Caring About Teaching

By Mike Dorf

Each of two sections in this past Sunday's NY Times contained a story about teaching.  Taken together they paint a jarring picture of the difference between, on the one hand, primary and secondary education, and on the other hand, university education.

The piece in the Sunday Review section collected letters from readers about what makes for a great primary or secondary school teacher.  Readers disagreed along several axes.  Should schools hire teachers for the long haul to get stability or do they benefit from the energy, enthusiasm and talent provided by the relatively short-timers of Teach for America?  Can we distill the lessons of studies of teaching into "scripts" that encapsulate "best practices," much in the way that health care reformers aim for evidence-based medicine?  Or is teaching more of an art or craft that requires more subtlety in response to the infinitely varied circumstances students present, so that teachers need a freer hand to be creative?  Do these and other dichotomies themselves present false choices?

The thoughtful letters from teachers, administrators and one current high school student suggest a range of possible answers.  Wherever the particular letter writers come down, it is clear that each of them thinks that there is such a thing as good teaching and that schools should aspire to hire, train and develop people who will become good and eventually great teachers.

Contrast that consensus with the attitude implicitly adopted by university administrators described in a news story about the hiring of various disgraced politicians and other public figures: Can he  teach?  Of course.  He held an important job and therefore has a great deal of knowledge to impart to our students.

In some, perhaps most, instances, the calculation is probably right.  If one wants to learn about counter-insurgency strategy, it really would be hard to find a more knowledgeable person than David Petraeus, and Petraeus holds a Ph D from Princeton, so his conventional university credentials are at least as good as those of his traditional colleagues.  Similarly, I imagine that Eliot Spitzer would be a dynamic classroom teacher.  He's an excellent public speaker and clearly a very smart guy.  Indeed, it's possible that the universities that hired the public figures discussed in the Times story made just these calculations.

But there are two other possibilities.  One is that these are merely publicity stunts.  A disgraced politician or public figure is still a big name, and so one can imagine that the name recognition alone is driving the hiring.  I don't want to discount this possibility entirely but I think it's probably not the whole of it.  Certainly the hiring by the Parsons School of Design of John Galliano--whose disgrace was an anti-Semitic rant--seems impossible to justify on a no-such-thing-as-bad-publicity rationale.

Rather, in the case of Galliano and the others, it seems that the core calculation went something like this: If someone is very knowledgeable about some subject, that qualifies him or her to teach about that subject.  I imagine the hiring decisions in the case of the disgraced public figures going that way because that is how full-time higher-education faculty are generally chosen.

To be sure, in most fields, by the time someone is hired as an assistant professor, he or she will have some teaching experience, most likely as a TA while a doctoral student.  That's increasingly true in law schools too, as we hire more and more dual-degree faculty.  But even in other subjects and certainly in law, prior teaching experience--much less prior successful teaching experience--simply is not a hiring criterion.  At least not officially.

It's tempting to think that colleges and universities gravitate to one poll of the debate over teaching one sees on display in the debate over teaching in primary and secondary school--call it the Dead Poets Society model: The unorthodox but dedicated teacher who refuses to be bound by convention inspires in his students a love of learning.  But that's not what's going on at all.  The people who advocate for primary and secondary teacher freedom to experiment think that it takes time and effort to become a great teacher.  They just think that it takes a different kind of effort from what the "best practices" camp supports.  In higher education, by contrast, the assumption is that if someone knows the field, teaching will more or less take care of itself.

Consider my own case.  I began my full-time law school teaching career in 1992.  As it happens, I had a fair bit of teaching experience already.  As an undergrad, I worked as a "course assistant" in a math class.  Between college and law school I filled in as the instructor in a thermodynamics class when I was (briefly) a physics grad student.  I spent three summers teaching various subjects to high school students.  And I taught legal research and writing to 1Ls as an upper-level law student.  Some of those gigs involved some brief training piece but nothing systematic.  In each position it was more or less assumed that: a) I had been a good student so I knew the subject; b) I had experienced good teaching from the student end so I would use my best teachers as role models; and c) most of what makes for good or bad teaching is a combination of pre-existing talent and hard work, so I either would or would not be a good teacher and there was no point in wasting time trying to make me a better one.  When I interviewed for my first tenure-track law position, nobody asked me anything about any of my prior teaching experience.

If it sounds like I'm dumping on higher education, I am, but only a little.  The truth is that at each of the law schools at which I have taught--Rutgers-Camden, Columbia and Cornell--nearly all of my colleagues have valued teaching a great deal, both by working very hard at it themselves and in wanting to hire and retain faculty who will not only be excellent scholars but also excellent teachers.  I have seen teaching make a difference--in both directions--at the hiring and the tenure stages of careers.  So the problem is not that university faculty don't care about teaching; it's just that we too often assume that knowledge of a field makes for good teaching.  Yet being knowledgeable is at best a necessary condition for successful teaching, not a sufficient one.

Here too my experience, now as a student, is illuminating.  As an undergraduate I took a lot of courses in which doctoral students taught weekly sections or labs.  Mostly, I learned from dedicated TAs who did a very good job.  But teaching was often required of grad students in exchange for tuition waivers and some of the students in most need of money came from overseas.  One such grad student was my lab TA in an electronics course I took.  I'll call him B.

B was an electronics wiz but he spoke almost no English.  During each lab session, we were supposed to make a different simple device: a digital clock; a four-function calculator; etc.  Invariably, there would come a point in the lab where the student thought he or she (okay, nearly all he) had correctly assembled a circuit, only to find that it wouldn't work properly.  You would then take your circuit to B and ask for a correction or hint.  B would stare at the circuit for a few seconds, then move his hands furiously, disconnecting and reconnecting wires, capacitors, resistors, etc., and suddenly presto: It worked!  He would then smile and say "amperes."  The student would walk away in a daze.

B's case is extreme, but it illustrates the obvious point that teaching requires more than knowledge of the subject matter.  It requires communications skills and other skills.

I admit that much of my hand-wringing may seem beside the point.  A very high and increasing proportion of college and university student-hours are taught by adjunct faculty who are in fact hired (and underpaid) chiefly as teachers, not as scholars.  So if current trends continue, the worry that scholars are not trained to teach may come to be irrelevant to most of higher education.  Arguably it already is.

However, that fact seems to me to make it all the more urgent that those of us who think that an open society needs universities justify and reform teaching by scholar-teachers.  For what it's worth, I think there is more than a kernel of truth in the traditional view held within research universities.  It's not that being very knowledgeable about a subject guarantees that one will be a great or even a competent teacher.  However, one cannot be a truly great teacher without really knowing a subject deeply.  One doesn't need to be a scholar to gain a deep knowledge of a subject.  That's why there's something sensible about colleges and universities hiring people with deep knowledge gained by experience, even if they have been disgraced for other reasons.

It may be that over the long run universities are doomed.  Much of the value they produce takes the form of public goods, in which societies tend to under-invest.  But even on the "private" end--providing educations to individuals--we need to pay attention to and learn from debates about what works in education, where our peers in primary and secondary education are way ahead of us.  We also need to do a much better job of articulating why learning from a truly expert skilled teacher actually provides a better education than learning from a merely somewhat knowledgeable skilled teacher.  (I haven't articulated the argument here.  Perhaps I'll return to the topic in a future post.)