Why the Professor Still Can’t Teach

In 1977 the great mathematician and teacher Morris Kline published an indictment of academe in a book aptly called Why the Professor Can’t Teach. Kline not only blamed “the overemphasis on research” as the “prime culprit” for the poor quality of undergraduate education, he also blamed professors—especially tenured professors—for ignoring their “moral obligations to students” and offering courses “that reflect their own values at the expense of student needs and interests.” Little has changed in three decades.
The open secret in the profession remains that professors are paid to publish, not to teach. Most consider teaching a distraction from their research, which is what they really care about, while administrators keep pressuring faculty to publish, even at liberal arts colleges, and increasingly at community colleges, where teaching is supposed to be the most important thing they do. Never mind that there is no evidence that professors who are doing research are better undergraduate teachers because of it, according to Burton A. Weisbrod, economics professor at Northwestern University (also see Mission and Money, 2008). Never mind that in 2006 the magazine Teen Talk noted most students choose their particular institution based on the availability or strength of their preferred major, the ability to get a good job or accepted into a good graduate school, and whether faculty are good teachers or mentors—not the numbers of books or articles they published. Of course publish or perish is not new (“publish, and the students perish,” Kline quipped), but until we stop grumbling, and actually do something about it, liberal education will continue its gradual demise.
But that’s only part of the problem. The other part is that most graduate students and new college professors are not prepared to teach. Postsecondary teaching is the only profession I know of for which no formal training is required—not even the expectation that one must be prepared. True, most institutions of higher education—even community colleges—expect their faculty to have PhDs, but that only proves the absurdity of the current situation. The PhD is a research degree whose recipients are highly trained specialists. Most colleges and universities are teaching institutions, despite what faculty and administrators like to maintain. Yet the myth persists that if a person has a PhD, he or she can teach. This is nonsense, of course. And most people know it, including the administrators of colleges and universities who fund the Centers for Teaching Excellence (or something like them). These are typically directed by tenured faculty whose job it is to promote the latest “scholarship of teaching and learning” through seminars, workshops, and discussion groups.


What I have come to realize is that most of this so-called scholarship is superfluous and its methods are antithetical to the aims of liberal education. Sure it has promised to solve the problems of poor undergraduate teaching as more and more colleges and universities jettisoned the traditional liberal arts, flouted the fundamentals of teaching and learning, and displaced sound methods. It claims to offer objective and quantifiable means of assessment—identifying specific problems, developing methods to solve them, applying those methods, studying the feedback and results, and above all else, measuring the outcomes. It conducts studies and has created journals and web sites so that teachers can publish the findings of their classroom experiments. Even better, it gives professors who are primarily teachers an outlet to show colleagues and administrators that they are “scholars” too, thus quantifying their productivity and justifying tenure or promotions. In short, it has promised to produce a new professional educator.
But the scholarship of teaching and learning has failed to live up to its promises. In the first place, it has failed liberal education. A 2009 study by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni concludes that, even “as our students need broad-based skills and knowledge to succeed in the global marketplace, our colleges and universities are failing to deliver. Topics like U.S. government or history, literature, mathematics, and economics have become mere options on far too many campuses. Not surprisingly, students are graduating with great gaps in their knowledge—and employers are noticing.”
A 2006 study by the National Commission on the Future of Higher Education also shows that most college graduates have not mastered reading, writing, and critical thinking skills appropriate to their level of education. Since 1992, for instance, literacy rates among them have actually declined. The percentage of those proficient in prose literacy dropped from 40 to 31 percent, while the number proficient in document literacy dropped from 37 to 25 percent. Only quantitative literacy remained the same at 31 percent. (But even at 40 and 37 and 31 percent the numbers are abysmal.) And although most students go to college to get degrees so that they can get jobs, an “unacceptable” number of graduates still enter “the workforce without the skills employers say they need.” Clearly current methods and approaches are not working.
In the second place, this so-called scholarship has failed to produce better teachers. Popular books like L. Dee Fink’s Creating Significant Learning Experiences (Jossey-Bass, 2003), Ken Bain’s What The Best College Teachers Do, (Harvard UP2004), and James Lang’s On Course: A Week-by-Week Guide to Your First Semester of College (Harvard UP, 2008) perpetuate the impression that anyone can be a successful teacher by applying a few specialized techniques, rather than by approaching teaching as an art form that must be cultivated through practice, experience, and extensive study. Articles like Robert B. Barr and John Tagg’s “From Teaching to Learning: A New Paradigm for Undergraduate Education” not only complicate issues unnecessarily in their attempt to appear original, innovative, or deep, they fail to consider teaching in relation to liberal education as a whole. In consequence, this so-called scholarship leaves graduate students and new college professors who are serious about teaching unsatisfied and unfulfilled.
A few years ago my dissatisfaction finally came to a head. I was visiting assistant professor at a liberal arts college, and every week the dean of students held seminars for new faculty in which he peddled the latest wares. Everyone I spoke to hated attending those seminars, not simply because they felt obligated as new faculty on the tenure-track to make an impression on the dean, but because they felt that those sessions didn’t covey anything useful. The experience reinforced my view, not only that most modern scholarship disregards sound methods rooted in concrete reality and the world of things, but also that it ignores the long tradition of pedagogy from Plato and Rousseau to William James and Jacques Barzun. It might explain the mechanics of writing a syllabus or creating a grading rubric, but when all is said and done, it adds almost nothing new to the fundamental principles of teaching and learning that hasn’t already been said in the classic texts on education and pedagogy. The result is undergraduate teachers who remain disconnected from the tradition of their profession and radically ignorant of the inner philosophy of their art.
Consider Carolyn Lieberg’s Teaching Your First College Class: A Practical Guide for New Faculty and Graduate Student Instructors (Stylus, 2008). Lieberg writes that it is important to help students understand what it means to be educated. “One of your challenges is to guide students away from that attitude [that college is a series of classes] toward one where they see themselves as educated adults who take pleasure in their accumulating knowledge and broadening undertakings.” So far so good, but the author leaves us hanging with some vague notion that a “liberal education is, among other things, about a wide and deep understanding of the world. Helping students find ways to organize their thinking is a worthy teaching goal.” There is no further discussion of what that means, what those “other things” are, and how the methods she elaborates in the rest of the book will promote them—not to mention that her definition of liberal education begs all sorts of unanswered questions.
However, as one reads through the book, the real reason Lieberg fails to discuss teaching in relation to the tradition of liberal education becomes clear: She’s working from the same premises as most modern scholars of teaching and learning, and she shares many of their assumptions, chiefly the belief that anything from the pre-scientific era is irrelevant to our society and times. For instance, her “major figures in pedagogy” go no further back than John Dewey (AD 1859-1952), Lev Vygotsky (AD 1896-1934), and Benjamin Bloom (AD 1913-1999). In fact, we are told that Dewey is the “grandfather of pedagogy” whose “fame as an important thinker spread out into the wider public mind because he wrote for popular intellectual magazines on issues such as women’s suffrage and the unionization of teachers.”
It also becomes clear that, like other modern scholars of teaching and learning, Lieberg prefers Dewey because of his constructivist views; she prefers Vygotsky because he advocated the connections between higher-order thinking and social interactions, or so-called collaborative learning, and education as a process through which students create their own meanings; and she clings to the theories of Bloom, whose taxonomy of learning domains (cognitive, affective, and psychomotor) has become a staple for modern scholars of teaching and learning and remains essentially unchallenged as the model for modern pedagogy.
There’s only one reference in Lieberg’s book to William James (a single quotation taken from another source), and no mention of other “major figures,” such as Rousseau, Locke, Aristotle, or Plato, whom most scholars of the history and philosophy of education would consider the grandfather of pedagogy. Lieberg speaks, as Thoreau once observed, “as if the study of the classics would at length make way for more modern and practical studies,” and added: “We might as well omit to study Nature because she is old.” Yes, the classic texts on education and pedagogy might be interesting or quaint, as a famous scholar of teaching and learning said to me, but they do not incorporate the latest methods and therefore cannot possibly be useful, reliable, or even true.
Many professors (mostly tenured) tell me that it is unrealistic to ask new professors to study these classic texts and devote extra thought and time to teaching because they should be researching and publishing, which is how they will get tenure. I agree—but that is also the heart of the matter. In the current environment, new professors are distracted from thinking about undergraduate education and teaching because they are too busy doing everything else: preparing courses, cranking out articles, revising the dissertation for publication, serving on committees, advising students. They are busier in their new jobs than they were in graduate school when they only were taking courses, leading recitations, preparing for exams, compiling bibliographies, and working on their dissertations.
If they had little or no time to think about teaching at its theoretical and practical levels then, how can anyone realistically expect them to think about it at those levels now? They can always wait until after they get tenure, and some do, but by then it is often too late. The initial enthusiasm, excitement, and energy that drew those who are passionate about teaching into the profession in the first place is likely to be gone and difficult to revive. The comments of three assistant professors in the department of teaching and learning at Northern Illinois University are typical among new and untenured professors: Joseph Flynn says that he finds himself “less and less excited about it all;” Samara Madrid hopes “to recapture the excitement I lost along the way;” and Andrew Kemp writes, “I realize now, I lost part of my self, the part of me that loves education” (“Year 2 on the Tenure Track,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, 24 November 2008).
Liberal education will be saved when colleges and universities take teaching seriously again and acknowledge that it is the most difficult task that professors, especially new professors, undertake. It requires sustained effort through constant attention, thought, and work, and it requires time for professors to find new and better ways to educate their students. Only by returning to the fundamental principles of the art, practicing sound methods rooted in concrete reality and the world of things, and studying and taking seriously the long tradition of teaching and learning from Plato to Jacques Barzun will professors provide meaningful instruction and exemplify the practical usefulness of liberal education for their students. Talk about outcomes and assessment might appeal to administrators, but it doesn’t make professors better teachers, and it certainly won’t bring them any closer to the timeless truths—and yes, even the magic—behind the art.

J.M. Anderson

J. M. Anderson is author of The Skinny on Teaching: What You Don't Learn in Graduate School.

8 thoughts on “Why the Professor Still Can’t Teach

  1. Personally, I think you college professors are lazy stuck up hacks. I dropped out of college because I couldn’t stand sharing the same air with you fakes. I have no college education and I’AM AN RF ENGINEER AND I.T. COMPUTER TECHNICIAN LIVING VERY COMFORTABLY WITHOUT A DEGREE! It’s not what you know it’s who you know! Goes to show how snotty professors and years of schooling brainwash society into thinking you will be a loser without a college degree. I’am self taught and don’t need some socialist punk professor telling me how to work on electronics and computers!

  2. I started looking for something about teaching after being told by my granddaughter who is having some slight problems with college algebra that ‘it’s not the teacher’s place to explain to her how to work the problems’. My immediate reaction was, ‘if not his, then whose?’
    When I took college algebra, a long time ago, I was having trouble with word problems. The teacher explained them to me and I became the best student in the class. Teaching works! Why shouldn’t this teacher teach my granddaughter? ISn’t that what he’s there for? This is a junior college also so I doubt that he’s a big time publisher.

  3. When people complain that professors can’t teach, they’re begging the question of whether they themselves can teach and what they mean by that.
    Teaching usually isn’t a can or can’t do matter. Teachers do well with some classes and maybe not so well with others. Why? Because of the personalities in each class or because of the hour the class is held or something else that is out of one’s control. A class with older students (folks in their 30s, 50s, etc.) will usually teach much more easily than a class of eighteen-year olds, because the older students usually want and appreciate the education. And that rubs off on the younger ones. Required classes may enroll students who resent general education requirements. They don’t want to read Moby Dick or The Odyssey. When you get four or five strong personalities who all agree they don’t want to have to take introduction to literature, it can be a challenge. It can result in a class that doesn’t quite work. Majors who love their subject teach very easily. It’s great when students actually prepare, participate, and ask good questions. But not everyone gets that sort of environment to teach in. Some never see that environment, or hardly at all. MA students can be difficult, because many of them return to school after having quit jobs they hated; they can have a bit of an attitude, I’ve noticed. PhD students can be very problematic too. They often think it’s their job to be dissatisfied with whatever the professor says, because that makes them true intellectuals. They think being a professional means arguing with everything that’s said.
    A good teacher is someone who knows these situations well and who has figured out ways to cope with them.
    Even so, teaching is hard because the teacher ages, which also changes the dynamic of teaching quite a bit. I recently asked my students about what they had learned about the Kennedy assassination and what impact it had upon America. Well, the answer turned me into grandpa on the stump telling the young’uns what that day was like and how it changed America. I don’t like to be in that role, but someone has to inform them, since it didn’t happen in the lower schools. Moments like this remind me how different the teacher’s experiences are from that of the students and that this may never be bridged entirely. It’s in the midst of all these vicissitudes that we then have to worry about curriculum and making the issues relevant to the students. I’m teaching a short story by John Updike. “Have you ever felt let down by your parents?” I ask the students, hoping they’ll see the connection with what they were supposed to have read. It’s a risk. They may talk for twenty minutes or not say anything and avoid looking at me. Even if I’ve taught the very same text and asked the very same question to a class the hour before that discussed it enthusiastically, it can bomb right then and there in the next class. Here it’s not the teacher that’s the variable, it’s what the teacher has to work with that’s the variable. Once we grasp all this, we’ll realize how unhelpful it is to think in blanket terms, such as “Why can’t teachers teach?” Actually, they probably can. It just might not appear that way, given the class you’re observing.

  4. Take it or leave it but this is going to be a bit harsh.
    Jacques Barzun? Plato? William James? Locke? Are you kidding? Were these people teachers? Did they ever really practice this art? Lecturers perhaps, but teachers in the sense of motivating, creating well-balanced lesson plans, immersing students with in-class activities that promote active use of their knowledge… no they were not this. And there are far better places and books that speak specifically to this area.
    You say that Lieberg is, “working from the same premises as most modern scholars of teaching and learning, and she shares many of their assumptions.” Clearly you also share many of the assumptions as well but can’t see that fact because you too are too immersed in that world. You are only searching within texts you feel are worthy and theoretical techniques that are sound to you. There are far more effective and accessible ways and materials
    Watch a quality grade school teacher prepare and deliver a lesson. Or a practiced ESL teacher. Or the way teams in a well managed work place share and collaborate. This is the real world of teaching and learning, and the way these educators can get their students involved and actually loving learning are things your set of authors really know very little about. Or simply go to Amazon and find one of the many concise books that explain practical teaching techniques that work immediately to enliven classrooms and encourage students. Better than reading any of the authors you recommend, for this specific subject.
    You can see that university teaching is sick, but because you yourself are basically still within that structure I feel you really can’t see the simple solutions just outside the walls still surrounding you.

  5. The problem is not that professors don’t know how to teach; the problem is the professoriat has turned its back on everyone who is not tenured. They’ve done nothing while universities slash T/T jobs from departments and replacing them with temp lecturer and adjunct positions. This has created a permanent “untouchables” caste of excellent teachers who have a snowball’s chance in hell of ever working full-time in their field.
    The professoriate also doesn’t seem to understand that their academic programs (especially their precious graduate programs) will close down as fewer students pursue a profession that has no full-time jobs.
    I’ve heard a suggestion that there be two types of tenure tracks: A research track and a teaching track. Both should be equal in pay and stature, differing only in the prof’s job duties. That is a sensible idea.
    Unless the professoriate gets off its collective hiney and defend the profession, there will eventually be no tenured professors, no tenure tracks; all will be down here with us “untouchable” adjuncts. Or worse, academic jobs will be offshored and broadcast to US students via internet.
    Signed,
    Eternal Adjunct

  6. teaching is an art. it requires good sounds management, appropriate method, suitable technique, and good preparation. on the other hand, every student needs different attention like every human is special. so, unless professor need to know the individual characters of students. some people may be smart but they can not teach ( transfer knowledge to students) .

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