Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Sure you care about teaching. Or do you?

The past decade has seen a lot of bagging on the professoriate. We are (the baggers allege) lazy, overpaid, dilletante-ish, focused on research rather than teaching, obstacles to long overdue higher education reform. 

My response to such bagging is fourfold:

  1. Acknowledge the truth in it. A handful of college professors are slackers and/or utterly oblivious to the larger public that supports (either directly or indirectly) their work and contemptuous of the students who pay their salaries.
  2. Invite the baggers to learn about our jobs. Few higher ed critics have any idea what professors actually do, but are quite content to suggest what they should do instead.
  3. Note the socioeconomic context. Such criticisms never fully disappear, but they are much more intense in times of high economic anxiety when an anti-'elites' message resonates more strongly. It's always easier to rail against perceived gatekeepers than it is to address more systematic problems.
  4. Ask what the critics would prefer instead. Do they really think that continuing adjunctification, low salaries, and reduced support for research are good for higher ed in the long run?
Still, these criticisms get awfully tiresome. That's why I'm glad to see the publication of a recent book challenging the preconception that professors are indifferent about teaching. The book, based on a study done at the University of Washington, found that
virtually all faculty in all groups constantly think about how to be more effective teachers. Even when they didn’t know they were doing it, professors described changing course assignments, content and student engagement strategies to improve learning outcomes. Much of that work was done experimentally, with professors using student behavior and performance as gauges of success.
Indeed, faculty in the study report what I take to be a healthy level of anxiety about teaching. 

Not all is peaches and cream though. The authors note that teaching is not given much weight there in tenure and promotion. And as a UW dean noted, it's nutty that professors essentially become good teachers on their own.
"What we need to do is move away from teaching and learning as a private practice,” he said. “It’s public work that should be learned with colleagues.”
If, as I have proposed before, the culture of academic pedagogy mirrored the culture of academic research, it wouldn't be private: Teaching would be  ransparent and collaborative, with strong internal standards, a culture of mentoring and maturation, etc. So it's discouraging that even the conscientious faculty studied for this book have to improve their teaching by individual trial and error. The pedagogical wheel has already been invented (even if not perfected)! Let no one have to invent it on their own.

Nevertheless, a positive message: By and large, professors do care about educating their students effectively. And it's smart for professors to care: Caring establishes rapport, and positive student-instructor rapport generates many positive learning behaviors, including improved attendance and attention, more study time devoted to the class, and more courses taken in that discipline. 

But do students perceive this caring? And when they say they want to see that their professors 'care,' what are they looking for? Steven Meyers has surveyed the research and concluded that students and professors see caring in different ways, and as a result, the ways in which professors care go largely unseen by students. 

For students, caring seems to be associated with what I'd call a welcoming attitude: encouraging student questions, acknowledging students' ideas, being available to help. Students also see caring in terms of professors providing what might be called the 'personal touch'. Here behaviors associated with what researchers call "verbal immediacy" seem to matter. These behaviors include using personal examples, using humor, and addressing students by name. 

For professors, caring seems to be associated with the fulfillment of institutional or professional roles. Professors signal that they care about their students by being prepared for class, keeping current in their field, and so on. They see caring in terms of intellectual, rather than emotional, labor. 

I'm not at all surprised that students don't note this as a kind of caring. Part of this, I suspect, is that many students have no sense at all of the intellectual labor that teaching demands. Think about the dozens of intellectual, curricular, and pedagogical choices that inform the construction of a standard course syllabus, and the enormous body of education and experience that informs those choices. For students, they simply receive this document with all traces of its history and labor removed. And the same goes for almost any aspect of teaching requiring 'design' (planning a class meeting, etc.): Ironically, when done well, teaching doesn't show its seams, so to speak. This adds sting to students lamenting well-prepared, intellectually rigorous teaching that is 'cold' or 'impersonal'. If only they knew the amount of caring necessary just to complete the intellectual tasks of teaching! 

So what should we do to show students that we care? It seems silly — 'semantic' in a bad way — to debate what 'caring about students' amounts to. And I can appreciate that many faculty, particularly those who entered academic life largely attracted by the scholarly problems of their disciplines, would resent having to do the emotional labor that students think of 'caring' about them. (I resent it myself sometimes. "I'm your professor. Not your father!" has run through my head a few times.) And just as there's a danger of seeing academic work through the lens of institutional professionalism, there's a danger of seeing academic work as akin to the "caring professions." Both denigrate our work, failing to validate education as the distinct sort of cerebral-developmental labor that it is. In the end, we probably have to care both ways in order to be effective instructors. No wonder education turns out to be much harder work than we anticipate.


  1. Some of this also holds for teachers at the lower educational levels. My students, unless there's a teacher in the family, are largely convinced that my job is easy-peasy-lemon-squeezy, and while they respect the intelligence and knowledge I'm bringing to the classroom, it's very rare that they see that as evidence of me "caring" about them.

    It doesn't surprise me, either, that students see it that way now, because I think college students are becoming more infantilized (through only some fault of their own, if any), and so you end up with a group of people who still need a bit of hand-holding and classic "caring" rather than the intellectual and personal independence that professors might expect.

    I have other thoughts. Perhaps one day I'll be able to put them to e-paper.

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  3. Yeah, we could've just shut down the philosophy departments after ole Socrates, ehhh?


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