Dialogue on Good and Bad Teaching
Rebecca Alpert (RA), Professor, Department of Religion and Chair of the Editorial Board of The Faculty Herald
Jerry Iannelli (JI), Opinions Editor, The Temple News
Steve Newman (SN), Associate Professor, Department of English and Editor of The Faculty Herald
Grace Holleran, Opinion Columnist, The Temple News
Deb Stull (DS), Assistant Professor, Department of Biology
I have for some time wanted to engage students and faculty in a dialogue about how we evaluate teaching, and the decision to release some Student Feedback Form data to students spurred me to contact Jerry Iannelli, the Opinion Editor of our student newspaper. Happily, he was game for a discussion, and I then recruited Profs. Rebecca Alpert and Deborah Stull, who won last year’s Lindback Award for Distinguished Teaching. Jerry secured the participation of one his columnists, Grace Holleran.
Our assignment was to write brief pieces—around 800 words—about what we might mean when we identify good teaching and bad teaching. As with my dialogue last year with Temple News staff members, we would then read all of each other’s essays and gather for a one-hour conversation. Unfortunately, Grace couldn’t make it, but I am grateful to her for contributing her essay and to Rebecca, Deb, and Jerry for their essays and for participating in the follow-up dialogue. Finally, both newspapers would publish some version of this discussion and link to each other’s publication. Jerry’s column can be found here.
In the first issue next Spring, Dr. Pamela Barnett, Director of our Teaching and Learning Center will contribute a commentary on these essays and dialogue as well as a brief bibliography on teaching; I have also been in contact with the Student Feedback Form Committee about how to best present their data in The Herald. I also invite our readers to contribute to this discussion through letters to the Editor. Please contact me at email@example.com.
Rebecca Alpert, Professor, Department of Religion and Chair of The Faculty Herald Editorial Board
GOOD TEACHING: Asking What Will Stick After the Course is Over
Good teaching demands that instructors ask ourselves this question: “A year (or more) after this course is over I hope students will_____.” Research tells us that students will retain only a small fraction of the information they learn, so hoping they’ll remember details of what they studied a year before is not a good way to fill in the blank. It’s up to us to make sure we set realistic goals for what we want students to take away from our classes; things we believe will have lasting value. I hope that students remember one particular moment when they encountered the unexpected and it shifted the way they looked at the world: seeing the wild and beautiful murals at the Church of the Advocate might cause them to look at art more closely and encourage their own creativity; participating in a lively (and provocative) classroom debate about female genital cutting might make them realize that there is more than one credible way to view a controversial issue; doing research for an oral presentation on contemporary Hindu pilgrimage holy days might pique their curiosity about another culture and maybe even their desire to travel. But even more important to me is what those moments allow: students become aware of assumptions they had when they walked into the classroom and reevaluate whether to hold on to or change those assumptions. That's really what I hope students will be inspired to do for years after.
BAD TEACHING: Forgetting to Question Our Own Assumptions
Teaching goes awry when instructors don’t remember that we, too, come to the classroom with assumptions that need to be noticed and sometimes challenged. In the course I teach for graduate students earning a certificate in higher education teaching, I ask them to recall their favorite teacher. They respond with wonderful stories about the instructor who changed their lives, made them excited about their subject and made them want to become teachers themselves. We often teach as if our students were all just like us. Challenging the assumption that all of our students are inherently interested in learning what we teach or want to be professors just like us makes us think more about making the classroom a place where those who aren't that interested in the content might pick up tools (seeing the world around them in new ways, developing comfort with public speaking, etc.) that will stay with them after the course is over. We also go awry when we fall prey to the assumption that all students are like us in other ways as well. As a student I hated taking short-answer tests. Assuming that everyone shared my dislike I never gave exams or quizzes, until one student pointed out to me that she rather liked the opportunity to study for such tests and got much satisfaction out of doing well on them. This student really hated being judged only on the criteria I found enjoyable and meaningful--public speaking, writing reading responses, and doing research. Clearly, my assumption was not helpful to her or students like her. Now I include some short answer tests in my courses. And I try to pay more attention to the assumptions I make, applying my new awareness that while something may have been true for the student I was, it’s not necessarily true for the students I teach.
GOOD TEACHING: Stressing How to Learn Over Mere Information
Throughout my time in college, the best professors have always been the ones that value intellectual curiosity over informational accuracy.
The best ones have lauded me for sticking to my guns, praised me for delving deeper into a book than anyone else in the class and debated respectfully with me on matters that we disagreed upon. They have valued my opinions over their own.
That is to say, they've cared more about teaching me “how” to learn than about teaching me information.
They have almost exclusively been teachers for General Education classes, courses all students are required to take, but ones in which too few students pay attention. All students, be they STEM majors or experts in classic Norwegian literature, must exit college more adept at critical thinking and problem solving than they were when they first stepped onto Temple’s campus. Of course, nursing students should always be able to alphabetically recite the names of human bones at will, but they must also be able to improvise on the fly when a patient walks into the emergency room with his or her hand trapped in a fax machine.
Case in point: Without naming names, my Mosaics I and Mosaics II professors provided drastically different windows into the pedagogical world.
For lack of a better word, the former insisted on ramming her interpretation of Sigmund Freud down our throats, cramming her opinions into our brains in the form of heavily biased "reading checks" each day. Freud, a man hotly debated up until today, had in her eyes attained enlightenment and could not be debated critically. Dissenting opinions were treated with a visible sneer of disrespect and accusations that we hadn’t read the text “thoroughly enough.”
The latter professor instead sat patiently, listened more than he spoke and waited for chances to ask follow-up questions that would keep students speaking for the entirety of the class. We could vehemently hate Thomas More’s Utopia or the works of Galileo as long as there was some logical punch behind our thoughts. The instructor held us to a high standard, and was visibly disappointed if he found that one of us had skipped out on the day’s reading.
“I care about your opinions,” the instructor would often posit. “Why don’t you?”
To this day, I hate Freud and adore Thoreau. I don't think that's a coincidence.
BAD TEACHING: Disconnects Between Classroom, Homework, and Tests
Every single time I’ve taken a course where the entire class has struggled to appease the professor or merely achieve passing grades, it’s been for nearly the same reason: In-class lessons and homework assignments have been wildly unrelated to and inconsistent with the lecturer’s lesson plan.
Taken from a professorial perspective, it’s easy to see why an instructor would assign readings or assignments wholly separate from the in-class content in a given week. Textbooks do not typically follow the objectives of a given course on a day-to-day level, and furthermore, it may outwardly make logical sense to cram as much separate-but-relevant information into a course as humanly feasible in a given semester.
In practice, asking students to read complicated and often cryptic texts at home without discussing them in class the next day has almost always contributed to class-wide confusion and frustration on the part of the thirty or so students trapped in a course without clear objectives. Reminding students every few weeks that they “should have been reading the text this entire time” the day before an exam does nothing to explain what portions of the text the instructor found particularly relevant or useful in day-to-day life.
Furthermore, forcing students to read the works of Immanuel Kant at home without mentioning the readings in class does not inspire hard work or respect in a class full of admittedly sleepy and easily distracted college students. Of course, the onus is always on the student to perform well in whichever course he or she enrolls in, but listing a textbook on a syllabus and expecting it to be read thoroughly by the time a final exam rolls around often does a disservice to the students in the course.
A textbook is not, in and of itself, relevant to students unless the professor makes it so. There are few feelings worse than being an active, daily participant in class discussions only to find out that they’ve been wholly off-topic with the test material all year. I’ve been through multiple instances wherein a professor has assigned a long-term group project, allowed us ample time to complete it in class and then thrown in an exam on a textbook wholly unrelated to the project at hand. If the professor makes the text feel like an afterthought, his or her students will have no choice but to follow.
Any student can buy a book on political science and read it over a summer if he or she so chooses. Professors are here to give learning some personality.
Deborah Stull, Assistant Professor (Teaching/Instructional), Biology and Member of the General Education Executive Committee
GOOD TEACHING: Flexible Plans
I think that good teaching is a lot like good parenting. Both require a plan, but both rely on flexibility.
Both are set to help people succeed, but both recognize that sometimes people fail and that that is OK. And both require participants to make hard decisions that look past the immediate present to a more distant future. And it is recognizing that all of these elements are equally important to making teaching successful that, in fact, helps make teaching successful. What do I mean specifically? Obviously a plan is needed for a class to be successful. Without some sort of plan, and some sort of well-considered plan, there would be chaos (according to the second law of thermodynamics, everything is moving towards disorder naturally, so a plan is DEFINITELY needed). But then things come up—not all classes are the same just like not all students are the same, so good teaching requires some flexibility. Yes, keep the overall goal of the course in mind, but change up the approach or take some extra time to work through a particularly sticky topic or let the class's interest fine tune the direction of the course. Likewise, it is unrealistic to believe that every outcome will be immediately good. Sometimes students, like children, fail. But failure is a part of life too, and, in fact, can be something good. During one of my very first years at Temple, I had to give a graduate student a C, which, because it was her second, meant that she was kicked out of the program. It was one of the toughest decisions that I had to make (as I say, good teaching means making hard decisions), but it had a surprisingly happy ending. The student was forced to come up with plan B, but it turned out that she loved Plan B (teaching middle and high school) and she ended up e-mailing me to thank me for making that hard decision. I am not trivializing the pain that failure brings or to say that all failure is good, but I am trying to say that all failure is not bad, and it is an important life lesson, as life is full of challenges and obstacles and hard decisions. And so to end here, I just want to say that good teaching really does involve seeing beyond the here-and-now. It can feel "easier" to give more points or pass all students, and it is easier, but it is not the right decision in the long run.
BAD TEACHING: Focusing Too Much on the Teacher or The Individual Student
It seems to me that there are many practices that could fall under the header of "bad teaching," but when I thought about which to address here, I realized that to me they all fell under the overarching umbrella of teaching with a focus on either just the instructor rather or just the student—so an imbalance in the dynamics of the classroom. And to me, this stems from a recent trend that actually represents something good in the field—an interest in thinking about different ways to engage students and foster learning in the classroom aside from the traditional forms. But if this is taken to the extreme, either towards fulfilling the teacher's desire to use every new tool
(technology!) and implement every new approach regardless of how they really "fit" in the class being taught or towards focusing so much on each student as an individual that the forest is lost for all of the individuals leaves and branches then that is when teaching goes awry. Technology is not the answer, nor is trying to adjust every bit of the classroom for every different learning style. Technology needs someone to lead it/control it/wrangle it, while students need to experience some level of cohesiveness and perhaps "disfluency" (to use a new educational term, which, I know derails my argument here a little) in order to be challenged. I do actually have a funny (well, in a sad sort of way) story for the first point, although I don't for the second—this is just something I feel, listening to students and teachers talk about flipped this and clicker that. But for my funny story: so my mother teaches at La Salle University. One day about 10 years ago she was running over to her class because she thought that she was late. She got to the classroom, and, noticing that the light was off and hearing no noise from the room, she pushed open the door and rushed into the room…. only to find that the class before hers was still in session. But why hadn't she heard anything? Because the instructor of the class was sitting in the back of the room at a table with the students in front of him facing a screen as he clicked through a PowerPoint presentation, checking only to make sure that all students had read everything on the slide. And then he clicked to the next…. So to me, this is a prime example of the belief in technology gone awry. I think that bad teaching really comes often from a lack of common sense and a belief in a magic bullet. Teaching, like learning, is hard….
GOOD TEACHING: Acknowledging Individual Students’ Strengths and Weaknesses
I am the kind of student that teachers have nightmares about. I show up to class, I’m attentive; I make insightful comments during class discussions. I do well on tests. But when it comes to homework or punctuality of important assignments, I have the work ethic of a recently retired grandparent.
To be more concise: I am frustrating to teach, and I am fully aware of that. The best teachers I’ve had have acknowledged my strengths as a student without letting them compensate for my weaknesses.
In high school, after two frustrating years of receiving mediocre-at-best English grades, I found myself in the classroom of arguably the best teacher so far in my career as a student. He recognized my learning style from the get-go, and made sure to make me aware of that. At one point, he sat me down and said, “Grace, I know you’re not just a kid who writes. You are a writer.” He understood me.
In class, we ditched essays on Shakespeare and focused on performing it, as it was intended to be. The assignments were discussion-based, but he never invalidated students’ opinions or forced his own upon them. He allowed creativity in projects and essays. The result was a group of students who truly understood the literature.
When I slacked off on homework and filler assignments, he was not easy on me. He gave me the grades I truly deserved, so at first, I did not see much improvement in them. But he worked with me, he let me prove myself, and by the time I finished a year of his class, I’d earned a solid A- average. More importantly, I had met a teacher who believed in me, and thus, I began to do the same. My work ethic improved with my self-esteem.
BAD TEACHING: Seeing Sharks and Guppies
“You are a shark, Grace, and the rest of my students are guppies,” the teacher of my “Advanced” Creative Writing class said.
She had undoubtedly just woken up from a nightmare about me. This teacher was concerned that my zealous approach to writing intimidated my classmates. She was worried about the classroom dynamic, which apparently was the responsibility of me, a student. Her “shark” comment indicated that she saw me as a threat, and her other students as weak. Not only does this demonstrate a glaring lack of ethics as a teacher, it was also uncomfortable for me to hear.
Using several comments like these, she passive-aggressively made me withdraw from the class. My guidance counselor and the English department head turned a blind eye. There were no behavioral problems or even missing assignments. She kicked me out of creative writing because I liked it too much.
Not all hope was lost. I took on a senior project to replace her class, for which I ended up writing a short novel. She offered to act as my advisor to oversee the project. I politely (I think) declined. She couldn’t keep me from being a shark.
People call me pretentious when I say I don’t think good writers can gain much from creative writing courses. Perhaps they are right, but one bad teacher can heavily alter an impressionable high schooler’s views on education.
Steve Newman, Associate Professor, Department of English and Editor, The Faculty Herald
GOOD TEACHING: Taking Informed Risks
Like most teachers I know, I am rarely satisfied with my teaching. But when I think about good pedagogy in my own classes and in the many fine classes that I have observed, I find that they are often distinguished by the same thing that marks the best student work—taking an informed risk. By “informed,” I mean that these moments occur within a context where the instructor has made the aims of a particular discussion or assignment clear, its value for the course and for the broader competencies a class seeks to foster. By “informed” I mean also that the instructor has given students models of good written work and productive discussion, taking care to cite them when they emerge in class. Too often, I feel, we hide the ball from students. The rules of academic discourse are often hard to intuit, and knowing what a strong example of it like is only a good first step in being able to produce one. Finally, by “informed,” I mean that the professor, with a proper humility about all the things beyond her or his control, still trusts to the dynamics of the class.
It is under these conditions that pedagogical risks stand the best chance of paying off: posing the question to which the instructor truly does not know the answer, and often there is more than one; trying a new assignment that departs from typical academic genres; flipping a class so that time in class is centered on student inquiry rather than professorial talk, however intelligent and enchanting.
Of course, because these are risks, they might not work out, and good pedagogy requires that we acknowledge when this happens. We teachers are often loath to do that, as if our authority flows from being always right. Some years ago, I proposed a panel on “Productive Failures in Teaching Eighteenth- Century Literature.” I received only one submission and so the panel did not make—acknowledging our failures, I guess, is not a popular topic-- though I could’ve probably taken up half the time recounting risks of my own that didn’t work out. If we ask our students to take intellectual chances, we must be ready to do so ourselves.
BAD TEACHING: Not Putting Students at the Center
The bad teaching I suffered through as a student and seen in other teachers and in my own case tends to emerge when the teacher forgets the students. A simple enough concept, but the causes are more complex than they may appear.
Of course, there are the more obvious causes of bad teaching—the teacher who can’t be bothered to put in the time required for competent, let alone excellent, teaching, because he or she is too consumed with writing the next article or chasing the next grant. This doesn’t happen as often as rumored, but it does happen. Then there are faculty who have just checked out as both scholars and teachers.
But the problem is less bad teachers, which tends to misunderstand the problem and unhelpfully stigmatize professors, than bad teaching. Many teachers put in long hours, but effective teaching, like effective learning, is not a direct effect of time put in. The problem is that in preparing—and I’ve certainly been guilty of this—we forget that students are neither buckets to be filled nor aspiring versions of us. Effective teaching typically requires reverse engineering, working backwards from where you want students to go and keeping in mind where they are starting from. (Like all metaphors, “reverse engineering” has its limits since the start and finish are often complex and vary somewhat with the individual student, and some attention must be paid to where they want to go.) This pedagogical progress, however, is less likely to emerge if teachers in their good-faith preparation do not provide air pockets, to switch metaphors. This is to say that we teachers are prone to forget that to gauge whether students are really getting the concepts at hand, they need time to talk, to ask questions, to think through things, aloud and in writing.
Being a teacher comes with many temptations, not least of which is the siren song of one’s own voice (again, I plead guilty). And some students, even good ones, can be fooled into thinking they are learning when they witness a powerful performance of this type. But while engaging lectures certainly have their place, lecturing is only one string in a good teacher’s bow. Overused, it makes students passive; and this is a predictable effect of not making students visible in the first place, of keeping them in mind, of keeping them in the center of things. Which is where they must be. •
A Student-Faculty Discussion on Good and Bad Teaching
Rebecca Alpert (RA), Professor, Department of Religion and Chair of the Editorial Board of The Faculty Herald
Jerry Iannelli (JI), Opinions Editor, The Temple News
Steve Newman (SN), Associate Professor, Department of English and Editor of The Faculty Herald
Deb Stull (DS), Assistant Professor, Department of Biology
How to Evaluate Teaching: The Insights and Blind Spots of the Student Feedback Forms
JI: It’s really hard to get a gauge from professors as to how they feel about teaching, so reading these essays was very enlightening for me, and I think it will be enlightening for all of our readers. So thank you guys for that.
To kick things off, if you’re looking for some student feedback on the Student Feedback Forms… I just did mine last night as a prep for today. I realized kind of offhand, I really only get in depth if I had a bad experience, which I’m sure you guys are probably concerned about. I think I may have gotten an off crop of teachers this year, which may be unfortunate, but I think I was a little bit too negative. I gave a couple multi-paragraph answers—I’m a writer, so I’ll write more than most people. I gave a few pretty in-depth critiques of a few of my professors, which I’m not typically wont to do. But the good ones I just gave two sentences and then I’m out. The ratings were great.
What portion of the SFFs [Student Feedback Forms] do faculty get?
DS: Everything. The whole thing. Pages and pages when people don’t comment, we get pages and pages of blank responses. Whatever goes in, comes out.
RA: The difficulty in elaborating on success extends to grading as well. I find that I have a very hard time when I’m grading—it’s very easy to grade bad papers because you know exactly what’s wrong, you know what the problems are—it’s very hard when you have “A” papers to really help the students figure out what you can give them. Sometimes I spend more time on the positive ones, just thinking about how do you really explain to this person what they did well. You just kind of assume…
JI: We have the same problem here at the paper. It’s really easy to walk over and kick over the sandcastle and tell someone all the things they’re doing wrong. It’s really hard to pick out good things to write about.
SN: Also, with good students, it’s also a matter of figuring out what their next step would be. They’ve done everything well in the context of this class—but what is the next step? One of the nice things about it is that it makes your goals more present to you when someone has hit them. Why is this a good paper? You have your rubric, but I find even good rubrics have some trouble catching the finer points of evaluation that are often quite important. I’m thinking about, well, if this student were taking a more advanced class with me or one of my colleagues, what would I want to tell them? I find myself actually writing more or at least as much on really accomplished papers, though it takes longer, I agree.
One of the other things is that it raises the question of how we know whether a course has gone well. This is always one of the real challenges. This may speak in some sense to Grace’s contribution. The students who are really motivated, you want to do whatever you can to encourage them, but you also want to give them breathing space to develop, and one suspects that they would have done pretty well with a range of teachers. Whereas you feel like that the students who come in who need more help. Do you judge based on how the best-prepared students are doing? The least well-prepared? How do you gauge that?
DS: And part of it, too, is that sometimes you don’t know until later, especially if it’s a new course. You have a feeling, but you don’t know until you get feedback, sometimes a long time afterwards. I teach a writing course for which I get the most fabulous emails that say, “I really hated that course and everything about it because I hate to write, but boy am I glad I took it. But I didn’t realize that at the time. It wasn’t until like eight months out when I had to x, y, or z.” The course is a friendly environment, so that kind of late response is fine. I know that that is how many of them feel. I ask them at the beginning, “Let’s raise our hands, on a scale of 1 to 10 how many of you would rather have all the bones in your body broken than write? Ok, if you’re a 1-3 I’m trying to move you to a 4 to 5.” But sometimes you don’t know until later on. Or till you’ve taught the course again.
SN: The valuable responses Deb describes are something that the SFFs will tend to miss because of when they’re administered. I’d say the same thing about Rebecca’s goal of getting students to question their own assumptions [link], since students don’t become conscious of this until well after the course ends. Then there’s Deb’s analogy between teaching and parenting—that we need to be flexible about how we seek to impart the competencies keyed into the course [link]. This is the sort of wise pedagogical approach that will register subtly, if at all, in the SFFs. This doesn’t mean that we just throw up our hands and say we have no way of assessing teaching. But it does suggest that some of the value of what you do as a teacher can’t be known immediately.
JI: Until students are in the working world, even.
RA: I give mid-semester evaluations on my own. And that’s so much more helpful, since I can change what I’m doing. The students are more invested, too. They can say, “I didn’t like this.” Or “This was great—can you do more of this?” I can take the opportunity to collectively say, “You really missed this in the class. I can add it.” Or “Here’s why I’m not going to.”
JI: That’s wonderful to hear.
RA: But at the end of the semester, it’s like, “I can’t do anything for those guys anymore.” And I think part of the attitude that a student has in filling out the form at the end of the term is, “I’m grading the professor; I’m not really engaging or helping the teacher much.” Sometimes I’ll use a comment in the future to plan the class another time I often think things are going well when half of the students tell me they love it and half say they hate it.
SN: One of the things that I’m hoping, and I believe this hope is shared with the committee dedicated to SFFs, is that the SFFs are going to not only be a gateway not only to looking to what has to be said is a pretty barebones representation of teaching but also a gateway to statements of teaching philosophy, to syllabi, to explanations of what we think went well or didn’t in a course. So my hope is as long as we keeping making this data available to students, that it really is just one method, one yardstick of teaching quality. So have you checked out the online SFF data?
DS: Does the data matter to you?
JI: A great deal. Since day one, I’ve used whatever tools I can. I’ve used ratemyprofessor pretty extensively.
DS: So, word of mouth from people who have taken the class.
JI: Word of mouth. For the most part, it’s really helped. Any tool I’ve been able to use has really helped… I firmly think that any rating system is a net positive, but the new one doesn’t seem in-depth enough.
DS: My question is not should there be anything that gets shared but rather is what’s getting shared helpful. Ratemyprofessor or word of mouth, they probably will be somewhat less about the score and more about the comments and the commentary. In contrast, the SFF data the students see is a slew of Us and Ls and Ms [Upper, Lower, and Middle].
SN: At least for now.
JI: I completely agree with that. The biggest value I get from ratemyprofessor… I look at it from a journalistic standpoint, so I’m looking for repeating comments. If there’s one “This guy sucks,” that doesn’t really carry any weight, but if you get 15, “This guy just teaches from the book.” If you get that repeatedly, it’s illuminating.
SN: There might be something there.
DS: It’s like reading hotel reviews.
RA: I didn’t think that the goal of making the SFF data available to students was a pedagogical goal;. They want more of them. They know that negative incentive makes for bad teaching evaluations.
JI: Who is “they”—the committee?
JI: And who is on this committee?
SN: If you go on to the Faculty Senate site and go onto committees, you can find it there. It is made up of faculty put forth by the Faculty Senate Steering Committee; there are people from the Law School, CST, Fox and other colleges. And then there are administrators—it’s chaired by Peter Jones, Senior Vice Provost for Undergraduate Studies. We have a few people from the Measurement Center, Jim Degnan and Sally Frazee. Joe DuCette, who is an associate dean in the College of Ed. I think that they would be happy to talk about their work if you asked them.
JI: I’ll give them a call. Do you think that they’re a fair group of people?
SN: I do. They’ve put in a lot of work putting this instrument together. It used to be that Temple did not use a university-wide form. Then one was mandated by President Adamany; and then this committee was formed, I believe, as an ad hoc committee on how to make this a better tool. Still, a lot of faculty I’ve met are deeply skeptical of the SFFs.
SN: Yes. One of the things that many of them think is that it rewards easy teaching unduly and punishes more demanding or harder graders. I would be very interested to see data on that. There’s also a question as to whether it really measures learning or rather measures student attitudes toward their learning. There are some hard questions that can be asked about the evaluations.
The Committee is not ignorant of these questions, but they feel that this is a valid instrument for what they want it to do. I think what they want to do now is to make this not the only way of talking about teaching quality, and I think the rest of the faculty is completely in agreement with that. Ok, so we have this instrument, let’s not let it be the only instrument. Let’s have a richer discussion, along the lines of the statements we all provided for this dialogue, about what we think we mean when we say “good teaching” and “bad teaching.” I think that’s the direction they want to go in but, again, you should talk with them. My hope is that the faculty helps them in that effort since that’s really what we need.
Teaching Gen Ed, Disciplinary Knowledge, and The Transferability of Competencies
SN: If I could, I’d like to ask you a question, Jerry.
SN: In your essay, I was struck by your saying that the best teachers you’ve had have been almost exclusively in Gen Ed.
DS: I was struck by that, too.
JI: Me, too. I was when I wrote that. Often, I don’t know what I really think till I’m halfway through writing.
SN: That happens to me as well. It seems that for you teaching often goes awry when the professor is trying to stuff too much in.
SN: So that the lectures are on x and the readings are on y and then the test is on z.
SN: Which I think is bad teaching no matter what we say.
DS: I was just about to say...
SN: And I’m not defending it. But I’m wondering if that happens less frequently in Gen Ed because Gen Ed courses don’t have that disciplinary burden that non-Gen Ed courses have. That’s just a thought. But I’m more interested in what your ideas about why this has been your experience.
JI: I think that’s definitely true. It didn’t cross my mind at the time but I think that it’s absolutely true. I think it varies greatly with the major, first of all. In more creative-based, English-based classes I’ve taken, there’s been more out-of-the-box thinking. Whereas if you’re a bio major, you need to know the bones of the hand; or if you operate on somebody’s hand, you have to know not to put a finger on a face.
SN: That’s what we’d call a bad surgical outcome.
JI: So there are things that definitely vary by major. But I think it’s a function of the Gen Ed approach, where you’re forced to think outside of what your little world is. Stemming from that, the professors in Gen Ed seem to be a little more invested. Your major is a trade—you’re learning a trade at that point. If this is your 3rd or 4th year, you’ve been getting journalism every day, every day. I think it’s more of a function of the Gen Ed program, where professors are allowed to have at it.
If you’ve taught Gen Ed, you’ve noticed a lot of kids just don’t put the effort in. I’ve found when I’ve put my foot to the pedal in a Gen Ed course, I’ve been able to glean new things to bring into my major than I actually find in my journalism courses.
DS: This is so heartening, since that’s what the Gen Ed program is supposed to do.
SN: I’m wondering if this squares with your experiences, Rebecca. You teach courses both in the discipline and in Gen Ed. Do you find much of a difference in how you approach the classes?
RA: It’s a hard question; my Gen Ed class is in Honors, so it may be a different experience than the majority.
JI: I’m in Honors, too, so...
RA: That might say a lot. People who get to teach in Honors are still really excited about what they’re teaching. I don’t have any CLA students in the Religion in Philadelphia course I’m teaching this semester. For me, it’s exciting. I get to meet film students, science majors, engineers, people from all over the university, and they are coming to this with a fresh outlook. But also Steve and I both –and maybe you too, Deb—we don’t teach professional undergraduates.
DS: I do, sort of; they’re more pre-professional in Biology.
RA: We teach the students who say, “I’m not buying that I have to have a vocation by the time I finish my BA. I’m too excited about this stuff I’m learning and I want to go learn more.”
SN: We are lucky that way, though I think we have to do more thinking about how our degrees lead to making a living as well as making a life.
RA: We are lucky. I teach a religion and sexuality course, and by definition people come excited to it.
DS: Just the title should do it.
SN: This praise for Gen Ed’s distance from disciplinary knowledge is interesting because when I talk to colleagues who don’t teach much or any Gen Ed, many are skeptical for precisely this reason, that knowledge in Gen Ed isn’t as grounded in a particular discipline.
When I teach literature courses, there is a certain body of knowledge I’m working within. If I’m teaching a course on representations of criminality in eighteenth century literature, there is a body of knowledge I’m looking for them to grasp. . .Or a better example would be the survey of English literature. It’s impossible to give anything close to a complete picture of English literature from, say, 1660 to 1900. You’re always having to choose representative cases. Still, there is a body of problematics and issues, at least. On the other hand, if I think I’ve only taught that, if none of that transfers...
That to me is the real question—the transferability of skills and competencies. I wish I had better data on that. We hope what we’re teaching is going to carry beyond the classroom and the discipline, because a lot of these students are not going to be English professors, and thank God they aren’t, because there aren’t many jobs out there. What could we do to confirm or disconfirm that these skills transfer?
This question also speaks to graduate education. We keep training all these people, and there aren’t many jobs out there, and so our professional organization says, “You should be training them for alt-ac [alternate academic] jobs.” Well, I hope I’m doing that. But what I know best is how to train them to be literary scholars. I don’t know if these skills transfer. There’s some anecdotal evidence for it, but I’m not satisfied with that, and I wonder. Do you think about this, Rebecca?
RA: I think about it because I have a very circuitous job history. I did a PhD in my twenties and got tenure when I was 50. In that period in between, I was doing other work. Some of it was academic administration. Some of it was as a member of the clergy. I really felt like the PhD gave me authority. I’d written a book! It’s really huge—I’m in religion, so I view it as a rite of passage. You are a different person when you’ve finished the dissertation. No matter how weird and strange what you’re writing about is, no matter how complicated the process is, no matter how much we might want alter the process itself, that act of completing something that you know more about than anybody else in the world means something. I don’t know if that’s a transferable skill as much as a transferable attitude.
DS: I agree with that.
RA: The sense you have a power in the world that the BA or the Master’s degree just doesn’t capture.
DS: I, too, went a circuitous if slightly shorter route, and I agree. It’s the process of knowing that you can accomplish something that no one else has done, and on your own, primarily, and facing lots of hardship while doing it. You have to get experiments to work, and they often don’t work, and you have no idea why, and then your PI loses his grant, and you have to figure out how to do something more cheaply, and all these things are problem-solving, critical thinking, and the like, and there’s no way that these things aren’t going to be useful.
JI: That touches exactly on what I found most valuable in gathering all these experiences from Gen Ed. Critical thinking is critical thinking. Your experiments don’t work, you have to figure out why. Newspapers are my thing. Sometimes people don’t want to talk to us about sensitive subjects, and we have to figure out a way to get at the truth.
SN: And also to look critically at what people are telling you. Someone may talk to you but not really be saying anything.
SN: Or may not be telling you what’s true.
JI: I feel like I’ve gleaned more from getting different perspectives, even wildly different perspectives, on critical thinking from Gen Ed than from, “Hey, I’m a journalist; here’s how I did it; good-bye.”
DS: We would hope that that would be a skill encouraged and fostered in your Journalism classes, too.
JI: It definitely is being encouraged; but I think the more perspectives, the better. But back to the question of feedback and evaluation, do you think there’s a way to measure if skills transfer?
SN: I feel we have to ask these questions because I feel that the No Child Left Behind model is creeping up. That is, that what we are facing is increasingly demands for accountability. And it’s not all sparked by the worst sort of reductive thinking that wants to measure faculty worth only by how many students taught or the like. The pressure of mounting student debt compounded by a bad labor market logically leads students to ask “What have I learned? What has this learning done for me?” Learning may be hard to measure and in some respects impossible even in the scope of a four-year experience. But I do think we owe it to our students to ask the questions, “How do we measure learning?” There are ways.
One of the questions is whether we’d want a standardized test at the end of four years.
DS: I’m guessing the answer would be no.
SN: At first glance, it’s horrifying. But then, “Why not?” Why shouldn’t you be able to measure at the end a student’s ability to produce a coherent, analytical account of something, whether we understand the genre produced as an essay, a lab report, or a news article? Are there not we things we could specify as we tested? I’m just playing Devil’s Advocate here. But I think the question has to be asked. And insofar as we can generate good knowledge—it doesn’t have to quantitative—but we can generate good conversation and knowledge around what we’re learning that is specific to disciplines and what we’re learning that is more transferable, I think we’re obliged to it.
RA: Aren’t we talking about the opposite of a standardized test? We’re talking about an un-standard test, something analogous to a PhD dissertation, that would make you feel at the end like you’ve accomplished something, some cumulative moment...
SN: Like a portfolio...
DS: You don’t think taking a standardized, fill-in-the-bubble test would do that for you?
RA: Right. I do think Steve is on to something in asking, “Wait a minute, how do you pull this together and assess it?” I have one tool that I use in my Honors Religion in Philadelphia. One of the elements of the final portfolio is to write a paragraph on how you’ve met each of the goals I outlined on the syllabus, or to tell me whether these are the right goals, or where you would direct me to bring the course more into line with these goals. I absolutely think that there is something about a project at the end of anything that really makes a difference. But I worry about the bubbles.
DS: But what would that be? It would be different in every discipline. We do that for Honors on some level. In our department you have to do research and have to present it as a poster, and that’s a mini-version of what you’d be doing with the PhD. But what would that look like in other disciplines?
SN: Consider [Richard] Arum and [Josipa] Joska’s Academically Adrift, a text that has been properly controverted. But it did pretend to try to measure student learning across disciplines, comparing how much business majors learned vs. how much science majors learned more, etc.
RA: And what did it say? That science majors and liberal arts majors learned more.
SN: Right. Again, there have been questions have been raised about that data. But it was an attempt to do something in this line. But one of the things that this whole conversation reminds me of—so, the thing about Honors classes is that they are capped at 20.
RA: I was going to say the same thing.
The Material Conditions of Teaching and Faculty Autonomy
SN: One of the points that this raises is that talking about teaching while not talking about the material conditions of teaching is dangerous. Because then we ask, “What is the default going to be for measuring student learning?” The default might be some silly, reductive standardized test because the labor required is just too high when the instructional budget tends to be flat these days. That’s going to take resources, and students might well be more effective than we are in raising why tuition and class size is going up. Faculty get looked at as self-interested, “Of course you want smaller classes because you don’t want more work.” But particularly at Temple, you’d think the students should have a consequential voice in this because this place exists largely on your tuition dollars, given the small size of our endowment and the fact that we still aren’t bringing the grant money you might expect from a research university this size, though we’re getting better at that.
JI: And state funding is shrinking.
SN: And state funding is shrinking. But the question is then if tuition has been raised in part to plug that hole, why are the caps on our classes rising? And who is doing the teaching? And do they have the time to do the reflective sort of teaching we think leads to the best outcomes? A related question is the degree to which good teaching is dependent on the conditions of employment—part time vs. full time, tenure track vs. non-tenure track.
DS: And the sheer number of people doing the job and the space appropriate for the job. All of those things.
SN: We’ve talked about Honors courses, which are small. But I can imagine a well-done 500-person course. I don’t want to be doctrinaire and say, “All classes must be seminars, and we should aim toward the Oxbridge tutorial system.” First of all, because that’s never going to happen. Second of all, it might not be necessary. But I’m wondering, Jerry, has your experience in larger classes tended toward the passivity we often worry about, or have you encountered really successful examples of pedagogy there? Does the size of the class make a difference?
JI: Absolutely. The biggest class I’ve taken is the Intro to Journalism class, with about 250 kids in the giant Anderson lecture hall. Your stereotypical huge class. I was an unmotivated freshman, I sat in the back. I was on my laptop, and as I’m sure you know, I wasn’t concentrating on the class. I was looking at Buzzfeed articles. The smart kids hit the ground running; I was not one of them. Since then, hopefully, I have made up for that.
That aside, I think the issue for big classes, around 50 or 60 kids. I think those courses are just designed to give general knowledge, rather than, go in-depth, like your Sexuality and Religion class is a very specific area; you physically can’t do that for 60-70 kids.
RA: I teach 120.
JI: Wow. I take that back.
RA: I grade every week. There was an article in the Times today about how regular quizzes actually work to increase learning better than midterms or finals.
DS: I hate pop quizzes.
RA: I hate them, too, and don’t use them. I give weekly reaction papers. They are only a couple of paragraphs. My frustration with the big classes is that I don’t get to know so many of them. I see them and I smile at them in the hallway. And I’ve read a lot of their work. But I can’t connect the name and the work to their face.
DS: I agree with that, too.
SN: Looking at Grace’s response, we can see that what mattered to her in the classes she cited was whether she was known. Whether she was recognized for who she is, warts and all. I’ve taught pretty regularly the 100 person survey of British Lit, and I found with 100 if I would go to the sections and co-teach, then I could get to know most of them, at least. But then the material conditions re-assert themselves. They militate against sections—that’s more rooms, that’s fewer students per TA.
RA: It’s become harder to do.
SN: Yes. It is harder to know the student well enough to provide specific feedback and follow up on it, and large classes constrain the types of assignments we can provide.
RA: It feels like I’m teaching online. I’m reading all of their assignments through Blackboard and writing notes back to them, but there’s not enough face-to-face connection.
JI: Thank you for doing that, because I’ve never encountered that in the larger classes I’ve taken. I’ve taken 1-2 large classes on the CLA side, and we were in lecture 2 days a week and then once a week with the TA, and she was busy writing some sort of academic paper the whole time, trying to get it published, and that was clearly her priority. Not to knock all TAs, of course; most of them have been very nice to me. I’ve enjoyed the lectures in all the large classes I’ve taken, with the exception of the Stats class I’m taking now, but I think that’s a function of its being Statistics. I have not gotten any real personal anything in the larger classes; I’ve gotten information, which has been helpful, and I learn things on my own, which is in part what college is about. It’s really an anomaly that you do what you do.
RA: I don’t like my TA grading, because then I don’t know what the students have learned, I won’t know what they got during the week.
SN: I’m not nearly as noble as you are on this—
RA: I only do one of these classes a year—
SN: What I do is try to grade at least one thing from every student, more if I can. A certain number are double-graded so that there would be some uniformity in the grading.
RA: That’s the hard part with TAs.
JI: To go back to feedback, what has your feedback been for large courses?
SN: When I was Director of Undergraduate Studies, I surveyed our majors. And the students don’t like large lectures. It may be particularly be true of English majors, who don’t become English majors to be talked at. They become English majors because they have something to say about these texts. Sometimes it’s the case that what they have to say about the text isn’t as well-thought out as they think it is. But that’s why we all get together in the room, to hash these things out. I think that they find the large lecture classes less congenial to learning. And we have great people teaching these courses, like Miles Orvell, and they do the best they can with the format, and some of them really like teaching them. I enjoy teaching them, too, and I’ve received largely positive SFFs.
But so many things about large classes frustrate me, down to the fact that the seats don’t move. I’ve thought of how to use these numbers to our advantage—say, having everybody who thinks the sonnet says x caucus over there, and everybody who thinks it says y over there, and so on. But the sheer physical layout makes it tough to do some of the more pedagogically innovative things you might want to do.
For the students, it gives them the chance to be passive. Even if I try to keep them involved by saying something like, “Jenny said something really interesting on Blackboard” and then I call on her to talk about what she said. And then sometimes the students get a bit freaked about it: “I didn’t come to lecture to be singled out!”
JI: I had a professor who put up Twitter feeds of random students in courses.
DS: Biology students don’t particularly like large classes, either. They want to feel that they’re learning something from somebody that they can easily interact with and talk with and that they can raise their hand and shout out wrong answers and it will be fine. It’s harder to feel that in a class of 400, no matter how open and approachable the professor tries to be.
JI: Something that this conversation may be missing: as a student, we think that this school is designed for business majors. Fox has its banners all over the place. From a sheer numbers standpoint there are more Fox students than anyplace else. They seem to be the face of the university. I don’t know if a sort of business-like, top-down mentality has crept into what the faculty do. Offhand, how much are you told by the higher ups how to teach vs. how much autonomy you guys are given?
SN: There are for some courses common syllabi, as in First Year Writing. But even in First Year Writing, if you have taught the course for a couple semesters, you have freedom to design our own syllabi.
JI: That’s something we have no idea about.
DS: We are very autonomous, and I’m not tenure track, and I still am very autonomous.
SN: We have a lot of choices that we can make. We decide what books we are going to read...
JI: Good to hear.
DS: ...The assignments.
RA: That’s the fun part.
DS: ...What the focus is.
SN: And I wouldn’t want it any other way. The one downside is that autonomy can sometimes lead to defensiveness. “Who the hell are you to come in and tell me how I should teach?” I admit to the same impulse. The instructor’s autonomy has to be honored, but it can sometimes lead to an unwillingness, a resistance to discussions about teaching. That’s in part because discussions about teaching can seem content-free. And the stakes sometimes aren’t clear.
DS: Or they can be driven by odd sources.
SN: The President has gone on record saying that the curriculum belongs in an important way though not exclusively to the faculty. That’s one of the things about teaching evaluations. On one hand, students are often informed judges about whether they’ve learned or not. But there’s a certain way in which finally judging that has to be up to the faculty members.
But, no, I’m not told by my chair or by my dean what I must teach. There are things that have to appear on the syllabus as per university policy. And there are attempts to start discussions about best practices in some departments and through The Teaching and Learning Center. But generally, no, we are free to design courses as we see fit.
RA: I think Steve originally decided to do this because of this gap. There is so much that we take for granted, that we assume that you guys are going to know, and there’s a lot you don’t know about us and we think we know about your lives and we think we know about your priorities, and we try to find out, but we don’t.
This year, I was upset that our students didn’t know some basic facts. What do you mean that you don’t know that Kennedy died 50 years ago. But somebody said to me that this is the first class that has gone through K-12 under No Child Left Behind. So if you ask them anything that was on the test, they’ll know, but otherwise… Their teachers are straining to give them what’s on the test.
JI: Unless you’re very close to a professor, you really don’t hear about the process about this came about, why a professor is teaching you this, maybe from a personal experience I want to give to you guys versus what a dean handed you teach.
DS: I just had this conversation today with my class about SFFs. They asked me, “What happens to teachers if they get bad SFFs? What good comes from good ones? And how do they decide who teaches what class?”
RA: I can tell you as a department chair, I understood it was my job to go over every single teaching evaluation for every faculty member in my department. Basically, what I did was look for the people really at the bottom and make sure that they read their evaluations. Mostly, the people on the bottom don’t want to read them. But that’s up to the individual faculty member on whether they want to look at these things.
DS: Actually, the NTTs in the Bio department write reflections on their SFFs as part of their teaching portfolio.
SN: It was kind of Rebecca to mention the idea behind this conversation. I think faculty and students are to some degree black boxes to each other, as teachers and as learners; and to remedy that, we need to talk with each other. My hope is that this will not be the last of these conversations. •