volume 44, number 2
Temple UniversityFaculty Herald

Editorials

 

And Gladly Would We Learn and Gladly Teach
By Steve Newman, Editor

 

Editing The Herald has brought home to me the inspiring and even dizzying diversity of the faculty at Temple: the range and depth of our different areas of expertise; the differences in our theories and methods for producing knowledge; the differences in the narratives that have brought us to Temple, inflected by our diverse backgrounds; and the differences in the conditions of our employment.
    What, then, unifies us as a faculty? There are, of course, important commonalities in our pursuits as researchers and our ethos as scholars, whether we are on the tenure track or not. But the one thing that unites the largest number of us is teaching, and, as Chaucer says in the line I borrow for my title, we should do it gladly, despite the frustrations that come with it. When I find myself explaining to curious (or just plain skeptical) folks just what an English professor does with his or her time, I certainly talk about my scholarship, but since the great majority of my discussions are with people outside my field, I have to be a teacher in those moments, too. When I speak directly about my teaching, I usually feel my audience warming more to my discourse (and to the fact that I draw a salary for doing this). They often want to share their own stories of their teachers, good and bad, and their insights into teaching. When I reflect on my job, my time in the classroom and during my office hours is surely as vivid to me as my time grappling with the complexities of Adam Smith’s or Robert Burns’ or Joanna Baillie’s theories and practices of value along with current conversations and conflicts about the value of the humanities. 

   So, for reasons both personal and professional, I decided to devote the bulk of an issue of The Herald to teaching. But I wanted to approach it in ways that might cast some new light on some specific issues bound up in such a large and complex topic as pedagogy at Temple.
   The first has to do with how we evaluate teaching. What do we mean by “good teaching” and “bad teaching”? And what do we mean when we say “we,” since faculty are certainly not the only people evaluating our teaching? Administrators do so when deciding about renewal, tenure, promotion, and merit. Of course, students have done so for as long as there have been teachers. (One wonders how Socrates was rated back in Athens and would rate now.) More recently, they have gone online to ratemyprofessors.com to contribute to and read accounts of their instructors, even awarding chile peppers to the “hot” ones, which is among the many things that tend to raise questions about the validity of that site.

   Addressing the role students play in evaluating teaching has been made more timely by a decision made last Spring, long-recommended by the Student Feedback Form (SFF) Committee and long-wished-for by Temple’s Student Government. Starting this Fall, students who have just enrolled at Temple or who filled out the previous term’s SFFs will have access to some of the data from them. To bring students and faculty together in thinking about how we evaluate teaching, I decided to revisit an experiment from last year in which The Herald and our student newspaper engaged in a dialogue printed in both papers. This year’s Opinions Editor, Jerry Iannelli, was receptive to the idea, and I then recruited two award-winning teachers, Profs. Rebecca Alpert and Deborah Stull to join me, while Jerry and one of his columnists, Grace Holleran, contributed their perspectives as students. You can see the results of our discussion here.

   But our discussion hardly exhausted the issues raised by the sharing of SFF data. After some colleagues raised the question whether making this data available to students violated the confidentiality faculty have the right to expect for records used in personnel decisions, I invited one of them, Prof. Shannon Miller, to write a column on this issue, and I’m grateful that she agreed to do so.

   My hope is that this is only a first step in a wider and deeper dialogue about teaching. I have been discussing with the SFF Committee how best to present in The Herald the data they have assiduously collected. I also agree with the Committee and every other faculty member I have talked to that whatever we think of the SFFs, they should not be the only yardstick we use to evaluate teaching. In this vein, I’m happy to report that Pamela Barnett, the Director of our Teaching and Learning Center, has agreed to comment on the dialogue published in this issue and to furnish a brief bibliography of resources for evaluating teaching.
    The other perspective on teaching I wanted to investigate has to do with the fact that we teach at “Philadelphia’s Public University,” as President Theobald refreshingly called Temple in his inaugural address, a motto I nominate as a replacement for “Temple Made.” That is, what are the past, present, and possible futures of the relationship between Temple and the School District of Philadelphia (SDP)? What can faculty in and outside of our College of Education do to strengthen that relationship? These are question made more urgent by the full-bore fiscal meltdown of the SDP. The health of our city’s public schools will shape Temple’s destiny: The SDP supplies many of our students, including many who represent the best of the Conwellian Mission; we supply the SDP with more teachers than any other college or university. More broadly, the well-being of the city that gives Temple its pulse depends in no small part on its public schools.
    To answer this question, I went, naturally, to my colleagues in our College of Education, and they were a great help. I sat down with the College’s new Dean, Gregory M. Anderson, and as we touched on topics ranging from Temple’s relationship with the public schools to evaluating teaching to making educational research more relevant, he proved to be a stimulating partner in conversation, as I think you’ll agree. Profs. Michael W. Smith, Joseph DuCette, Wanda Brooks, and Peshe Kuriloff contributed a lucid and informative history of Temple’s relationship with the SDP and some ideas for next steps. A member of our Editorial Board, Prof. Will Jordan, directed me to Prof. Maia Cucchiara who significantly revised an article she wrote for The Atlantic online that details her sobering research on attempts to improve Philly’s schools by making some of them more attractive to the more affluent residents of Center City.

   This last piece brings me to a final, personal reason I chose this topic—my own kids. My wife and I decided to live in Mount Airy because we loved the beauty and diversity of the neighborhood and because we wanted to be in the city. But, like so many better-off parents in Mt. Airy, we decided not to send our daughter, Talia, to the school she was zoned for or to a nearby school with a better reputation that we probably could have gotten her into. For even there the class sizes were too large; we feared that her sweet temper would lead to her being overlooked and that the dreaminess that by turns charms and exasperates us might develop into a more serious lack of focus. We also worried that she’d get the wrong type of attention, her intense curiosity drummed out of her by a grim testing regime. Add to that a subpar library, no foreign language instruction, and a general lack of resources so common to Philly’s public schools.

   We decided, then, to send her to Plymouth Meeting Friends School, though we could barely afford it (and it’s not expensive by private school standards). She loves the school, and so do we. It’s diverse, racially, ethnically, and socio-economically, its curriculum well-conceived and innovative, its teachers both demanding and supportive, including its librarian and specialists in music, art, and Spanish. We’ll be sending her brother, Sasha, to the same school. Our predisposition to do so has been strengthened by the further deterioration of Philly’s schools thanks to the assault by Harrisburg, and by the fact that he was born with microtia and unilateral atresia—that is, he doesn’t have much in the way of an outer left ear and is thus functionally deaf on that side. We worry that his disability would not mesh well at all with the large class sizes and the bad acoustics of the public schools we have seen.
    Although we are convinced we have made the right choice, we can’t help feeling guilty, a common sentiment among certain circles in Mt. Airy. We went to public schools K-12, and I am, after all, a faculty member at “Philadelphia’s Public University”; and our financial ability to bring our children into such a rich learning environment is unavailable to a great many Philadelphia parents. But a long, sorry history of Liberal Guilt instructs me that feelings alone don’t do anything but make the guilty liberal feel the weak-tea virtue of regretting that things have come to such a sorry pass. While my children will not attend Philly’s public schools for at least the next few years, I plan to follow the advice of this issue’s columnists offer for dealing with the crisis at hand. I plan to continue working with groups that fight for more equitable funding for Philly’s schools. I also plan to continue fighting against “reforms” that inflict even more high-stakes testing on schoolkids and that demonize the many hard-working teachers and parents doing their best in the midst of immiserating circumstances—a woeful lack of resources and growing income inequality among them. Finally, I will continue looking for opportunities to help Philly’s public schools through Temple’s efforts. If the experts in the field, including the teachers, administrators, students and parents in our North Philly neighborhood, think I may have something to offer, I will gladly learn from them and gladly teach.•