Building a Mystery

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.

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8 Responses to Building a Mystery

  1. JonathanGray says:

    And what goes with that is that you often need to be there for the whole year. Given that most of my academic friends are either going through tenure proceedings, a third year review, or the job search, I know so many bad stories of people being evaluated on one class pulled out of context of the course as a whole. For example, you can lean heavily in one political direction in one class, then swing for another class. Or you can completely ignore an important aspect of a subject in one class, then nail it home in the next. You can lecture one class, then open up for discussion in another, or for group work. Etc. Our classes are sort of like a season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, in other words: there will always be an ebb and flow between monster of the week episodes and big picture episodes, funny and serious ones, etc.

  2. Withywindle2 says:

    And yet one must distinguish between difficulty of judgment and impossibility of judgment; and, ultimately, say that teaching is amenable to judgment, and by non-teachers as well as by teachers. (Just as you don’t have to be a novelist to critique a novel.) No, you don’t have to have been there to really evaluate teaching–what a student is evaluating (and an evaluator, whether a colleague or an outsider, ought to include in his evaluation) is the experience of being taught, not the experience of teaching. Indeed, a student who has been in some dozens of classes in the last few years, eight or ten a year, may be in a far better position to evaluate a professor’s teaching than is any professor. In any case, you choose your poison: the risk of insufficiently knowledgeable judgment vs. the risk of no judgment at all. The former is clearly preferable.

  3. Timothy Burke says:

    I agree, up to a point. First, that we have to judge teaching, both because we want to be able to evaluate it as a part of a professor’s job performance and because there is such a thing as bad and good teaching. I think everyone who has ever been a student agrees with that. I’ve had teachers where their teaching wasn’t my cup of tea, but I’d agree they were competent enough, and then I’ve had just plain bad teachers. I also think you’re right that students are often far better judges of teaching than colleagues, as long as they’re asked to consider how and whether they learned rather than whether they like the professor personally or not.

    But at the same time, I do think there’s something fragile and experiential about a good class, a quality that is easily misrepresented by selective quoting or attention. And, to bring up a perennial subject around here, that sometimes can’t be discerned by simply reading a syllabus. I can think of some impeccably constructed syllabi that led into horribly boring classes, and some fairly wacky syllabi that were associated with some really great courses that I’ve taken.

  4. tony grafton says:

    Back in 1975, when I started teaching at Princeton, the department had a system that I haven’t encountered elsewhere, and that gradually fell out of use, to my regret. Each member of the professorial faculty had a lecture course, which normally met twice a week. Instead of standard discussion sections run by grad students, these courses were divided into groups of 8-10 for a third hour of discussion. Two-thirds of these, in turn, were run by professorial faculty, who also attended the lectures. So over the five years before you came up for tenure, anywhere from three to five or six of the tenured faculty would teach your course with you: hear all the lectures, work through the syllabus, see what students learned.

    In my experience, and that of my colleagues, the fact that the senior folks were there every time we lectured eliminated the problems normally associated with random visits: they heard us on our off days, but they also heard us at our best, and after a week or two we basically forgot they were there at all unless one of them was running the slide projector or something of the sort. Three or four people who had taught with me took part in the meeting that determined my tenure, and the first tenure meetings I attended as a new associate professor were similar.

    Over time, we had to abandon this system: partly because faculty very much wanted space in their schedules to teach undergraduate seminars, partly because our graduate students needed teaching experience if they were to compete on the market. It wasn’t perfect, of course. The system privileged lecturing, and we depended on student evaluations when assessing seminars and other forms of pedagogy. Still, it was the most serious teaching evaluation system I have seen, and I still find myself wishing, when we talk about a junior colleague, that we had the level of information that we would have been able to bring to bear a generation ago.

  5. PeterBlitstein says:

    You raise, indirectly, an important question about how we evaluate teaching in general: what other kinds of information can and should we use in addition to the ubiquitous student evaluations. At my small liberal arts college, faculty going up for tenure are encouraged to ask colleagues to visit their classes, who can then write letters to our tenure cmte. But we lack any systematic procedures for this (and, given your comments, which I agree with, I’m not sure how we could design such a procedure). In the end, the only kind of rigorous, systematic information that cmte has come from student evaluations and, as a result, these play a disproportionate role in evaluating our teaching.

  6. MEHooper says:

    I find it interesting that as professionals, we all seek and expect our scholarship to be seen, examined and judged by our peers. Yet in the classroom, we resist such peer review. Is it the immediacy of the classroom experience, or the result of the unhappy reality that few of us were trained to teach? We tend to equate teaching with lecturing, and/or mimic our own experience.

    We learned from lectures, and learned our own techniques from that experience. The sad reality is that our students really don’t learn much via lectures. They retain even less. The majority of PhD programs don’t require education classes (I’m assuming here, but confident in that assumption) or even sponsor discussions on teaching.

  7. Rana says:

    One thing I find interesting in this discussion is the question of how we might define “successful” teaching. Bad teaching is usually pretty obvious – but what does “good” teaching look like?

    Is it entertaining? Is it dry but covers a lot? Is it warm and welcoming, or objective and aloof? Should students be challenged, or encouraged? Is a class “good” if the material is well-presented and relevant, but the students don’t retain it?

    I find it hard enough _as the teacher_ to get a handle on whether or not my teaching is “good.” Sure, there are days when I give a lecture, and I can sense the rapt attention, or discussions where everyone is lively and saying interesting, thoughtful things – but there are other days when the silence of thoughtful listening sounds an awful lot like the silence of confusion and apathy.

    I’ve tried including various “tricks” to tap into the class psyche – quizzes on the readings, response cards, asking for questions, etc. – but the lens on student perceptions remains opaque.

    So I guess what I’m asking is, we all recognize bad teaching, and we can recognize teaching styles that appeal to us, but are we really assessing the actual effectiveness of teaching, or the ability to perform in a way that meets our mental picture of what an “effective” professor looks like?

    (I mean, we’ve all had classes where a portion of the students thought one wasn’t a good teacher because there were “too many lectures” and another portion agreed, but because there was “too much discussion and not enough lecturing.”)

  8. Timothy Burke says:

    Yeah, the effectiveness question is key, and just to make it worse, I don’t know that the qualitative opinion of students about effectiveness is always accurate. I can think of a few classes that I liked at the time that today simply seem woefully ineffective because I retained nothing of them. I can think of a few I disliked that are the opposite–I remember a lot of useful things from the class. Obviously, the best thing is when those two intersect.

    Here’s another puzzle: can a good teacher teach anyone? And teach them anything that lies within that teacher’s expertise?

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