Time to help college professors be better teachers
If we want more students to succeed in college, we have to turn full attention to the craft of university-level teaching. What’s at stake is not only increasing graduation rates but providing a quality education for those who, a generation or two ago, might not have seen college as possible.
Right after I gave my opening lecture on Oedipus the King to the 30 employees of Los Angeles’s criminal justice system, I handed out a few pages of notes I would have taken if I were sitting in their seats listening to the likes of me.Skip to next paragraph
Gallery Monitor Political Cartoons
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
They were taking my course, Introduction to Humanities, as part a special program leading to a college degree, and I knew from a survey I gave them that many hadn’t been in a classroom in a long time – and some didn’t get such great educations when they were. So we spent the last half hour of the class comparing my notes with the ones they had just taken, talking about the way I signaled that something was important, how they could separate out a big idea from specific facts, how to ask a question without looking like a dummy.
I taught that humanities course more than 30 years ago, but I was thinking about it as I read the new report from the National Commission on Higher Education Attainment, “College Completion Must Be Our Priority.” The report is a call to leaders in higher education to increase graduation rates by scheduling courses and services to accommodate working adults, developing more on-line learning, easing the ability of students to transfer, and implementing a host of other sensible solutions to the many barriers that are contributing to America’s stagnating college graduation rates.
But if we want more students to succeed in college, then colleges have to turn full attention to teaching.
To their credit, the authors of the college completion report call for better professional development for college faculty; however, most reports of this type have little to say about teaching, focusing instead on structural and administrative reforms outside the classroom. It is a glaring omission.
Perhaps the authors of these reports believe that teaching is such an individual activity that not much can be done to affect it.
Another reason has to do with the way college teaching gets defined in practice. Faculty become experts in a field, and then they pass on their knowledge to others through college courses. Some teachers get very good at this delivery – compelling lectures, creative demonstrations, engaging discussions, and useful assignments. But professors don’t usually think beyond their subjects to the general intellectual development of the undergraduates before them, to enhancing the way they learn and make sense of the world.
Finally, I don’t see much evidence at the policy level of a deep understanding of college-level teaching or a respect for its craft.
The problem starts in the graduate programs where college instructors are minted. Students learn a great deal about, let’s say, astrophysics or political science, but not how to teach it. They might assist in courses and pay attention to how their professors teach, but none of this is systematic or a focus of study or mentoring.
And there is rarely a place in the curriculum to consider the difficulties students might have as they learn how to think like an astrophysicist or political scientist. And then there are the reading and writing difficulties that can emerge when encountering a discipline for the first time.