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06/06/2019

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James Lee

I take this to be the author's central claim:

"What I am claiming is that doing an ok job teaching is not difficult, and that there's not much value in doing better than an ok job."

I had difficulty locating the part of the essay where the author makes at least some minimal attempt at clarifying what an "ok job" amounts to. By saying that doing an ok job is not difficult, the suggestion seems to be that there is a fairly minimal standard for something to count as "ok teaching." Perhaps it involves something like not saying false things during lectures, not creating a hostile environment for students, fair grading, and submitting final grades before the end of term deadline. If something like this is true, then why think that this is an acceptable standard for teaching?

Also, the author does not give a defense of the second claim, i.e. that there is not much value in doing a better than ok job at teaching.

Amanda

I will say more about this later, but here are some notes:

1. Yes, for the most part, most teachers do an okay job and it is a rare individual and a rare class that makes some type of major, lasting, difference in a students life. It is rare but it does happen. However, let us keep in mind that the same thing is true of research: most research doesn't get read, and if it does get read, it makes very little impact on other persons life or other persons research. So you could make the same argument about putting a lot of time into research.

2. "You are legally, and I would say morally, obligated to do what your professional contract requires. How much effort this demands of your teaching varies a lot, but there are certainly people out there not putting enough time into teaching, given what their contract requires.

3. The authors seems to suggest that those who put a lot of effort into teaching are doing something as pointless as driving well. That might sometimes be true, but I do think those who put a lot of effort into teaching often do more. This might not be in the classroom itself, and might not show up in stupid tests that measure what a student "knows" years down the road. It might be, for instance, in coaching a debate club that keeps a kid interested and motivated enough to stay in school rather than get bogged down in serious life struggles with substance abuse or mental health, it might be in teaching a student how to reason in a way that improves their LSAT score just enough that they get into a grad school that offers them a full ride, it might be testing ethical norms that encourages a student to support their sibling when the rest of the family has abandoned that sibling. I think many of us are philosophy professors today because of 1 or 2 especially talented and caring teachers. Some might say that is a shame, but I would argue otherwise. The point is teachers can have an impact, it is just not easy to tell how because the ways they can have this impact have a wide range.

Tests that are supposed to measure the value of teaching aren't often measuring the right things. Like research, most teaching isn't all that special or all that impactful. But on the whole it is, I think, at least in some important ways. This is difficult to measure. I believe both teaching and research are valuable, and that persons should make their own choices about what to put extra efforts into. I agree with Marcus that no one is obligated to go above and beyond - but that just is analytic. Lots of people tell me I work too much .- typically in regard to research but also in regard to teaching. But what does that mean? I know I am not obligated to do so, but I choose to for a variety of reasons.

Anon

"I'm also claiming to be skeptical of folks who are in fancy positions but don't do any research because they're `focused mostly on teaching'. Of course it's possible that this is genuine. But in general it seems like people who do care about teaching enough for it to take up all their time would probably want to pursue something a bit more challenging."

This line of thought seemed odd to me. The kind of teaching I do with underprepared or under motivated students is quite different in kind from the teaching I do with well prepared and highly motivated students, and both kinds of teaching can take a little time or a lot of time.

Frank

I really appreciate the willingness to defend a likely unpopular opinion, though I admit I hope it isn't correct. I think I must be misunderstanding the arguments regarding (A) and (B), as they seem a little strange the way I am reading them now. Regarding (A), it looks like Anonymous is suggesting that inspiration "amounts to" identification. Identification, though, is at most (and I doubt this much) necessary but not sufficient for inspiration. The evidence then presented looks like speculation about what we would find were we to look into a particular tag on ratemyprofessor. Whatever inspiration turns out to be, I don't think (putting it mildly) this would be a good measure of it.
Then regarding (B), I'm not sure why Anonymous runs this argument together with the argument against (C). The need to provide an education is so different and so much more pressing than the need to keep up enrollments. But setting that aside, my concerns are (i) why is the bar on our obligation initially set at providing a "decent" rather than a "good," "meaningful," or "excellent" education? Is this just how the "outraged responses" usually come in? If so, I think there are better responses to consider. But more importantly, (ii) of course it isn't in general true that there is little value in doing more than we are strictly obligated to do, otherwise there'd be no value in producing great art, being an excellent friend or anything supererogatory. So (I think to echo James Lee above) what I'd really love to see is an argument that teaching is in this respect more like driving and less like painting, friendship and doing good. Otherwise, it sort of looks like the conclusion is being assumed. Maybe I'm missing the significance of the claim that most students aren't "looking to learn." But we don't in general only have obligations to provide people with what they think or know will benefit them at a given time. And even if we did, that wouldn't show that there isn't value in going beyond those obligations.

Porphyry

Why doesn't the driving analogy equally apply to other professional expectations? Consider a similar post about research:

I think that basically the same things are true of research. That is, I think it's important to research well enough. I think one can spend a lot of time and effort learning to be a better researcher, but that this is relatively unimportant, and doesn't really have much value. On the other hand, I recognize that some people really enjoy research, and get a great deal of personal enjoyment out of it. For these folks, it might make sense to spend a lot of time thinking about research and getting better at it. But it's not something one is generally obligated to do. Finally, I think that if you're the kind of person who really does enjoy research, you're more likely to enjoy jobs that ask you to do unusual, difficult, or large quantities of research. So if you claim to be a research-oriented person and you're, say, researching at a supportive R1 school that provides so much research support and free time that a well-trained monkey could probably meet the bare minimum required to get tenure, then I'm going to be a bit skeptical of your claim. After all, if you were really all that excited about research, wouldn't you want to do it somewhere where there was a bit of a challenge?

Maybe the author would accept that his or her argument applies equally to research. But if so the view being offered just seems a cynical take that does not value academic goods. Alternatively, perhaps the author intended to say something that applied only to teaching and not research. But if so it is not clear that their original post offers any reason to devalue teaching in particular.

My own inclination is to highly value both teaching and research, and I don't find that the post offers grounds to take a different view.

Anon

I largely agree with the author. There are minor points I could quibble with, but the author's general point is right. I just want to add three quick things.

1. Early in my career, I tried desperately hard to be an "excellent" teacher. I set my research aside to focus on teaching. I won awards for my teaching. After that, I continued to try to improve my teaching. I then started having anxiety attacks because I didn't feel like I was ever good enough. I deliberately dialed back on my teaching following a terrible two years of anxiety. The funny thing was, I didn't notice any difference in my student or peer evaluations. I think the "cult of excellence in teaching" can be unhealthy, or at least, it was for me.

2. The low bar of being a good and competent teacher is not hard. I think it means to be knowledgeable, fair, and to set appropriately rigorous challenges for our students. THAT is what the students are paying for. The cult of excellence wants more than that. They want some kind of life-changing magical experience. I think the author's point that it is entirely possible to be a good, competent teacher and leave it at that is entirely reasonable. If you want to be a "magical" teacher, you go right ahead.

3. I think it is fascinating that the author posted this anonymously. Following suit, I will also remain anonymous here. I'm sure there are many reasons to remain anonymous regarding this discussion -- for instance, to protect oneself professionally from administrators who want us all to join the cult of excellence. But I also think that there has become a particular need to be anonymous in discussions among professional philosophers: because our profession has come to a point where we cannot talk to each other.

Amanda

I have my suspicions about who wrote this. And I suspect they are someone who thinks research is valuable or at least spending time on research is valuable, and that the only "honorable" reason to be a professor is to do research, because research is hard and meaningful and teaching is easy and pointless. Anyway, whether I am right or not, the author's statement about people at research schools caring about teaching kind of gives away the author's position.

I don't get it though. Sure, a case could be made that a lot of teaching is not particularly valuable. But I don't know what kind of mental gymnastics one has to go through not to see that the exact same thing is true of research - as has been pointed out before.

Postdoc

Teaching something you know a lot about isn't hard. What's hard is motivating students who don't care and/or aren't very bright. Arguably that shouldn't be considered teaching anyway but marketing or sales more generally. A professor's job SHOULDN'T be to sell their discipline. Something else that's hard is ranking students for employers--it's hard to rank fairly and justly hundreds of students. However, arguably, this also shouldn't be the job of a professor. Our job as academics is to research and teach, not to advertise and rank. These are NEW responsibilities created by the crony capitalist state where universities have become businesses that fulfill the job of ranking or sorting people according to their skills for employers. Under a traditional view of education, these responsibilities do not exist (or are much attenuated). So, teaching isn't very hard. It's not hard to teach about stuff you know a lot about, and academics usually know a lot about their subject. In sum, teaching is only hard, because the job has been tripled: we have to teach, sell, and rank. If the latter two responsibilities were deleted, then it would be much easier to teach. Or in other words, teaching is mostly not that hard, but teaching* (modern teaching) is hard, but modern teaching isn't really teaching: it's teaching, selling, and ranking.

OP

Hello all, and thanks for the responses! I'm the one who sent this post to Marcus in the first place. A few (re)responses:

Re: James Lee
You're right, I made no effort to define `ok teaching'. That seemed beyond the scope of the piece. I don't think a simple definition is likely to be forthcoming. OTOH, I do think that anyone in a position where they are likely to do enough teaching to care about the content of my essay is likely able to identify `good enough' teaching, even if they can't define it. As far as defending the claim that doing more than ok is not very valuable, I also didn't try. As much as anything, I want to simply express the opinion that striving for excellence in teaching is not obligatory, because I think for many members of our profession, it's taken as self-evidently true that it is, and because I think this is a harmful view to have.

Re: research in general:
I agree. We are not obligated to do more than ok research. I didn't bother to say anything about this because I've not worked at the sorts of places where *that* attitude was questioned. Perhaps if I'd had different life experiences, I'd have found it valuable to write an essay saying analogous things about research. As it is, I have seen many more people suffer from the pervasive belief that we should teach excellently than I've seen suffer from the belief that we should research excellently.

Re: Amanda:
I highly doubt you know me. But I don't have any of the bizarre beliefs you attribute to me either. In fact, so far as I can tell, I lack opinions about what reasons for being a professor are `honorable' at all.

Finally, re: inspiring and whatnot:
There is an implicit claim being made in many of y'all's defenses of teaching excellently. It's something like `some of the time, when I teach really well, it increases the impact of my teaching in important (though perhaps hard-to-measure) ways'. I'm dubious about the truth of this claim. But my reasons for doubting it are fairly weak. They are (a) my own experiences having (apparently) been inspiring sans effort; (b) my suspicion that `inspirational' like `brilliant' is a description that is likely heavily laden with sexist, racist, and ableist burdens and is thus likely not even something we *should* be pursuing; and (c) my own experiences as a lazy undergrad who identified more with (and was more inspired by) the instructors who were obviously putting in minimal effort than the instructors who put in lots of work.

James Lee

To the OP:

Thank you for your reply. Your argument seems to rest on the following two assumptions.

1. Excellent teaching implies that some kind of road to Damascus experience occurs with students.

2. Competent teaching is easy.

These assumptions suggest that there is a wide gap between the two types of teaching, and this in turn, I take it, is supposed to support the view that excellent teaching is completely supererogatory.

Both assumptions are false. I suspect that individuals take competent teaching to be easy because they believe that expertise is sufficient for competent teaching. This is false. Whether or not teaching is competent is not determined by expertise, but rather by student learning outcomes. Do students who put in a good faith effort meet all of the course objectives? If not, then the teacher is not competent.

Excellent teaching does not require that students experience some kind of magical transformation. Instead excellent teaching requires that students experience deep learning. Deep learning can be understood as progression through Bloom’s Taxonomy.

Competent teaching is not trivially easy. It is not simply a matter of giving lectures and administering exams. Competent teaching results in effective student learning, and this in turn typically requires careful course design, proper assessment tools, and active classroom learning strategies. I’ve had the opportunity to tutor students taking philosophy courses at various schools. What I’ve found in nearly every case was that despite their best efforts, these students of “competent” teachers were unable to effectively perform tasks as fundamental as argument reconstruction and argument evaluation. If motivated students finish a philosophy course without actually being able to do what philosophers do, then I think the assessment of the teacher’s competence is straightforward.

Amanda

OP: you seem to have had a very different professional experience than me. I don't meet many people who think we are obligated to be "excellent" teachers. My experience in grad school and my current R1 job is the opposite: most people seem to think we have not only no obligation to go above and beyond in teaching, but we have an obligation not to, because that would interfere with meeting the minimal research standard.

It seems obvious to me we are only obligated to teach to a standard that is "good enough," for that is the very definition of "good enough," and excellent is what goes beyond this. I guess I completely agree with you - and most others I meet would agree with you as well.

Now even though we are not obligated to be excellent at anything, there are plenty of reasons to do so anyway. But since you aren't opposing this, that is not really the subject of discussion and there isn't much more to say.

As for your stuff about inspiration: yeah, I just think it's false that lazy teachers make the same impact as those who work hard at it. But if we are just going to reference our personal experience not much to go on there.

OP

“Do students who put in a good faith effort meet all of the course objectives? If not, then the teacher is not competent.”

Or the student was underprepared. Or the particular material being covered is just not something the student has a hard time learning (hasn’t that ever been you in the classroom? It’s certainly been me).

No, this won’t do. We have to add something about typicality. But that’s gonna run into all the usual problems with adding that kind of thing. And this totally ignores the problems of defining “good faith effort” in a way that allows that some students have children, some are caring for ailing parents, some have none of these commitments, some are taking particularly hard course loads, some aren’t, some will have a bout of depression, etc.

This is why I didn’t give a definition. It’s really really hard. Yours won’t work. It’s not even close. But let’s put that aside. Let's pretend you're right and good teaching is in fact determined by student learning outcomes. You claim that this "requires careful course design, proper assessment tools, and active classroom learning strategies".

[An aside: *this* is precisely the `cult of excellence' attitude that I have seen be damaging to many in the profession, and which I aimed the post at.]

Do you have evidence for this rather bold claim, or am I supposed to just take it on faith? It seems to me you're making an empirical claim. My experience doesn't suggest it's likely to be true. Maybe yours does. At any rate, I'm not going to accept the claim that I need to put in all this work in order to have taught competently on the basis of your mere assertion of it.

A final note: you say that everywhere you've taught `students of “competent” teachers were unable to effectively perform tasks as fundamental as argument reconstruction and argument evaluation'. Here's something my mother used to say: if everywhere you go stinks, maybe check your own armpits. What it means in this case: if literally everywhere you go, it looks like nobody's doing the teaching thing well, then maybe the problem isn't everybody else. Maybe you've just fundamentally misunderstood what good teaching amounts to.

(Oh, and since it seems you're quite impressed with your breadth of teaching experience I suppose it's worth mentioning that, as hard as you may find it to believe, I've taught more courses and at more schools than you have. And yes, I've taught at the same diverse different sorts of schools too.)

Marcus Arvan

OP: I am actually very sympathetic with your skeptical points about course objectives and assessment. I think this entire approach to thinking about education—that it is a matter of defining, assessing, and evaluating learning outcomes—has more or less ruined education, both at the primary school and higher levels.

Students in the United States have never scored terribly high on standardized tests, and most attempts to assess college students indicate that they “learn next to nothing.” They don’t really retain material, learn to write substantially better, and so on. And yet, despite all of this, the US—for all of its flaws—has been an absolute, economic, social, political, and cultural powerhouse. We innovate, question the status quo, and so on. Why? Because, at least traditionally, we have produced *free thinkers*. This is what education is about—or at least should be. Most of my students may leave my ethics class forgetting most of what I taught them about Plato, Aristotle, Kant, and feminist ethics several years down the line. But what my course *did* get them to do is to question their own beliefs about ethics. Most of my students come into me ethics courses believing one of two things: either that (1) morality is just a matter of opinion, or (2) it’s a matter of what God says. My course requires them to question these presumptions. *That* is what education is about: creating people who question the world around them. And we do that. But it’s not the sort of thing that “teaching and assessment” centers or accrediting bodies are concerned with. They are concerned with things we can more readily measure: like math scores, writing ability, and so on. This absolutely *ruins* education because it focuses our attention on the wrong things—telling our students, parents, and fellow citizens that education is about “assessable skills” when those have *never* been the things that have made dynamic, innovative societies what they are. The bureaucratic move to greater assessment treats people—students and teachers—like machines whose “performance” matters more than anything else: more that the things that are impossible to measure, such as free thinking and the character to persist through failure (which I think is absolutely my job to cultivate by being an absolutely brutal grader but giving students opportunities to improve). Assessment, learning outcomes, etc.; it is all a complete disaster, and we are only beginning to reap the costs.

AO

The problem with the "you should want to teach more than a 2-2 if you really claim to love teaching, since you should want a challenge" is that in situations where you have to teach a 5-5, the quality of students is likely to be lower and your courseload will probably primarily consist of lower-division courses.

As for inspiring students, it's not clear how one could sell an intro, ethics, pol phil, metaphysics, or epistemology course to a student, enamored with scientism and a vague value relativism, who thought that talk of intuitions and realist normativity was a dead-end - certainly a dead-end if someone were trying to convince a non-philosopher. Before someone takes a philosophy class (assuming they're not taking it for an "easy GE"), there's some buy-in interest in the idea of "learning philosophy," often under the misguided assumption that it'll help them figure out the "meaning of life" or "how to break through moral insouciance." Usually they leave the class at the end of the term not sure about these things, but impressed that maybe they should donate more (after encountering Singer) and that what they thought about free will was very much wrong. If there's anything that could break this mold, it would probably be letting students read their peers' writings (unfortunately everyone waits until the last minute to finish their draft, so reading works in progress won't do much good versus the final product), but that would violate FERPA.

James Lee

OP:

Before I respond to particular points, I'll try to cut to the core of this discussion. I agree with you that no teacher has the obligation to meet some arbitrarily high standard of teaching. Whether we disagree depends on whether you think that being okay at teaching implies that the teacher has no obligation to improve as a teacher. If you hold that there is no entailment between the two, and if you agree that all teachers have an obligation to continuously grow and improve as teachers, then there is no disagreement between us.

First, I want to make it clear that I am not "impressed" at all with my own teaching and had no intention of conveying this. If I came across as trying to toot my own horn in any way, then I apologize for the miscommunication on my part. I have many flaws and shortcomings as a teacher. In the past I didn't recognize these as flaws because I thought I was an "okay" teacher. Now I see these flaws as opportunities to become a better teacher. Bottom line: standards like "okay" and "excellent" are unhelpful distractions. What matters more is rate of growth.

Second, if a student is underprepared or has difficulty understanding the material, then it seems clear that it is the teacher's job either to find ways of helping students catch up, or to present the material in ways that are easier to understand. If a teacher is aware that most students in class continue to have difficulty understanding the material despite their best efforts, and if the teacher makes no adjustments at all to help students come to understanding, then I would say that this is sufficient for teacher incompetence.

Third, and this is also addressed to Marcus: when I use terms and phrases and like "course objectives," "course design," "assessment tools," and etc, IN NO WAY am I implying adherence to some kind of institutionalized template. I believe I am misunderstood here. I use these terms more broadly, and will elaborate below.

Course Objectives
A course objective is simply what you take the purpose of a course to be. Unless you work directly under an instructor as a teaching assistant, it is likely that you have complete control over the objectives of your course. Some schools list out course objectives to each course. I feel no obligation as a teacher to adhere strictly to these template objectives and take them more as suggestions.

For example, Marcus talks about talks about philosophy producing free thinkers. This is a course objective.

Every instructor, whether explicitly or implicitly, has one or more objective in mind for their course. To be skeptical of the importance of course objectives, amounts to being skeptical that philosophy classes serve any purpose at all.

Learning Outcomes
Understood prescriptively, learning outcomes are measured against course objectives. Just as an instructor has complete control over course objectives, it is completely up to the instructor to determine what are the desirable learning outcomes.

For example, if the course objective is to produce free thinkers, then desired learning outcome for each student is to either become a free thinker, or at least make some progress towards being a free thinker.

Skepticism over learning outcomes amounts to the claim that end result of taking a class is not relevant at all in teaching philosophy.

Course Design
This phrase refers to a process where the instructor makes decisions about all of the various elements of the course: course materials, assessment and course requirement, what is done in the classroom, etc. An instructor's course design is reflected in their syllabus. Every instructor designs a course. Careful course design refers to the act of deliberating over the various course elements best serve the course objectives.

For example, if the primary course objective is to produce free thinkers, then careful course design involves deliberating over what sorts of course elements (including materials, classroom activities, assessment, etc) will best serve to produce free thinkers.

To be skeptical of the importance of careful course design amounts to saying that, aside from meeting some minimal status quo standard, it really doesn't matter how one decides to go about teaching a class.

Assessment Tools
Again, this is very obvious and basic. By "assessment tools," I'm just talking about whatever it is that an instructor uses to gauge learning outcomes. The point here is that not all assessment tools are the same. Assigning papers will assess certain things better than administering exams, and vice versa. By "proper assessment tools," I am referring to the assessment methods that best inform the teacher of how well the student is meeting course objectives.

For example, if the course objective is to produce free thinkers, then there will be ways of assessing how well a student engages in independent thought that are better than other ways. Finding proper assessment tools means finding the best ways to assess independent tools.

Skepticism about proper assessment tools amounts to claiming that there really is no difference between the various forms of assessment. Any assessment tool is just as appropriate as any other.

Active classroom learning strategies
Here are I am referring to what the instructor intends to do during the time spent in the classroom. The point here is that depending on one's course objectives, there are better and worse ways to use classroom time. The prevailing thought seems to be that classes where students are active participants in some way is pedagogically superior to classes where students of passive recipients of information.

For example, if the course objective is to produce free thinkers, then it seems clear that investing all of classroom time into lecture is not as effective as devoting at least some of that time to activities where students can engage in activities closely related to independent thought (e.g. discussions, debates, in class writing assignments, etc.)

To be skeptical of classroom strategizing amounts to saying that beyond some minimal standard of relevance, it really doesn't matter how you decide to spend your classroom time.

I don't think that I said anything controversial above when I clarified on my terms. My main point here is that each and every one of these areas is an area where a teacher can improve. Your claim about being an "okay teacher" was initially off putting because it suggested that there is no obligation for a teacher to continually improve in these areas. Again, I am not talking about meeting some arbitrarily high standard of teaching excellence. I am talking about trying to be at least a little better at the craft of teaching next semester than you were last semester. As I stated above, if you agree that all teachers are obligated to improve as teachers, then there is no disagreement between us. If you don't agree, and if you think that teachers have no obligation to improve beyond some minimum status quo determined standard, then you will need to provide an argument in defense of this claim, as it is highly counterintuitive.

I take many teachers (including myself) to be incompetent not only because we fail to help students meet the goals that we OURSELVES set for the class, but also because we are complacent with our own teaching methods and make no attempt to continue to adapt and improve our teaching. This is the mindset that I inherited from philosophers around me, and is one that I had until fairly recently.

Perhaps you and Marcus responded negatively to what I said because of my use of terms like "learning outcomes," which reek of institutional jargon. If that is the case, then that is my mistake. In order to avoid those connotations, perhaps it may be helpful to replace those terms with terms like "learning shmoutcomes," "course shmobjectives," and "shmassessment tools."

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