Two Swarthmore professors recently told Inside Higher Ed, “We college teachers have never been taught how to teach.” I bet some Columbia professors could say the same, judging by their performance in the classroom.
The relationship between student and teacher is said to be “the heart of a liberal arts education,” but universities make it hard for professors to teach well.
Let's retrace the typical career trajectory of, say, a history professor. Undergraduate student: Study history. Graduate student: Study history and maybe lead a discussion section. Professor: Write history and, all of a sudden, teach it to hundreds of individuals, each with different learning styles and experiences.
When do professors learn to plan lessons? Design evaluations? Build classroom communities?
We cannot pluck Ph.D.s from the Ivy League and expect them to have these skills just because they wrote an award-winning dissertation on semiotic theory or superconducting qubits. Good teaching requires a lot of preparation, but Columbia neither sufficiently trains new faculty members in pedagogy—the method and philosophy of teaching—nor incentivizes their tenured counterparts to improve their practice.
This makes no sense. The average full-time professor spends more time on teaching than on research and administrative work combined. Contingent faculty even more so. Nevertheless, it seems that positive student feedback counts for little more than token teaching awards and tiebreakers in tenure decisions.
One root of the problem is that research is more lucrative: The big bucks are in federal grants, not “aha” moments for 20-year-olds. It's likely that Columbia, like most corporate universities, pressures professors to produce more publications in less time.
Meanwhile, Columbia rakes in tuition dollars from starstruck first-years lured in by casual references to professors as “leaders in their field” before attending their anticlimactic lectures.
While name dropping the world famous sociologist Saskia Sassen may win you cultural capital while studying abroad, doesn't her jet-setting schedule actually make for less than cohesive lectures? And how often does Jeffrey Sachs even show up to his own class?
At a university that counts numerous Nobel laureates as faculty, the best teacher I know is a graduate student, and she mastered the art of instructional design only through a fluke in the system. During her first semester as a teaching assistant, the professor fell ill and left her with all his lectures and discussion sections. Faced with this baptism by fire, she sought out teaching workshops, requested coaching from experienced educators, and actually heeded the advice of students (who tend to know their own learning styles better than anyone). Best of all, she still uses this process of critical reflection seven years into the craft.
Many tenure-track professors I know never reached that part of the learning curve. Maybe a pervasive “those who can't do, teach” attitude saps their motivation, but I think the real reason why teaching becomes a chore for faculty is that Columbia does not reward the craft of facilitating seminars. The administration pays teaching assistants to lead discussion sections, but TAs are unpaid for the time required to plan the lessons.
Teaching is a performance responsive to the audience, but it should not be improvisation.
To address their own shortcomings, those two Swarthmore professors who had “never been taught how to teach” started a faculty teaching seminar. Now their colleagues meet with peer coaches, observe each other's classes, and exchange constructive criticism in a safe, supportive environment.
The Center for Teaching and Learning in Butler Library already provides workshops on inclusive teaching, effective communication, and other skills an educator should develop, but it is an underused resource. I invite professors to treat teaching not as a timesuck, but as a complement to their research. In addition to enriching an undergraduate's education, the complex process of creating a thoughtful syllabus and engaging in dialogue with students can crystallize one's own understanding. That's part of why I love teaching.
Unfortunately, most adjuncts and graduate instructors do not currently earn enough to pour time into this kind of voluntary self improvement, even though college students nationwide would benefit if they did. 25 percent of part-time faculty are on some kind of public assistance, according to a UC Berkeley labor report, and the rate of salary increases is at a historic low. The organizing efforts of the Barnard Contingent Faculty and Graduate Workers of Columbia-UAW Local 2110 could transform teachers' working conditions and thus, students' learning conditions, on campus.
In the meantime, students need to self-advocate. If you feel like your class is unnecessarily confusing or poorly planned, ask your professor, “Why teach this way?” There is a diverse array of teaching methods, each with its own rationale, so “I don't know” is a red flag.
When questioned about their teaching, some professors will belittle valid concerns to inflate their ego. Others will appreciate the conversation and change accordingly. I've met with both during office hours.
This is not about bickering over test grades. This is what teachers call formative evaluation— the gathering of information that allows a teacher to address missed learning opportunities before the final exam. Though CULPA reviews are helpful during class registration and CourseWorks evaluations provide space to vent at semester's end, those feedback systems are not enough. We need to address issues of teaching and learning as they occur. We need to address these issues on a daily basis.
Students and professors need to talk about pedagogy. Teaching cannot be an afterthought if we want this university to be more than a degree-granting service.
Let's not allow administrators to pay lip service to teaching as “the heart of a liberal arts education” while it is being ripped out.
Daniel Bergerson is a Columbia College senior majoring in history and urban teaching. He is a full-time student teacher at the James Baldwin School and editor at Young Teachers Collective. The Red Pen runs alternate Thursdays.
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