In Defense of Bad Teaching

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In rounding up the usual evil-doer suspects in today’s university, “bad teaching” always makes the short list. After all, who can possibly favor “bad teaching? What’s next–praising bad food or, worse, demanding bad sex?

Unfortunately, this commendable impulse to improve teaching may bring a cure far worse than the disease. This is not defending sloth or professional irresponsibility. Most professors can up their game but to make “improved teaching” an administrative priority in today’s PC-infected university invites dangers not evident to academic outsiders.

Let’s start simple: “good teaching” can be a nightmare to define, given all the complexities of subject matter and personalities. People can honestly disagree and what might be good teaching in one course with certain students may be a disaster elsewhere with different material and different students. Instructional excellence is not like the standard kilogram against which everything can be measured. Over my own career I have been honored for outstanding teaching and I have suffered complaints. I always do better with smart students who appreciate my esoteric asides while the less intellectually talented are dumbfounded.

But, if the assessment of “good teaching” is turned over to administrators, and this is now nearly universal thanks to the accountability mantra, watch out. In today’s lawsuit-happy campus, standards must be bureaucratized and, rest assured, the committee that formulizes this knack will be dominated by the PC crowd. These are faculty who relish boring committees if there is any chance it can be used to achieve social justice.

Good teaching will be measured by questionnaires distributed to students who seldom know what they are supposed to learn, and instructors are defenseless against committee definitions of classroom excellence, no matter how irrelevant. Since the PC agenda dominates contemporary universities, that questionnaire will almost inevitably reflect PC aims regardless of subject matter or classroom format.  Likely questions will be “Did the instructor adequately cover the contribution of racial and ethnic minorities?” or “Did the instructor treat all opinions with equal respect?”  The de facto message here is be “inclusive” even if a waste of time, and don’t ever disrespect racial ethnic or racial sensibilities by arguing with the thin-skinned, no matter how foolish their classroom “contributions.”

In the way of illustration, I once gave a lecture on violence in America that mentioned the Black Panthers as a violent group. A black student strenuously objected, insisting that the Panthers just provided free breakfasts to hungry inner-city kids. In another class I explained how parliamentary systems versus presidential systems are more likely to elect female chief executives, even in nations not known for being pro-women’s rights (India, Pakistan). A small group of female students stood up, loudly denounced me as a “sexist” since I did not stress gender discrimination as the real culprit and stormed out. In both instances I resisted a forceful, factual rejoinder since I didn’t want to make students even more uncomfortable. I’m sure all these students did not forget my “hostility” when the end-of-semester instructor evaluation forms were distributed.

Worse, at least in the social sciences and humanities, offering ideology (especially leftism) disguised as knowledge is almost always a sure ticket to be a certified teaching star. Just slant the syllabus (lots of Noam Chomsky) or, better yet, just announce the orthodoxy on the first day of class and non-believers will flee. For good measure, give “A’s” to those who master the party line and they will surely reciprocate the favor. I observed this pattern years back when certain leftish colleagues would receive outstanding teaching evaluations despite tiny enrollments. Their secret was catering to a small band of adoring fans.

More generally, if classroom popularity is decisive, say goodbye to all hard classes (e.g., statistics), courses in which acquiring knowledge requires strenuous work with an old-fashioned grading curve. For the average professor, especially an untenured one, the surest path to a good teaching reputation is to make student life as painless as possible. Bean-counting administrators also love big enrollments (high productivity). It is probably no accident that the standardized teaching evaluation forms peacefully co-exist with grade inflation and sexy pop culture courses. 

Nevertheless, this situation is not hopeless. A legitimate emphasis on good teaching is possible while avoiding ideological pandering and dumbed-down courses. Two solutions stand out. The first is recruiting better students, since nothing, absolutely nothing, inspires good teaching more than having smart, hard-working students who will notice and appreciate the extra effort. I call this the Chinese restaurant principle. In my travels across Europe I noticed that Chinese restaurants are always a bit better than local cuisine so the best Chinese food was in Paris, the worst in Dublin. Nothing can discourage professors making the extra effort than half-asleep students reading their e-mail.

Far easier (and better) would be to restore the traditional standard for “good teaching”—have fellow professionals—not students or administrators–assess what the instructor tried to impart, not the Gong Show-like popularity of the classroom performance. And then treat a mass exodus, even complaints about the course being too hard, as proof of rigor. Not perfect but better than any alternative. Implementation is simple: just look at the syllabus, assignments and exams. In a nutshell, are students getting a quality product? To be sure, the professor may not shine at imparting this product, but that is far superior to having a classroom maestro fill heads with entertaining nonsense. Good teaching, then, is about trying to convey knowledge, not classroom performance and I suspect with this standard in place, ideology mongering will decline since only the most strident ideologues tolerate education as propaganda.

Those of us who’ve spend years waging the long war on ignorance know this distinction full well. I sometimes call my teaching time “released enough.”


One thought on “In Defense of Bad Teaching”

  1. As you know, Robert, I consider you the most trenchant, brave writer on education, period. You should be a core part of the national conversation on education.
    Marty Nemko, Ph.D.
    Producer, host, Work with Marty Nemko, KALW-FM (NPR-San Francisco)
    Series columnist, Washington Post

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