Teaching the 101

September 08, 2004

Call it the uncodified status hierarchy of the academy: The less interaction you have with undergraduates, the higher your prestige as a professor.

That attitude is common at research universities that describe themselves as "elite" or "flagship." A colleague at an Ivy League university told me that the year before his retirement the undergraduate classes voted him "teacher of the year." His comment: "Lucky for me, I was on my way out: It would have hurt my career if I won that kind of award as an assistant professor."

Another senior professor at a top research university put it more bluntly to me: "I do anything to avoid sophomores: Real professors don't teach undergraduates."

Of course, nobody can come right out and say that publicly. All universities need to assure parents, alumni, and legislators that "teaching is our highest priority," even when, structurally, teaching undergraduates is little regarded and undervalued.

Unfortunately junior professors are quickly caught up in this culture of prole avoidance. Many assume that their career arc is to teach more and more graduate seminars and eventually to never meet an undergraduate save the ones that serve lunch at the Faculty Club.

I disagree, and luckily, I teach at a university that still believes undergraduate teaching is essential -- and not a sideshow -- to the mission of higher education.

The central symbol of this controversy for me is "101." When I tell research-oriented colleagues on other campuses that I enjoy teaching the "intro" survey course, I get one of two reactions -- and I'm not sure which is more disapproving.

On the one hand, some fellow teachers shoot me a sly wink and say something like, "Oh, yes, that's the fun course." The not so subtle imputation: You teach it because it's easy and nontaxing.

The other response I get is a raised eyebrow and a chortle accompanied by a line like, "Really? Are you still doing that?" Implication: Intro classes are for adjuncts and teaching assistants; when you get tenure, when you become a "real" scholar, you put away childish curricula.

Why is an introductory course beneath the dignity of the tenured set? Is there something wrong with me for wanting to teach it? What defense can I offer besides personal whimsy?

After talking with colleagues, administrators, and students, I've come to the conclusion that the intro course is held in low regard and that teaching one is judged as low prestige for several structural and psychological reasons -- all of which make sense for the individual professor sniffing up his nose at the task of teaching a 101 course.

But at the same time, education needs us on the front lines of undergraduate teaching, not just in the grottoes of high-level seminars and colloquia. Having tenured, research-oriented professors teach introductory courses is good for the students, good for our institutions, good for education in general, and also, I think, good for us. Let me make the case.

The administrative argument for why tenured professors at research universities should teach the intro course is unambiguous: Young minds should be ushered through the basic concepts, terms, boundaries, debates, and history of a field by qualified experts.

While it is absolutely true that doctoral students may know those subjects, they do not have the depth of experience and authority that comes with years of long interaction with the topics. An analogy here may help: If your children were visiting a foreign country, whom would you rather have as their tour guide: a newcomer or a long-time native?

Administrators also offer an important public-relations argument for our teaching the introductory course. Going back as far as Socrates' time, scholars have never felt fully appreciated by the society in which they live.

Perhaps there was no golden age, for even in the 1950s when Paul F. Lazarsfeld, Wagner Thielens, Jr., and David Riesman constructed a profile of "the academic mind" (based on 2,400 interviews on 165 college campuses), they found that "the academic men and women covered by our study felt that they were not especially appreciated by the outside world."

Being unesteemed may have something to do with self-imposed isolation from the taxpayers and legislators and businesspeople who pay most of our salaries. Yes, society should support a life of the mind, but unless we are willing to spend at least part of our time engaging the youngest sons and daughters of the republic, then we will never completely have their confidence that we're not just having a solipsistic good time at their expense.

It's simply a smart move for the future of the business to publicize our relevance.

But if we make only an administrative case here, then obviously most of us will consider the teaching of 101 courses to be little more than a grudging good-citizenship duty, and will continue our uncamouflaged avoidance strategies. So it's worth arguing that this is good for us as scholars, too.

Preparing to teach an entry-level course can help us clarify our thoughts about our field. We encounter new audiences who have little inkling, and may even harbor misconceptions, about topics to which we have devoted our lives. It's quite easy for research specialists to become hypnotized by our own agendas, and to find our prejudices and prescriptions reified and fetishized by a narrow cohort of fellow specialists.

Perhaps it's beneficial to encounter young people who, as in the story of the emperor's new clothes, may ask us questions -- in class or during office hours -- that set us to thinking about our basic assumptions. What does it mean, for example, when my students reach conclusions completely different from mine about a text, and miss the ones that I see as self-evident? Don't we all need to have a young, bright mind say "I don't get it" to our faces regularly?

Also, rather than an exercise in dumbing down or oversimplifying, teaching the intro class forces me to explain and justify what I do more clearly. I have often wondered, sitting in academic conference sessions, whether our jargon helps us to understand one another, or instead limits us to safe conceptual categories.

A colleague admitted to me that once, while he was teaching an entry-level class, he was trying to explain a complicated concept and could see from the glazed expressions of the freshmen and sophomores that, for all intents and purposes, he might have been speaking Hittite. "My inclination was to blame them for not understanding me, but the more I thought about it, I didn't understand me," he confessed.

Teaching an intro course also allows us to step back and get a forest-eye view of our field's past, present, and future, however specialized. Every time I teach an entry-level course, I have to renew my acquaintance with certain areas of the discipline in which I officially have a doctorate. Then I have to put all of that knowledge in some sort of order, into digestible categories, and map out the evolutions, revolutions, major players, controversies, and patterns of research and theory.

Another colleague argues that "teaching the basic course is harder for me than teaching a seminar in my own area -- there's more to learn and relearn. It's not a no-brainer by any means."

For me, introducing others to my field reintroduces me to myself and what affects my own studies.

Finally, teaching the young rejuvenates us. I know very well -- because I sat in their classes when I was an undergraduate -- that there are stale old folks out there who have become bored with their 101 material, haven't updated their transparencies since the Nixon administration, and are obviously simply whittling the hours until emeritus.

But for many others in the middle and the twilight of our careers, having to challenge young minds should and can be an exciting journey. Spending a semester with 200 18-year-olds can operate as an anti-aging tonic.

I'd be misrepresenting the enterprise if I didn't note that in one sense the naysayers are right: For me teaching 101 is fun. I enjoy having to figure out how to captivate (or at least keep awake) the overstimulated and distracted modern student. I want very much to "sell" the fascinations and joys of my field to them. That's the real thing; that's what real professors should do.

David D. Perlmutter is an associate professor of mass communication at Louisiana State University and a senior fellow at the Reilly Center for Media & Public Affairs.