Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Is teaching 'a calling'?

First, if you're not checking out Worst Professor Ever, you should: funny, insightful stuff from someone who had the courage to put academic life behind her.

Second, I've been thinking a great deal about what sorts of attitudes toward teaching make someone a good teacher, particularly (though not exclusively) a good teacher of philosophy. A natural thought is that a good teacher sees teaching as a 'vocation' or a 'calling.' I think this is a very dangerous way to think, for reasons that Worst Professor Ever nails.

First, if teaching is a calling, that suggests that good teaching is divinely inspired, a skill you are blessed with rather than one you learn:
calling something a vocation means it can’t be learned, you either have The Gift or you don’t. And I have heard countless teachers make this argument — teachers, claiming that teaching can’t be taught.  Given that the whole idea of teaching is imparting a skill that did not exist previously, I’m not sure I think those teachers should be giving advice.
I've often suspected that one reason teaching is not well respected within higher education is the misguided belief that good teachers are born, not taught. (Why that isn't the case with good researchers, I don't know.) I see no reason to believe this is true, and even if it were true, it's probably not a wise attitude to take toward the craft of teaching anyway. And as the eminently sensible Carol Dweck points out, learning X requires the belief that X is learnable.

But the more serious problem with thinking of teaching as a calling is that it ratifies a picture of teaching as an altruistic 'helping' profession suitable for martyrs. After all, if teaching is a calling, then teaching well trumps all else, swamping all boundaries:
the ‘vocation’ argument imbues the profession of teaching with that annoying religious veneer that I so despise. Chastity and humility aren’t enough, now we’re writing vows of poverty — doing it for the money means you must be a bad teacher. Where’s that gotten us? To a place where teachers are more or less expected to buy supplies for their own classrooms, because (I guess) they’re so unconcerned about money they’ll bankrupt themselves for their students. This is not okay.

...I’ll keep agitating for employers to pay teachers more, because it’s a damned hard job and a skilled profession that deserves more money than it currently gets. More radically, I tell students to think very hard before going into education because, do-gooder reasons be damned, if you’re not careful it can be financially disempowering field that will destroy your psyche.
WPE nails the sinister underbelly of the 'teaching is a calling' trope: If teaching is a calling, then those who teach can't care whether they're exploited.  And if it's a calling (just as nursing and other 'feminine' occupations are a calling), then there are no limits to what can be asked of those who teach. I was just reading a bit of Marx; is the Marxian take here — that rooting the ethics of teaching in the idea that teaching is a calling justifies attitudes that harm those who teach while benefitting those who don't — spot on? Doesn't this sort of talk raise such suspicions?:
Should remuneration be a factor in becoming a teacher? Hardly. And money does not make an exemplary teacher either. So what does? The children in front of a teacher are not concerned how much or how little Mr of Ms earns. What they want is to be taken seriously as individuals, and to be excited and challenged by ideas. Learning new stuff is a powerful intoxicant. If teachers forget this, or are distracted by money issues, they may as well resign.
I see this in some phenomena we've discussed before at ISW: rude and demanding student e-mails are the tip of the iceberg, the shadow of a consumerist mentality wherein if students don't learn, it's has to be because of their teachers. The pernicious picture of teaching as a calling should be ditched, even if some who teach welcome that description. Let's call teaching what is: challenging and often rewarding work, a unique occupation in that it provides a good only on the condition that its beneficiaries welcome and engage that good, a craft that can be learned and taught, undertaken by human beings with no distinctive motivations and no divine calling.


  1. Hi. First time commenter here. I enjoy this blog quite a bit and wanted to offer a different perspective here.

    I don't think the "teaching as calling" way of thinking is necessarily pernicious. You have shown well how this way of thinking can lend itself towards exploitation and a sort of pointlessness in education (if, say, teaching cannot be taught). I would prefer to take what you have written as showing what is problematic about bad conceptions of "calling". (Of course, different traditions may conceive of "calling" in different ways.) The notion of calling may imply a certain provocation to a course of action, and if a particular institution obstructs one from fulfilling that course of action (say, an unsupportive college or university), then finding an institution that does support one might well be the right thing to do. I happen to think of being a teacher as a calling, but what this means to me is that I have a special obligation to be as good of a teacher as I can be, to constantly seek out opportunities to improve. But this special obligation is to God, not to any particular institution. There's nothing in this way of thinking that implies teaching to be something unlearnable (in fact, quite the opposite).

    That said, this language is not for everyone; I don't know if it would be meaningful for non-theists, and I don't think it is usually a good idea to use this kind of language in secular settings. There's a lot of potential for misunderstanding and, as you point out well, exploitation.

  2. Well said. That argument that teachers shouldn't be concerned with money is bunk. They are worth paying well because of the value of the work they do. If teaching is so bloody important, then it should be paid accordingly.

    I think your links to other gendered (and underpaid) professions is apt.

    And on a minor point, I do think many in universities think research is something that isn't really taught either. How many times have you heard colleagues talk about "brilliant" students, especially when their performance doesn't seem to line up with their view that someone is "brilliant".

    Maybe it isn't quite a calling but I think something similar is going on there and many senior academics believe themselves to be in the game of spotting such brilliance and then nurturing it. Mere performance (especially if it requires hard work) doesn't cut it.

  3. I just visited the WPE blog; I like it! I admire that she made the switch; it cannot have been easy. I can imagine the finger wagging from friends, family, mentors, and coworkers who thought she was making a bad, or rash decision. I get lots of pressure from certain people in my life, and at my job(s), to get a Phd...but I'm not at ALL interested in doing so. I have an MA, which is all I need for what I want to do: teach intro classes, run a couple workshops, maybe do a little public philosophy project somewhere down the road, etc. If that doesn't work out, I'm going to open up a little pub / cafe. I already have a name picked out for it. I'll happily run philosophy workshops & events from there, for the general public.

    I can very much relate when she talks about being a woman in academia who's tastes run towards the lowbrow at times, who likes to drink sometimes, who likes to go out on the damn town once in a while (but sometimes avoids doing so because I actually do NOT want to run into, and hang out with, my students outside class!), who is frequently sarcastic, and so on, and who gets chastised for being/doing that particular combination of things--whether the frowns come in as actual words or deeds. Students pick up on who you are, too, no matter how hard you try keeping your private life private, and sometimes they twist the information around in end-of-course evaluations. "She said she needed a drink one night in class! That offended me!" Or something like that. Oh brother. That's humor. It's how we get through the most difficult times. It's that, or tell the *&^%$ who constantly disrupts class what I really think of him or her.

    Yet--I don't hate teaching--Yet. I like it. A lot. I hope I continue liking it for at least a couple more years. Maybe I (still) like it because it's a somewhat new gig for me, maybe I (still) like it because as an adjunct I don't have to put up with (many) meetings, 9-5 coworkers, being made to suck up for tenure, etc. I'm the oddball who actually *likes* driving around to different campuses, teaching at night, teaching a couple classes online each semester, etc. I hate the pay. It is indeed depressing and dehumanizing to be paid so little. I drive 2 hours away to go to a dental school to get my dental work done, because I cannot afford anything else. Luckily, I have simple tastes. If I had kids, I definitely could not do this, financially or emotionally, probably.

    Get this, though: I really do think I can change the world, for the better, if only a little bit, through what I do. Each time a semester is about to close, and I look back on how students did, and it seems like a handful of them (and me), actually have moved forward, and are better off for than when the semester started, I am pleased. I frequently think to myself at those times, "I'm the luckiest girl in the world to get to do this for a living".

    The one thing disturbing thing I noticed on first glance over at WPE is that it seems like many of the "yeah! teachers suck!" posts were from students bashing profs. This concerns me. As you said in your own post, "rude and demanding student e-mails are the tip of the iceberg". Yes, rude and demanding students pop up in many places. Students jumping on a "being a professor sucks" bandwagon, when they've never taught in higher education, is rude, demanding in a certain sense, misguided, and not at all helpful to anyone. That's not WPE's fault of course.

    Well that's my response. It's a bit convoluted, and informal, and oh, that reminds me, there is one other thing (besides poorly supported and irrelevant student complaints) that I detest about academia: unnecessary and trendy academic speak. For example, "best". I cannot stand it when people sign off with that. What the heck does it even mean? It sounds so…smug.

    Anyway. I love teaching. Overall. For now. It's not a calling for me. It's simply something I enjoy doing.

  4. Worst Professor Ever seems to be guilty of some pretty basic confusions here.

    First, she runs together the view that teaching philosophy is a calling with the view that the ability to teach philosophy is a gift. To say that it is a calling is merely to say that it is something one devotes oneself to because one feels drawn by a deep and long-standing inner urge to do it. One may feel the call to teach philosophy without having a gift for teaching, and one might have a gift for teaching without feeling the call to teach.

    Second, to say that someone has a gift for doing something is not to say that one does not require long practice and special instruction in order to do that thing, and it also is not to say that nobody who does not have a gift for doing something can be taught to do it.

    Third, while it does seem to follow from X's having a calling to Y that X would be more likely than Z (who does not have a calling) to do Y even if X and Z were exploited by those who employed him/her to do Y, it does not at all follow from X's having a calling to do Y that X would or should do nothing at all to avoid harmful exploitation or unfair treatment. That is another wild leap in logic.

    In making all these careless mistakes, Worst Philosopher Ever is sowing the seeds of confusion on an issue that requires careful thinking.

    Finally, it seems worthy of note that Socrates himself is perhaps the most famous person to have had a philosophical calling. He put the teaching of philosophy first because he felt the need to. Most famously, in fact, he practiced philosophy in his own way without charging a fee for doing so. If someone like Worst Professor Ever wants to advocate a rejection of this notion of a philosophical calling, then -- even if we leave aside the above confusions -- isn't it a _little_ strange for a blog devoted to those who see themselves as _in_ Socrates' wake to applaud her pronouncements?

  5. I firmly subscribe to the notion of vocation, but defined differently than in this blog. Any job or profession can be a vocation for some, and simply a means to an end for others. My husband's vocation is engineering, he is happiest solving electrical design issues. He's also well compensated. My vocation is academia. I may complain, but I'm an overall happy academic. I really can't conceive of being anything else. And I consider myself well compensated. Both of us have spent long hours honing our craft, benefited from teachers and mentors, and continue to learn formally and informally. In both professions there are others who consider it a job, not something essential to who they are.


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