Written with Michael Brown
Mary: Five years ago, I chose administration over teaching. At that time, I had been teaching four sections of a course per semester and my chair encouraged me to find ways to make my teaching routine, to mechanize it, to streamline it to create time for my research. This talk of assembly-line production hit far too close to home. My father had worked on the line in a GM factory and I had vowed to do my life differently. I found that I could not teach my courses the way I wanted to teach them in the time I had available. I have never been the “sage on the stage” type of teacher and I always thought of myself as learning through my teaching. For me, this was best done through a Socratic facilitation of discussion which involved a substantial degree of back and forth and a commitment on my part to connect with each of my students.
We’ve been inspired by responses to our series of posts on grading and this is the first in our next series, focused on teaching as learning.
Mike: If the problem with moving beyond the sort of teaching designed to give students the wherewithal to pass tests and achieve gpa’s that can allow others to rank them is that it would take too much time, would require smaller classes, etc., then we are lost before we begin.
Faculties are not in a position to influence decisions about average class size and do not have time to do everything else that they have to do and to teach in the way you describe your own teaching. If I am right -- if we are limited in what we can do to reform the institutional limitations on education -- then the question is: How can we teach under those conditions in a way that is neither mechanistic nor tied to imposed standards that have little to do with education.
Mary: Mike, I was unable to do find a way to do just that. To give my chair credit, he was trying to help me find a way to meet the obligation of my teaching load, find time for my research, and still have time for my six-month old baby. He didn’t have a solution, and every idea we came up with required that I compromise my values around teaching. I was unwilling to do so. I know from my experience in administration that professors face a continuing struggle trying to maintain the type of teaching they value in the midst of an increasing workload.
Mike: I feel that we should teach in a way that allows students not only to benefit from the “Socratic” method but to adopt it as a way of relating to others in their daily lives beyond the classroom. Is it necessary to be dissatisfied with anything but a one-to-one relationship with a student, or a one-to-few relationship? Or is it possible to adopt the Socratic form of dialogue in a class of 50 or more, even though very few students will actually be able to speak in the context of what you call a “back and forth” exchange? What ideas about teaching and learning would we have to consider if the answer to that question is “yes?”
For example: is “back and forth” a sufficient description of what such teaching needs to be? And what do we really want students to take away from their courses? One thing we need to think about is what you said about “learning through my teaching.”
Mary: I’m interested to see how readers might start to answer some of the questions you’ve posed. I hope that we will be able to talk through some of the ways in which teachers can retain their sense of exploration through teaching while being asked to teach more students, more sections, and with less time.