Monday, March 28, 2011

Academically Adrift part 6: Modelling the teaching culture on the research culture

The main structural explanation for the discouraging findings of Academically Adrift is the 'disengagement compact,' so eloquently described here previously by Becko. Students, faculty, administrators, parents, politicians, and the public have struck a bargain that, in light of the various incentives each of these constituencies is subject to, results in lowered expectations, diminished engagement, and of course, less learning. As Chris observes, with the possible exception of those rare learning-oriented students, none of these constituencies has much motivation to break this tacit compact.

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:
  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
Of course, these features have their downsides: They seem to encourage a kind of disciplinary epistemic conservativism that some find confining or dull.

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?


  1. Excellent post Michael. Your proposals would require a dramatic shift in our self-conception as a discipline and radical shift in culture. I am reminded of Singer (with whom I disagree, being a good Kantian and all) when he talks about the need to revise and expand our moral concepts. It is important to notice that resistance to your proposals could in part be grounded in a disciplinary culture in which these values are absent.

    If we could change the culture in this way, the place to begin is in graduate programs. As you know, I am not in favor of graduate programs teaching people how to teach. I think that philosophy graduate programs should teach philosophy. I am also very skeptical about educational theory. But your proposal is different, I take it. The idea is that from the very start we would conceive of ourselves as teachers when we conceive of ourselves as philosophers. It would simply be expected that being an excellent philosopher requires being an excellent teacher, just as it requires being an excellent philosophical interlocutor. The increased professionalization of our field - which can't be prevented - would incorporate the assumption that teaching is a central part of our professional lives. Here here.

    I would have welcomed this in graduate school, and would welcome it now! I am dismayed by the degree to which teaching is denigrated in our field. Frankly, it diminishes us. It makes us look pretty small. It should be uncool to be so dismissive of the work of passing philosophy on, especially since we benefited from our own teachers!

  2. Becko, thanks for your thoughts. Yes, there's no doubt that there'd be a major shift in our self-conceptions involved (and I should say I'm thinking of this issue in terms of all faculty in higher education, not just philosophers). But at one level, it's not as radical a shift as it appears. Again, one reason why faculty find the disengagement compact grating is because we see ourselves as educators. My shift doesn't involve giving that up, but tweaking it, reconceptualizing teaching as a scholarly act.

    I agree with you about the grad school experience. I'm curious about your opposition to grad programs "teaching people how to teach." On one level, I agree: Teaching is too practical an art to think that it can be mastered without boatloads of actual experience. But on the other hand, my sense is that at least in philosophy, graduate teacher training remains weak (though perhaps improving). The real shift I would see is in the acculturation of grad students as much as in their formal training, i.e., it would be a culture in which their graduate mentors would have a scholarly stance toward teaching that might rub off on their students. It'd be a change in scholarly values as much as a change in formal intellectual upbringing.

  3. Interesting suggestion, Michael. That would be a great thing to do. I like to think that Chris and I started something like that at University of Connecticut's grad program while we were there: giving talks about teaching, sharing what worked and what didn't, learning how to market oneself as a teacher, etc. But who knows if it stuck.

    I think the most important part of what you said would be getting into each others' classrooms a lot more. And not just philosophers getting into philosophers' classrooms, but throughout (at least) the humanities and social sciences. I don't know how well it would work in intro courses (and of course we'd have to behave ourselves and not monopolize the conversation), but I think it would be a great modeling exercise for students to see professors actually interested in what other professors are doing and teaching. Plus, it would keep one on one's toes to know that a fellow teacher could show up to one's class to learn something interesting about your subject area. (It would be a kind of disaster in the current scheme, but I'm thinking of an institutional culture where that kind of thing is the norm.)

    I also like the idea that this could be done and tested at an individual university that decided to turn around its institutional culture. It would be nice to have a discipline-wide teaching guild feel, but even nicer to have that kind of community at a local level throughout the liberal arts.

    Maybe the beginning of the end of the disengagement compact starts with engaging one another?

  4. I agree with you Michael that the key is the acculturation of graduate students. That is what will make the real difference. Talking about teaching, visiting classrooms, sharing techniques and tools, setting goals and assessing the results - these are the things we should be doing happily and as a matter of course.

    I'm pretty skeptical of educational theory. It has tended to be highly speculative and poor quality. More recently theory has been informed more by actual empirical evidence. But the discipline still has a long way to go. I don't think that reading educational theory is the best way to produce high-quality teachers.


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