The Myth of the College or University Professor Uninterested in Teaching

by Michael C. Dorf

From time to time I hear from former students. Whether they are reporting on their successes (or much less frequently, their challenges), seeking a reference for a job, or asking for my advice on a case on which they're working, I'm almost always glad to hear from them--although my policy with respect to advice on cases is to help only with matters that they are handling pro bono and then only if they've cleared my involvement with the client and/or the lead attorney. Occasionally, a student will write a simple note of thanks, which is invariably gratifying. Sometimes the note of thanks is a backhanded compliment, as in "I'm surprised that something I learned in your class turns out to be useful in practice."

Very occasionally I receive a note like the one I was incredibly gratified and humbled to receive last week, from a recent graduate just generally thanking me for my guidance. When that sort of thing happens, I usually feel some regret at not having done the same for the teachers and mentors who were instrumental in my own intellectual and professional development. Because they are no longer with us, I think in particular of Dan Meltzer, whose Federal Courts class thirty years ago influences mine just about every day, and Judge Stephen Reinhardt, who taught me that anything worth writing is worth rewriting ten or twenty times. I wish I had been more gushing in my thanks when they were alive.

I was extremely fortunate to have been taught by great scholars who were also great teachers, people like Bernard Bailyn, Larry Tribe, Robert Nozick, Stanley Hoffman, and Judith Shklar. I also took courses from lesser-known scholars and sections with grad students just getting started who were terrific instructors. Whatever skill I have as a writer I owe chiefly to my seventh and eighth grade English teachers (Ms. Green-Lee and Ms. Petersen, whose first names I don't recall and may never have known). I also had some not-great teachers, including some who were renowned scholars.

My own experience as a student turns out to be fairly typical. I had great teachers who were also great scholars. I had not-so-great teachers who were great scholars. I had great teachers who were not-so-great scholars or not scholars at all. And I had not-so-great teachers who were not scholars or not-so-great scholars. There was for me, as in general, no correlation between teaching and scholarly acumen.

And yet, a widely believed view holds that, at least in research universities like the ones I attended and have taught at for my entire career, top scholars are at best indifferent to teaching. I want to push back on that view, at least a little. Before doing so, however, I should acknowledge the more-than-a-kernel of truth that underwrites the view: Research universities appoint, tenure, and otherwise reward people based chiefly on their scholarship, paying substantially less attention to teaching and other duties of the job (such as service via committee work), thereby creating incentives for faculty to prioritize their research over their teaching.

I fully acknowledge both the priority scheme of universities and its incentive effects. Nonetheless, in my long-ago experience as a student and in my many years of experience as a faculty member, I have been consistently impressed by the fact that the vast majority of my colleagues care a great deal about their teaching--even the ones who are not-so-great teachers. Assuming my observation is correct, one might ask what explains the phenomenon.

The short answer is psychological: People--including faculty at research universities--want to be thought to be doing a good job. That's true generally but especially true in teaching, where one gets constant informal feedback in the form of student looks of either boredom or engagement and either bewilderment or enlightenment. End-of-class student evaluations are another arena in which faculty want to be seen by the students in a positive light.

Nonetheless, the notion of faculty who are not interested in teaching persists. When I was a college freshman, I took Physics 12, the intro class for physics majors. It was taught by Sidney Coleman, a well-known theoretical physicist and a bit of a character in the way that Richard Feynman was a character. Coleman was notorious for staying up late into the night working on physics problems, only going to sleep around sunrise. He would routinely show up for class with his hair wet from a quick pre-class shower and complain about the fact that the department had scheduled the course to meet "at the crack of dawn." The class met in the afternoon.  In an interview five years before I took his class, Coleman was asked whether he liked working with graduate students. Here's his reply:
No. I hate it. You do it as part of the job.  . . .  In general, working with a graduate student is like teaching a course. It's tedious, unpleasant work. A pain in the neck. You do it because you're paid to do it. If I weren't paid to do it I certainly would never do it. Teaching is unpleasant work. No question about it. It has its rewards. One feels happy about having a job well done. Washing the dishes, waxing the floors . . . have their rewards. I am pleased when I have done a good job waxing the floor and I've taken an enormous pile of dirty dishes and reduced them to sparkling clean ones. On the other hand, if I didn't have to, I would never engage in waxing the floors, although I'm good at it. I'm also good at teaching; I'm considered very good at teaching, both by myself and others. And I'm also terrifically good at washing dishes, in fact. On the other hand, I certainly would never make a bunch of dirty dishes just for the joy of washing them and I would not teach a course just for the joy of teaching a course.
Coleman was right that he was very good at teaching. More importantly, he clearly cared a great deal about his teaching. His lectures were carefully planned but also spontaneous. He had a gift for simplifying just enough to make an explanation lucid but not so much as to make it inaccurate. He was charismatic. He was witty. Coleman was a great teacher.

Meanwhile, I highly doubt that Coleman was great at doing the dishes or waxing the floor. He was right that even a tedious task can give one satisfaction if done well, but if one teaches effectively--as Coleman did--it's not tedious. Teaching necessarily engages the mind, even if one teaches material for the third, the twelfth, or the thirtieth time, because it is never the same material. That's obviously true in law, because the law changes, but it's true in just about every field. Newtonian mechanics, the history of Rome under Augustus, and Shakespeare's Twelfth Night don't change from year to year, but engaged teachers will do something at least subtly different with them each time they present the material.

In saying he hated teaching, Coleman was playing a part--that of the other-worldly scholar who, if he had his druthers, would devote his every professional second to scholarship--because Coleman had internalized the priority that our institutions place on scholarship. Yet it is only a part, and one we ought not to play in any event. Coleman didn't hate teaching. I doubt that there are many really excellent teachers who do.

Research universities prioritize scholarship over teaching, but they do not denigrate teaching. To do so could be counterproductive in any event. I cannot speak for everyone, but in my experience my scholarship informs my teaching and vice-versa. That's not a necessary condition for good teaching. As I've acknowledged, there is no correlation between scholarly prominence and teaching, and one can be an excellent teacher without being a scholar at all. But teachers who are also scholars will often find that the two enterprises support one another.

I'm sure there are university teachers out there who don't care about or enjoy teaching. They're a small minority. The rest of us should disavow their attitude.