Thursday, December 30, 2010

Rarely is the Question Asked: Is Our Professors Teaching?

Randall Stephens

Academics are, by nature, hand wringers. We worry about the decline in the humanities. We worry about grade inflation. We worry about the troubles of academic presses. Once in a while we worry about the state of teaching. Or, to paraphrase our former president, "rarely is the question asked: is our professors teaching"?

Quite often the appraisal of teaching is negative, though academics and non-academics offer different points of view. In the popular imagination, the old stereotypes persist, as Anthony Grafton points out, with tongue firmly in cheek:

We don’t teach undergraduates at all, even though we shamelessly charge them hundreds of dollars for an hour of our time. Mostly we leave them to the graduate students and adjuncts. Yet that may not be such a bad thing. For on the rare occasions when we do enter a classroom, we don’t offer students close encounters with powerful forms of knowledge, new or old. Rather, we make them master our “theories”—systems of interpretation as complicated and mechanical as sausage machines. However rich and varied the ingredients that go in the hopper, what comes out looks and tastes the same: philosophy and poetry, history and oratory, each is deconstructed and revealed to be Eurocentric, logocentric and all the other centrics an academic mind might concoct.*

Across the water, historian and filmmaker Tariq Ali and and Harvard historian and teledon Niall Ferguson speak to the BBC about what they see as the abysmal state of history teaching. (Hat tip to the AHA.) Students stop pursuing history in England at an early age, says Ferguson. And what history is taught is "too fragmentary." Ali agrees, saying that what is presented is, basically, "worthless," and hobbled by a chasing after so-called relevance. They both argue that the old anachronistic, triumphalist, island history of Britain, should be avoided, but students need a larger narrative. "It could hardly be worse than what is going on in schools today," concludes Ferguson.

How does history teaching fare in America's colleges and universities? Are teaching awards more than a feather in the cap? Do promotion and tenure committees value persistently good evaluations and commend teaching effectiveness in the same way that they reward scholarship? Do peers sit in on classes and make assessments? Do departments do anything when a professor continues to receive poor teaching evaluations one semester after another?

Nearly ten years ago Daniel Bernstein and Richard Edwards proposed that we need more peer review of teaching in the Chronicle. "[I]f educators are going to sustain the progress made, we will need to move toward a more rigorous and objective form of review," they wrote. "The goal of peer review has been to provide the same level of support, consultation, and evaluation for teaching that universities now provide for research." I can't imagine what the results of such efforts have been. Certainly, peer evaluation can turn into a messy, political business.

Does graduate training in history prepare men and women for classroom success? Budding historians spend far more time in graduate school working on research, parsing theory, and getting the historiography down. Less time is devoted to developing teaching skills and, at least as it was in my case, there is not much mentoring on teaching. (Most grad students I encountered came prewired with an interest in teaching. So, that was a plus.) Could graduate training be better oriented to prepare good history teachers? What would that look like?

No comments: