Why Teaching Still Gets No Respect in Doctoral Training
Graduate school has long proved a flashpoint for the resistance to scrutiny of faculty teaching. Is that finally changing?
Academics are in love with our own past. Our libraries contain yards of books on higher-education history, recounting the stories of institutions and fields. Next to those books are biographies and autobiographies of prominent presidents such as Charles Eliot and Hannah Gray, and famous professors like Richard Feynman and Edward Said. Yet the first full history of college teaching in the United States has only lately appeared. Why did it take so long to chronicle the one activity that professors have engaged in from the very beginning? The book’s title offers a clue:
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Academics are in love with our own past. Our libraries contain yards of books on higher-education history, recounting the stories of institutions and fields. Next to those books are biographies and autobiographies of prominent presidents such as Charles Eliot and Hannah Gray, and famous professors like Richard Feynman and Edward Said. Yet the first full history of college teaching in the United States has only lately appeared. Why did it take so long to chronicle the one activity that professors have engaged in from the very beginning? The book’s title offers a clue: The Amateur Hour: A History of College Teaching in America.
Jonathan Zimmerman, a professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania, argues in Amateur Hour that teaching has been ignored until relatively recently because it “has never been professionalized.” Historians aren’t the only ones who have ignored it. “College teaching,” he writes, “is a highly public act that has remained mostly private.”
It’s a remarkable paradox: Faculty members are rarely more visible than when we teach, yet the history of college teaching describes a continuing attempt to resist any sort of collective understanding of how best to do it. Even as American higher education grew and bureaucratized over the centuries, Zimmerman writes, “teaching mostly remained outside” systemic scrutiny.
Doctoral training has long proved a flashpoint for this tension. Graduate curricula reflect institutional priorities, and teaching has never ranked high on the list. What we do on the job as faculty members is, not surprisingly, also what we teach our apprentices to do. The concerted neglect of teaching began, writes Zimmerman, “in graduate schools, which evaluated students based on their research potential,” and not their teaching potential.
That’s because, for a long time, professors tended to see good teaching as a matter of “personality” or “charisma,” not specific skills. Operating on the durable but dubious assumption that good teachers are born and not made, most graduate programs haven’t paid much attention to training graduate students to teach. The 1947 Truman Commission report — a landmark document in the assessment of American higher education — pointed out that “college teaching is the only major learned profession” without “a well-defined program of preparation” for those who would enter it.
Among themselves, Zimmerman notes, faculty members have for generations exerted “a perverse kind of peer pressure” on one another that damned the “mere teacher.” These beliefs start in the research university and trickle down to graduate students. As the American higher-education system grew, Zimmerman writes, “research received more attention and teaching got less.” That has proved true even at many liberal-arts colleges — an outcome that isn’t hard to predict given that research universities train all the professors for every type of academic institution.
Meanwhile, college students and teachers have long blamed one another for problems in the classroom. Zimmerman has scoured archives and returned with a mighty haul of colorful quotations. Rescued from obscurity is the 1920 Stanford student who complained in verse of soporific professors: “[W]hen it comes to lecturing / Then chloroform’s the proper thing.” Nor did Cecil Eby, a professor of English at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, imagine that his comment in a 1991 letter would gain a 2022 audience: “No responsible administrator this side of the Kremlin would formulate a policy based on” student evaluations.
Such comments dramatize an impasse: Professors accuse their students of not taking their coursework seriously, while students counter that their teachers (including graduate teaching assistants) are so boring that it’s hardly worth the effort to pay attention to them. Zimmerman assembles these claims into a longstanding call-and-response that goes back literally hundreds of years.
There have always been exceptions, to be sure, and legendary teachers are part of the historical lore. Reformers have likewise exerted themselves periodically over the years to improve the quality of college instruction. But efforts to “personalize” the system through tutorials and discussion groups never gained widespread traction. (Zimmerman offers some lively anecdotes to illustrate a brief effort in the late 1950s to exploit the new technology of television for instructional ends.)
The story of American higher education is one of growth, and large classes remain cheaper than small ones.
Yes, things are better now than they were 100 years ago. They’re even better than they were 30 years ago, which is when Zimmerman’s book leaves off. Anna Neumann, a professor of higher education at Columbia University, cites a growing attention to student learning in academe in this generation’s Ph.D.s. “Explaining with others’ understanding in mind, listening for how they take in the new ideas, then responding creatively and helpfully, can,” she said in an email, “lead students — and teachers, too — to new insights.”
On an adjacent front, Sonali Majumdar, associate director of graduate professional development at the University of Virginia, pointed in an email to the growing role of “community-engaged scholarship and teaching.” Such public-facing work extends the college classroom for both undergraduate and graduate students into the community, as when doctoral students study public humanities in context with their work at a nonprofit agency.
These are positive developments that show college teachers reaching out of the bubble that Zimmerman describes. But that bubble remains intact. It begins in graduate school and encircles far too many academics still. Teacher training in graduate programs remains unsystematic and largely insufficient. At many public universities, TAs receive a scant few days of training before being tossed into the undergraduate classroom arena. And the growing number of teaching awards handed out each year don’t dent a reward system that continues to privilege research output above all.
Why should we expect anything to change now? Maybe we can’t. Maybe this essay is just the latest iteration of an embarrassing historical refrain. But necessary change is sometimes sparked by crisis and financial exigency. And there’s no shortage of either in the academic workplace these days.
Noah Finkelstein, for one, is optimistic. A professor of physics at the University of Colorado at Boulder, he’s one of the leaders of a collective effort to professionalize teaching in STEM disciplines today. “I think we’re in the midst of a profound change nationally,” Finkelstein told me in an interview. “How big and widespread remains to be seen.”
The root of the problem with college teaching, Finkelstein says, is that “there’s no authentic or effective assessment.” This diagnosis dovetails with Zimmerman’s point that college teaching has never professionalized itself. Academe centers on the creation of expertise through study and evaluation, but only in much-maligned education schools has college teaching ever received such attention.
Most faculty members, therefore, teach much the same way they always did, because they aren’t presented with a demonstrably better approach. The lecture system may make “better stenographers” than scientists, as Finkelstein says. But without a body of knowledge that defines “good teaching,” teachers fall back on their old methods anyway.
One encouraging difference is that higher education has recently been learning what to look for when we look at teaching. And knowing what you’re looking for is the first necessity of good evaluation.
Right now STEM fields are leading the way. Last year the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine co-sponsored a “National Dialogue” on “evidenced-based, inclusive” undergraduate teaching. Meanwhile, after generations of promoting the research mission, the Association of American Universities last year funded a project aimed at the “development, implementation, assessment, and dissemination of more effective methods for evaluating undergraduate STEM teaching.”
But we have miles to go, as the poet says. These teaching initiatives are just underway. Moreover, graduate education lies largely outside their purview. How to teach — and train — graduate students “is a new topic,” says Finkelstein. “The goals of graduate education are much less obvious these days, and that’s spurring us,” he said. “We need to reflect on what graduate education is for.”
That means looking “at the data to see where they go,” Finkelstein said. It means paying “the same attention to graduate teaching as we should to undergraduate teaching.”
One way to examine how we teach graduate students to teach is through peer review. In academic culture, peer review is how we sort out what works from what doesn’t. We do it for research — how about for teaching?
Finkelstein and Zimmerman both endorse peer review of teaching. “How to teach Dante well is as subtle a question as the one raised by the latest theoretical analysis of Dante,” Zimmerman told me. We should bring “the same intellectual rigor and accountability” to the evaluation of teaching as we do for research.
What would peer review of teaching look like?
Innovators like Daniel J. Bernstein, now an emeritus professor of psychology at the University of Kansas, have offered some early examples and basic principles. Bernstein has advocated for the creation of teaching portfolios. They might include, for example, a professor’s teaching statements, syllabi and descriptions, reports of peer classroom observations, together with student evaluations. But there remains much room for invention in the peer review of teaching, said Zimmerman, “because there’s been so little of it.”
Zimmerman suggests four guidelines for those considering peer review of teaching:
- First, learn from Bernstein and others who have already experimented with peer review of teaching.
- Second, look to the excruciating example of institutional accreditation for what not to do, because “you can’t let this descend into a box-checking exercise,” he says.
- Third, “understand that all peer-review systems will be imperfect. The goal is to improve teaching, not create a utopia.”
- Finally, Zimmerman advises: “Keep your eye on the ball. The goal is to raise not just the status but also the intellectual dialogue around instruction.”
That fourth suggestion offers an enticing vision of a community of teachers who talk together about what they do. “If it’s done well,” Zimmerman says, “peer review can enhance community” because “people who are interested in what you’re doing are going to have a look.” I can vouch for that from personal experience: I was a member of a community of writing teachers when I was a graduate student, and the careful scrutiny that my teaching received deepened my connection to the group. It also taught me plenty about how to teach.
Across academe, far too many departments and programs lack a supportive community around teaching. This is a problem of workplace culture and values. You can’t have evaluation without values — the one is embedded in the other, and it tells you what you’re looking for.
But the reverse is also true: There can be no values without evaluation. Because if you don’t evaluate, you don’t care about what’s going on. When it comes to teaching, our workplace has lacked both for too long.