Wednesday, October 22, 2008

In defense of college teaching

You would think on a small, liberal arts-oriented campus like mine that teaching -- real, quality and engaged teaching -- would be my university's first priority. You would think that for approximately $40,000 per year an undergraduate would come here in search of demanding professors who are dedicated to lighting up their bright and largely untapped minds. You would think that professors currently practicing their craft here wouldn't complain about teaching four or five classes per year to undergraduates who rarely number more than 35 per course. You would think that newly-minted Ph.Ds or more senior professors who are contemplating coming to American University would want to know as much about the student body as possible, and would look forward to coming to an institution where they will have the freedom to develop their own courses, hold six office hours per week and not have to bear the administrative responsibility for "advising" undergraduates, as is the case at many larger and self-described "research" universities.

You would, kinda, sorta, probably . . . believe that would be the case. So why, at American University, does the idea of teaching anywhere from 30 to 70 students a semester strike such a chord of terror in so many professional academics? Why is having to teach more than two different courses in the semester when you're assigned three classes -- that is, you teach two sections of one class and one section of another --  viewed as the academic equivalent of a 70 hour week in an unregulated West Virginia coal mine? Why is teaching four courses or fewer a year the ultimate status symbol for the "serious" academic?

I don't have good answers for any of those questions because, frankly, I've never understood why anyone would want to pursue an academic career in a university environment and not want to teach. These questions are even more mysterious when posed for an institution like mine, which enrolls an undergraduate student body of approximately 5,000 students, with another 5,000 or so dispersed across various graduate programs, including our (separate) law and theology schools. My very first college class at the University of Tennessee was Introduction to Western Civilization at 9 a.m. on a Monday morning, which I thought was quite reasonable after having to get to my first high school class by 7.45 a.m. There, I walked into a lecture hall that accommodated 400 students and there wasn't an empty seat by the time I arrived at 8.55, so I sat on the floor just off the left side of the front row. Yes, indeed, my first college class was one-fourth the size of the high school I attended in Atlanta, and slightly less than one-tenth of the size the institution where I now teach. When I was in graduate school at Emory University, a far superior institution then and now to American, I taught one class of American Government to 75 students per semester for two years, which, compared to my American Government class at Tennessee of 325, seemed quite reasonable. No standardized tests in a "small" class of 75, I was told by my graduate advisor. Students attending a private university were paying for more than a "circle the most correct answer" approach to their introductory classes. And guess what? They really were. The first semester I taught my own course, I asked my students if they would prefer a multiple-choice or essay-oriented exam. Almost everyone wanted a written exam because they had already circled enough answers in high school. This rule didn't just apply to Ph.D candidates like myself cutting their teeth in the college classroom. Everyone in the department was expected to offer challenging, writing-oriented assignments to their students regardless of whether the class was a survey course or an advanced upper-level class. Even at the advanced level (300 and above at American), the "smaller" classes hovered around the 40-55 mark, with more popular classes capping at 75, the number of seats that were available in most of the classrooms housed in the newer buildings on campus. At American, there are only two classrooms in the building where almost everyone government course is taught that can accommodate more than 35 students. Advanced courses at American generally enroll no more than 30 students, and usually anywhere from five to 10 students less than that.

So . . . teaching at American is a pretty sweet deal, eh? You would think . . . but

no, apparently not always.

Our department is entering recruiting season for academic appointments that will begin in Fall 2009 or, depending on how savvy the person being recruited is, Spring 2010 or Fall 2010 or Fall 2011. Desitutute Ph.Ds coming out of graduate school generally want to begin as soon as possible so they can upgrade their grocery lists and clothing budgets to something beyond Spaghtetti O's and jeans and their favorite moth-eaten college sweatshirt they bought on the first day they arrived on campus for their freshman year. Senior professors can and generally are a little more demanding. They need time to sell their house and prepare their family for a move. And, because the process of academic hiring is so laborious and time-consuming, their home universities need time to replace them. There's nothing unreasonable about this to academics, although to people who function outside the academic world the notion of taking two or three years to switch jobs is a little strange.

Regardless of whether you're looking to fill out your first 1040EZ form or change the environment in which you work, you should, if you are serious about wanting to house your talents in a university setting, particularly a liberal arts-oriented institution like mine that is roughly 95% tuition driven and advertises itself as a place where students will experience intimate yet platonic relationships with their professors, not balk at our "heavy" teaching load of, again, on the average, five courses per year. No tenured or tenure-track professor in my department will teach more than 130 or so students per year. Even though the maximum, theoretically, would be 175 students, that would mean a professor would be assigned five classes at the maximum of 35 students per class. And that never happens unless a professor asks for such a schedule.

Our department and the school that houses it worry that we will not enhance our stature unless we offer a lower course load of four courses per year for incoming professors, with possibilities to reduce that load further through grants, what passes for sterling scholarship or some other professional feather in-the-cap. We already do offer reduced teaching for our assistants and a semester off, something that was not available to me when I came in 20 years ago. For senior hires, I've listened to candidates express an interest in avoiding undergraduate teaching altogether, as his or her talents are best suited to our graduate students, who comprise a tiny, tiny, tiny fraction of our department's population. Yes, I hear my colleagues talk about all the powerhouse "research" that we're "churning out" and the need to heighten our "profile" among our "peer" Ph.D-granting institutions like Duke, Maryland and Johns Hopkins. Remarkably, this desire to avoid or minimize teaching doesn't seem to offend as many sensibilities among my colleagues as I'd like. Then again, as some of my colleagues have told me or told others about me, I don't do "serious" work. If "serious" is defined as holding no real interest in asking questions or pursuing ideas that either perpetuate the status quo through techniques that winnow out "politics" or "normative" assumptions to better predict behavior that we already understand fairly well, then I plead guilty. To me, the "seriousness" of an idea has nothing to do with where it gets published or how few people genuinely understand what an article or book is about. Publishing the same thing over and over doesn't advance anyone's understanding of anything. It does, however, fatten one's curriculum vitae. And that, more so than students know or professional academics want to admit, is what structures and drives the cause of "scholarship" in political science, as it does in almost every academic discipline. If the very "best" political scientists were as smart as they thought they were, then we'd have known how the 2008 presidential election would have turned out years ago through the various "predictive" models that "explain" who gets elected and why, or how the Supreme Court will decide the cases on its docket for the October 2008 Term.

To me, there is something wrong, horribly wrong, with a professor that views undergraduate teaching at a small, expensive private university as some sort of obstacle to pursuing the generally itsy-bitsy research questions that drive the "profession" of political science. Or, as I've heard before from colleagues -- in fairness, not so much here as in other places -- "real professors don't teach" -- I don't understand how "churning out" articles and books that are fairly meaningless for anyone other than a small group of colleagues who have an interest in perpetuating a professional model that has served them well. Simply because McDonalds has churned out billions of hamburgers doesn't mean they're any good.

Yes, there are some professors who enjoy teaching and put real time and effort into their courses and their students. And, yes, these professors, particularly untenured assistant professors, are quite justified in wondering if their time is well spent, especially when the sole measure of their hard work is the standardized student evaluation that doesn't measure or evaluate much of anything other than what one colleague of mine used to call the "happiness quotient." And, yes, there are some professors who are great teachers and write about interesting topics in interesting ways. But these are generally professors who have made a calculated decision, usually after tenure, to leave their past behind and pursue fresh, new approaches to their interests. Even so, as I can personally attest, a decision to develop new courses or put real time into the classes you teach more or less every semester or say good-bye to the past is not always met with great professional admiration by your colleagues. That should be the standard career arc for anyone interested in the world of ideas. So should teaching. But that's not the way it is. For universities like mine that are neither "serious" research institutions or elite teaching-oriented liberal arts colleges, there are choices to be made. And I'm afraid that my university continues to make the wrong choices to impress the wrong people, all because the right choices are considered counter-productive to improving our position among the people who are not paying to come to school here.

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