself falling into the teaching trap.

    Another thing I found helpful was getting a carrel at the library without internet access, away from a noisy and interruption-prone department. Even a few hours a week devoted to scholarship made a difference.

    I also found it helpful to go for a bike ride, read a novel, or doing something that disabuses me of the notion that I'm in some sort of sacred, Socratic priesthood that requires me to be "perpetually ready, willing, and able to devote [my] li[fe] to excellence in teaching and in whatever research [my] position requires." Jeepers. And I thought utilitarianism was too demanding.

    Yours in horrible betrayal,


  3. Sean, I think you may have been a little quick on the ‘fallacy’ charge here. a) Did I commit a false dichotomy? Only if there is a third alternative to the two alternatives I presented. I genuinely don’t think there is one. You might disagree, but you haven’t said why. b) Did I commit a straw man fallacy? Perhaps: I do have colleagues and former teachers whom I have good reason to believe are mediocre, and who seem to be in the business of rationalizing away their teaching mediocrity in ways that resemble what Rockquemore is saying; and that might be causing me to read these rationalizations into her article. But I haven’t seen an argument for that ‘straw man’ charge in your post. c) Have I been engaging in “blogviating(?) hyperbole”? No: I actually do mean what I say, and think I have good grounds for saying it. I have encountered a few great philosophy teachers (and a few great teachers, period), but far, far more who seem vastly below par. I honestly do think that the greatly inferior teachers make up about 90%. Perhaps I’m mistaken in thinking that; and if I am, I’d be glad to be shown. But I wasn’t engaging in hyperbole (at least, not if one has to intend to do that in order to do it).
    You compare the heavy moral demands I see in teaching with the moral demands of utilitarianism. I think that is a good comparison. It seems to me that you are taking a position akin to Susan Wolf’s in her ‘Moral Saints’, and I am taking one akin to Peter Singer’s in his countless articles and books on the obligation to assist. I, like Singer, do not feel morally exonerated in neglecting what otherwise seems to be a moral duty by the fact that my fulfillment of that duty would conflict with my wishes to become a master at preparing pate de canard. You seem to be suggesting, with Wolf, that the counterintuitive (to you) demandingness of the obligation is sufficient grounds for dismissing it. My response is parallel to Singer’s: if we all did our fair share, we could divide the burden more evenly among us; but the fact that others do not take the extent of the overall burden seriously, or wrongly think that they are already pulling their weight when they are not, makes it necessary for others to spend excessive amounts of time trying to pick up the slack. To this end, it seems to me – again, parallel with Singer – that a supreme disservice is done by those who would appeal to our prudence in order to ‘liberate’ us from the view that we need to shoulder these obligations.

    As far as prudence goes, Rockquefort’s article is probably – I agree with you – right on the money. And perhaps – though I don’t believe it – it is not possible to meet the genuine (and, in my mind, seldom actually met) moral demands of teaching while simultaneously safeguarding one’s own career by publishing adequately, etc. If that is the case (which, again, I doubt) then perhaps a good moral case can be made for abandoning the quest for teaching excellence, and instead pursuing excellence in research and only mediocrity in teaching. But I think that would be good cause for moral regret, rather than grounds for a sense of personal ‘liberation’.

    (continued below)

  4. (continued) As for your joke about philosophy teachers belonging to ‘some sort of sacred, Socratic priesthood’ with high moral demands, well, I’m prepared to bite that bullet! I really do think that a career in philosophy that involves teaching should only be undertaken by those who are prepared to give an extraordinary amount of themselves to that part of their jobs. I don’t think one should do that at the expense of one’s research or service work; but I do think it’s possible for some people to do all these things – including late night marking and preparing sessions at times – without burning out.

    Are there other people who would always burn out if they were to try to do this? Surely, yes. And such people might be very good devoting themselves to research work to the exclusion of everything else. I would be in favour of a system that would make more such positions available to those who are good philosophers, but for whom the pursuit of excellence in teaching is an unwelcome burden. As it stands now, though, the number of highly qualified and highly motivated people who are ready to take on the duties of our career path with gusto seems to exceed the number of positions available; and many of those who hold the coveted positions find themselves no longer motivated to give themselves over to their work (if they ever did find themselves so motivated). This suggests, to me, a quite simple solution: the people who chronically find their professional duties a burden because they would prefer to master the preparation of pate de canard, or read all the great Victorian novels, or whatever, should make way for dedicated teachers, and seek out instead the careers that pay better than philosophy, demand less work than philosophy, and allow for all these other pleasures in life.

    Why would this not be a win/win situation?

  5. Every sentence of Kalef's comment seems appropriate.

  6. Justin,

    I take the distinction between those who are perpetually ready, willing, and able to devote their lives to excellence in teaching and in whatever research their position requires and those who have chosen the wrong profession to be a terrific example of a false dilemma, right up there with America: Love it or leave it. Tertium datur: someone who chooses a balanced life, and indeed a balanced academic life as a professor of philosophy, for whom teaching well is one of a plurality of academic values and for whom a satisfying worklife is one of a plurality of values. This may not be a viable third option on the Singerian view you subscribe to, but I suspect that many reasonable people would find that to be a reductio of that view.

    As for the strawman, I don't see how a fair reading of Rockquemore's article suggests that she has a "cavalier attitude toward teaching." I don't think she suggested that early-career faculty should just strive to get by, to only be minimally prepared, to do as little as possible, to regard teaching as the pain-in-the-ass price one pays to do what's really important, research. Indeed, even someone who's given up "the quest for teaching excellence" can still value good teaching, and even (gasp) good enough teaching, which, depending on the circumstances at one's institution (number of courses, preparations, students; demands of service, advising, scholarship; etc.) might well be the best one can reasonably do in the circumstances. I agree that it's important to take teaching seriously, and for what it's worth, there is not a "lack of emphasis on teaching performance" at my institution, as you claim there is at "most schools." But "the quest for teaching excellence" is consistent with pluralism about other values, both academic and non-academic.

    Should someone who won't answer student email over the weekend or in the evenings not be teaching philosophy? How about someone who scales back his or her writing assignments as a response to increased class sizes? Or someone who picks up on Michael's previous post and provides collective (rather than individualized) feedback on certain assignments? Should such a person, who might be a good but not great teacher and decent scholar resign his or her position because s/he's not "perpetually ready, willing, and able to devote their lives to excellence in teaching and in whatever research their position requires"? I take it that you'd answer "yes," but since you argue from an assumption that I don't share -- namely, that there's a stringent duty to do (almost) everything in one's power to excel as a teacher -- I don't accept your conclusion. I'm not even sure that the picture you paint is a good ideal to aim for; I'd find an ideal of work/life balance much more suitable for any early career faculty I might mentor.

    Which is all a long of saying that, blog title to the contrary notwithstanding, there are other canonical philosophers to whom one might appeal here; Hume comes to mind as someone offering a less heroic but perhaps more human attitude toward philosophy and the philosophic life -- though I can't speak with any authority on whether he had a fondness for pate de canard, I do recall his expressing a taste for claret and billiards.


  7. For the record, Sean, I also have extra-philosophical activities in which I engage. But I also strive to fulfil, in my own highly inadequate manner, what I take to by my teaching duties (in addition to my other philosophical duties, which I think also lead toward the goal of being a good teacher).

    While it is possible, I think, for some people to live up to their teaching (and other academic) duties while pursuing some extra-philosophical goals, I can appreciate that some extra-philosophical activities are inconsistent with these teaching duties. Perhaps this attempt to live incompatible lives is responsible for many cases of burnout.

    So you ask: do I think that those who are unwilling to respond to student emails in the evenings or on weekends should not be teaching philosophy? Well, if a) having these emails answered during these times can be a significant overall help to the students, and b) the job market is such that there are currently-unemployed people who are ready, willing and able to answer emails outside of office hours who are _also_ able to produce good research, etc., and would be glad to do that, then I think the answer is yes. And I do believe that a) and b) are true. I also think that instructors who leave their teaching positions for this basis would probably be happier elsewhere, in the end, anyway.

    Do I think that such people have a moral _duty_ to leave their jobs for those who are apparently better suited for them but currently unemployed? Again, yes.

    You mention Michael's suggestion of collective feedback as a time-saving measure. I'm all in favour of time-saving measures if they do not translate into a worse learning experience for the students. Michael suggested that it would not disadvantage the students. The comments so far seem to raise doubts about that. I reserve judgment on the matter; but I would hope that suggestions for innovations in teaching and grading styles would be chiefly motivated by a desire to produce better work and to better satisfy one's duties to one's students and to society, rather than to find ways to get away with work that one knows to be inferior, which seemed to be what Rockquemore was advocating. If I've misread Rockquemore, I apologize for the misunderstanding.


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