I’m an enthusiastic supporter of increased transparency in most cultural and political institutions. In the case of academia, for example, I think a commitment to transparency should include public circulation of all syllabi and the disclosure of a wide range of information to doctoral program applicants. That kind of transparency seems to me to be an intrinsic good: it helps people to make better decisions, it informs public understandings of higher education, it encourages “best practices” by academic professionals, and helps to disseminate scholarly knowledge.
The one thing I’m not so sure about is the classroom itself. I’ve noted before that our classrooms are very private spaces. The students share knowledge with each other about how the faculty teach, but we very rarely witness each other.
I have co-taught from time to time. People who have never taught often think that co-teaching is less work, but almost all faculty know that it is actually far more work on average. Almost everything that is internal and improvisational in your teaching has to be externalized and formalized. You have to tell your partner what you’re going to do and why you’re going to do it. Even grading can be more work: in order to be sure that you’re not subjecting the students to “double jeopardy” (e.g., two disparate scales for evaluating their work), you really need to look at how your partner is marking and evaluating written and spoken work, and to explain your own discretionary judgements.
However, co-teaching can be reassuring simply because you get to see how another person teaches. I suppose a lot of academics get some sense of that through being a teaching assistant while in graduate school, but that’s not very useful most of the time. You listen to a lecture passively: you’re not part of the decisions involved in crafting that lecture or designing the course. You privately troop off to hold discussion sections, which the professor typically doesn’t know about or have much interest in. Co-teaching with a peer is different: what the other person does is directly comparable to what you do.
When you witness teaching in that way, one thing that becomes very clear is that teaching is the kind of thing where you have to have been there to really evaluate it. This is maybe the first and foremost reason I distrust fragmentary, anecdotal reports of classroom behavior when they’re used to make a sweeping point about academia. I’m not even sure I trust those reports to tell me about what the classroom in question was like, let alone pedagogy in general.
This is the problem facing those of us who want to see university and college teaching valued more consistently by the profession. (Ph.D in History has a fascinating post on the subject.) How do you evaluate the classroom work of a teacher?
I can think of a few anecdotal tales of my experiences as an undergraduate and graduate student that I think count as telling indicators of the good or bad teaching work of an individual professor. There was an undergraduate professor who I quite liked as a person, who was brilliant in one-to-one conversation, but who I think had a fairly serious drinking problem and as a result in the classroom was a rambling, scattered mess–I think I might still have notes from his third class lecture, the one that convinced me that it might be time to drop the class.
But I can also think of anecdotes from my experiences as a student that are memorable because they’re so atypical of the professor in question. For example, one of my graduate professors, who was perhaps the best and most thoughtful pedagogue I’ve ever seen, and characteristically menschy towards his students, once pretty much ripped a student to shreds in one of our seminars. Not unjustifiably, but it was very unrepresentative of his work as a teacher.
I am thinking about this a lot this morning because I’m auditing a class with a colleague. I’m excited about the material, but it was also just fascinating to see another professional at work in a context where I could be detached, just part of the audience. I kept wishing I could disappear a bit, because I didn’t want to throw my colleague off, I wanted him to be talking to the undergraduates, not to me–but he took it in stride, and was pretty well able to ignore my presence. It reminded me of how intimate teaching really is, how situational, how performative. Every class is a new occasion. I never know quite how I will be, even who I will be, in a new class. Watching someone else, you think: oh, I do that! that’s interesting, he cares a lot about some things I just ignore! wow, that’s a really different kind of pedagogical challenge!
But you really gotta be there. I don’t think anyone else would get a clear picture of his classroom, my classroom, any classroom, through a few snippets of reported speech. I don’t even know that you’d get the picture if we videotaped a course and put it up on YouTube. Not to mention that knowing you were being videotaped, observed by someone who was evaluating you or waiting for you to make a statement that they could make political hash out of, would change the nature of the act of teaching, and not for the better. A lot of times, teaching works because it is a private performance, temporary and ephemeral.