Let’s Hear More About Teaching

In my last essay here, “This Is A Bold Plan For Higher Ed?”, I commented in passing that most books on higher education these days – including Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus’s Higher Education? – fail to address the real crisis in higher education: poor teaching. That prompted Ms. Dreifus to ask if I had actually read her book. In an e-mail to her – to which she never replied I told her that I had, with great eagerness and interest. I also told her that I agree with most of what she and Professor Hacker say. What they describe not only matches my experience, it voices what many of the younger generation in the profession actually think but almost never say. It also supplies invaluable data to enable us to generalize our personal experiences with more confidence.
True, Chapter 5 (“Teaching: Good, Great, Abysmal”) identifies the conflict that exists between teaching and research (and we all know that research is winning out, resulting in lots of bad teaching). But it doesn’t change the fact that overall Higher Education? says almost nothing of practical value that will benefit professors who are in the trenches on a daily basis.
The book contains thirteen chapters (271 pages) but only one (a mere seventeen pages) is devoted to teaching. Within that chapter, only eight pages discuss the activity of teaching – the others address the need for good teachers to be active researchers, how the emphasis on publishing subverts teaching, and how some schools have tried to remedy the teaching problem.
Teachers exist “to stir intellects and imagination, to open students to universes they had never known before,” but “far too few students are being encouraged to discover and develop their talents.” Michael Sandel of Harvard, an example of someone who does, observes that teaching “is about commanding attention and holding it.” Great teaching, add Hacker and Dreifus, is “a rare talent, partly cultivated, and to some degree innate.”


Ok, but what about the rest of us who lack rare talent and innate genius? Hacker and Dreifus reassure us that we can be good if not great: “Good teaching calls for skill at explaining.” It means setting “high expectations” and warning students “that serious learning will be difficult.” It also means placing them “at center stage” while persuading them to “use their minds.”
Ok again, but how can we do this? Monitor laptops; stop PowerPointing; prevent plagiarism. That’s the extent of their practical advice.
I can understand why Hacker and Dreifus don’t devote more space to actual teaching: it’s not a sexy subject that sells books or gets you airtime on NPR. Even many professors don’t read books about teaching because they either don’t care about it or think that they already know how to do it and do it well. But at the very least, Higher Education? could have pointed readers to some of the books and journals that can help professors develop new teaching methods and think about teaching at its higher levels. Otherwise it is simply another book that will generate a lot of chatter but bring about little or no change.

J.M. Anderson

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

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