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Brian Judge '11: Teach teachers how to teach

Publish or perish. This is the mantra of the aspiring professor in the American university system. If the only purpose of universities was research, this wouldn't be a problem. "Publish or perish" is merely a narrower version of the more comprehensive mantra of the American economy: do your job, or get fired.

However, universities also exist to teach undergraduates. So the professors at Brown University, and most other universities, are asked to do two radically different things: teach and research. This doesn't make any sense.  In order to get a job teaching at Brown, you have to establish yourself as an up-and-coming researcher (or scholar, if you like) in your particular field by publishing some articles, presenting papers at conference and the like. Professors are not hired based on their ability to teach.

Most of my teachers in high school went to school to learn how to teach. But looking through the catalog of graduate courses at Brown, there aren't any classes called "Teaching Linear Algebra" or "How to Teach Shakespeare." If I wanted to teach high school biology, I would have to know how to teach high school biology as well as how do high school biology. If I wanted to teach college biology, I only have to know how to do it.

In higher education, professors are generally evaluated for five to 10 years on the basis of their research output. If they produce enough, they get tenure. Then they don't get evaluated at all. This is insane.

Not that it would be worth the administration's while to assess teaching ability, since for most professors, there's nothing it can do about it. In high school, every month or so, a stern-looking administrator would sit in the back of the classroom and assess how well the teacher was doing his or her job. In order to get tenure, the teacher had to prove himself or herself to be reasonably competent at teaching. To my knowledge, aspiring professors at Brown face no such evaluation. 

Tenure was established to protect professors from financial pressure exerted by donors and administrators with ideological agendas. While I would guess that this still happens to some degree, it is not nearly the same as it was when universities were denominational and could discriminate on a whim. Since tenure committees are made up of other professors, getting tenure requires being in ideological step with one's colleagues. Thus the departments themselves have the ability to enforce an ideological agenda. Whether or not you've published dozens of obscure papers on trade theory, it doesn't bear on your ability to teach Econ 11.

A more rational approach would be to split departments into research and teaching, and hire professors and admit graduate students to one or the other. As an undergraduate, I want to take classes from professors who have proven themselves to be good teachers. If I were a research-oriented graduate student, I would want to do research alongside professors who have proven themselves to be good researchers.

Short of this, there are some very minor things that would go a long way towards improving teaching quality: have each department add a course about teaching that discipline and have graduate TA's have a senior faculty mentor to critique their classroom performance.

If someone is being paid to teach undergraduates and is bad at it, then they should be fired. If someone is being paid to do research and is bad at it, then they should be fired. Hiring people to do both, but only evaluating them on one (the one that isn't relevant for the bulk of the people shelling out $50,000 to take classes from them) for a short period of time doesn't make sense to me.

The best teacher I've ever had is someone who didn't have a Ph.D and isn't published. The worst teacher I've ever had was someone who has published a handful of books and dozens of articles. This is no accident. The former was focused on being a good teacher, the latter was focused on being a good researcher. There aren't many great teachers or researchers out there, and there certainly aren't enough of both to fill Brown's payroll. Just as the quality of research has no bearing whatsoever on ability to teach, the ability to teach has no bearing on the quality of research. And a great teacher can produce a great researcher, but someone studying under a great researcher might not acquire the skills required in order to be a great teacher.

Great teachers aren't born, they aren't being formally trained and so they aren't being hired. Brown as a pioneer in higher education can set a trend away from the yoke of the status quo, and towards substantial reforms for the undergraduate classroom experience. After all, that's what we're paying for.  


Brian Judge '11 just wants things to make sense. He can be reached at brian_judge (at) brown.edu.




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