On Teaching

Plato

Plato

I don’t remember ever forming the ambition to be a teacher. When I was very small, I used to play “teacher” with my dolls. I had a little slate that I would position for them as a blackboard and on which I would write my “lessons.” That was a child’s game though, not an ambition. I did it, I suppose, because school was a large part of the world of my experience, so when I was alone with my dolls I naturally imitated the few adults I’d had exposure to. That meant that if I wasn’t playing “mother,” I was playing “teacher.”

I was an art major when I first entered college. It had been drilled relentlessly into me that I would not be able to make a living as an artist, but that since I could draw, I would probably be able to make a living as a medical illustrator. So I enrolled at Ohio State, one of the few schools in the country that had a program in medical illustration. I did not fit well though into the community of art students, either at Ohio State, or at the Columbus College of Art and Design where I subsequently enrolled. I remained an art major, however, even after leaving both institutions, more out of a lack of imagination, I supposed, than out of positive commitment.

I studied, God knows what (I don’t remember now) at the University of Illinois at Chicago Circle before, finally, ending up at Earlham, a small Quaker college in Richmond, Indiana, still an art major. I took some art classes, but I also took a philosophy class. I don’t remember what prompted me to take that class; I think some philosophy class must have been required for my major. The subject, I still remember, was rationalism and empiricism. It sounds very unromantic, but I loved it. I changed my major soon after that first class and took almost nothing but philosophy from that point on.

I didn’t particularly like reading philosophy, as I’ve written elsewhere, but I loved talking about it. I loved talking about it so much that I actually tried to talk to my father about Kant’s Prolegomena to any Future Metaphysics the first summer after I transferred to Earlham.

“All that stuff about ‘a prior synthetic cognition’ may be very interesting to you,” my father observed somewhat patronizingly, “but you’re not going to find many young men interested in it.” I didn’t bother him after that with philosophy. I kept it to myself, or at least kept it to myself until I was back at Earlham again and could drop by the office of my professor and advisor Bob Horn.

“Bob is God,” is what students at Earlham used to say about him. He was kind and patient and brilliant. He didn’t talk too much, the way I fear I tend to do with my own students now, but just enough, just enough to get, or keep, the conversation going. He was tolerant and understanding. He wrote on one of my friend’s papers, “Eric, I understand you as if through a cloud.”

Nearly every afternoon of my senior year was spent in his office. I would head there as soon as my classes were done for the day and sit in the slanting afternoon light and talk and talk and talk about the ideas that were always swarming in my head like so many bees. And he would smile patiently and respond occasionally with his vastly superior knowledge and wisdom. I never felt though that he was talking down to me. I felt as if we were kindred spirits, as if we connected at a level that is rarely reached by two human beings.

Even when I decided, in my senior year, to go to graduate school, it had not been because I’d harbored any ambitions of becoming a teacher, but because I couldn’t conceive of any other life than the one I’d come to know, the life of philosophy, the life of talking about philosophy with some kindred spirit. I was afraid of teaching, in the beginning, afraid I would never be more than a kind of fraud, afraid I would never be able to approach the knowledge and wisdom of my own professors, particularly Bob. I cherished a little hope, like a tiny flame in the darkness, that somehow graduate school would transform me into a paragon of philosophical knowledge, but that day never came. The more I learned, the clearer it became to me how very much there was to know, and how little of it I had actually mastered.

They ease you into teaching in graduate school. You start out as a teaching assistant, which means you are really sort of a glorified student so you don’t feel you have to be so knowledgeable as the professors but can luxuriate in the experience of being ever so slightly more knowledgeable than the students. I did that for a few years before finally teaching my first course, so even if I still felt something of a fraud when students referred to me as “professor,” my impostor syndrome was not quite so pronounced as it would have been if I’d been thrown into teaching right after I’d gotten my undergraduate degree.

I like people. I’m an animal lover and people are animals, so I like people as well as other animals. I was raised not to dissemble, so I didn’t pretend to know things I didn’t know, and I learned gradually that in fact, over time, I’d acquired a great deal of knowledge and that even if I still fell pitifully short of the standards of my own undergraduate professors (particularly Bob), I was actually in a position to be of some real, concrete help to my students.

I taught in Denmark for several years before I came to Drexel. I never had a student for more than one course when I taught in Denmark, however, because my students there were nearly always Americans or other non-Danish nationals who were taking their semester abroad. I loved my students, but in a very detached way. I never got to know any of them, really, but that was okay with me. I’ve always been kind of a loner. I liked engaging with them intellectually, but it didn’t bother me that I would have them for only one course and after that would never see them again.

My situation when I came to Drexel was not so different. Drexel didn’t allow students to major in philosophy. The best they could do was a minor. I didn’t mind that; in fact, I rather like it. I loved teaching, but I also loved writing, and the fact that my exposure to the lives of my students was very limited suited me well. I got to go into the classroom and do what I loved–talk about philosophy–without having to spend any time helping my students navigate the practical difficulties of their lives. I had all the fun of teaching, or so I thought, with none of the inconvenience.

But then someone senior to myself got the idea that we should offer a major in philosophy. Drexel had had one before but had jettisoned it after several professors retired and were not replaced. Philosophy students do inordinately well on the GREs, so it wasn’t too difficult to convince the dean that a philosophy major would be good for the university. I was ambivalent about it myself, though. I knew that if we had a major I would suddenly “have students” in a way I had never “had students” before and that these “students” would cut into my research time.

I couldn’t bring myself to protest the reinstatement of the major, but neither could I champion it. I sat by quietly with a curiosity not unlike that of a disinterested person watching a train wreck. I didn’t think our students were sufficiently prepared for such a rigorous and intellectually challenging major and I feared that I was emotionally incapable of forming the kind of attachment to them that it seemed to me was necessary for a productive mentoring relationship.

I like large chunks of time all to myself, time when I don’t have to see, attend to, or worry about anyone else. I couldn’t picture myself hanging out with my students, couldn’t imagine welcoming them into my office and cheerfully allowing them to monopolize my time the way Bob had allowed me to monopolize his. I liked my students, but more as abstract beings than as concrete ones. I knew that in this respect I fell short of the standard that Bob had set for me, but I had accepted long ago that I would never be able to meet any of Bob’s standards, Bob, after all was “God.”

But then when we got the major back, everything changed. As if out of nowhere students began to appear who stood out from the students I’d had before. They weren’t interested in philosophy; they were possessed, possessed as I had been all those years ago when I’d practically lived in Bob’s office. Not only did I have them for more than one class; I had them in more than one class at a time! I teach only two courses per term, so I was surprised to find that I had a couple of students in both my classes and not just for one term, but for several terms in a row.

Something else happened with the reinstatement of the major: the size of my classes shrank. Where before I’d been teaching critical reasoning to twenty-five students, I suddenly found I was teaching epistemology to ten, and ten students who were a cut above, at least in terms of their commitment to the material, the ones I had become used to.

I suddenly found myself caring about my students very much. I couldn’t help but get to know them. They would talk to me not simply about the material they had read for class, but about their lives and long-term ambitions and I realized that by that point in my life, I’d actually lived long enough to have acquired some wisdom that could be helpful to them with respect to these more general concerns. They would come talk to me, as I had to Bob, and I found to my surprise that I actually enjoyed talking to them, even about things that were not directly related to philosophy.

“Your students are not your friends,” a colleague once remarked when advising new faculty on the perils of socializing too much with students. He’s right, of course. There’s a certain responsibility in a pedagogical relationship. A teacher must never confide in a student, or look to a student for emotional support. It is perfectly appropriate for a student to do these things, however, with a teacher. A teacher stands in loco parentis. Most college students are young people who have not yet made their way in the world but who are going to college as part of their preparation for that. They are more than their student numbers. They are inexperienced adults who occasionally need support and guidance when contemplating life’s larger questions, or simply how to survive a term in which they are taking too many courses in order to minimize their student-loan debt.

A teacher cannot hold himself too emotionally aloof from his students and still be an effective teacher. The point of a liberal arts education is not merely to impart knowledge to students on a variety of subjects. It is not even to introduce them to the joys of the life of the mind. It is to help them to become happy and thriving adults, to help them in their pursuit of “the good life” in the classical sense. But that can be done only by teachers who are willing to engage with their students as human beings and who can draw on their own humanity, and not simply their intellects, in those relationships.

A teacher has to love his students in a manner that is perhaps unique to that relationship, and in that way teach them that it is natural for people to care about one another and that the world into which they are entering, though challenging, is a friendlier place than they may have thought.

Accountability in Higher Education: The Elephant in the Room

Portrait caricatureThere’s been a lot of discussion among academics of Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa’s book Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses (Chicago, 2011). Arum and Roksa present strong evidence that students are not learning the reasoning skills that colleges and universities claim to teach. Part of the problem, it appears, is that professors aren’t requiring enough of students. Half the students surveyed for the book, observed Sarah E. Igo in a review in Academe, “reported that they had not had a class in the last semester requiring more than twenty pages of writing in the entire course, and a third had not taken a class requiring more than forty pages of reading a week.”

Why aren’t professors requiring more of students? Is it because, as some have argued, tenured and tenure-track faculty are more concerned about their research than they are about teaching? Or because they’re just lazy and hence don’t want to exert themselves grading lots of assignments? The latter position has lots of proponents. Tenure makes it nearly impossible to fire a professor, so what incentive does he or she have to do any real work?

Leaving aside the issue of whether people are more effectively motivated by the carrot or the stick, there’s one huge reason for the decline in the expectations placed on students in higher education that has yet to be given sufficient attention–the increasing amount of university-level instruction that is being done by what academics refer to as “contingent faculty.” Contingent faculty–primarily adjuncts who are hired by the course–are paid so badly that they are forced to teach more courses per term than can be handled well.

Tenured and tenure-track faculty typically teach two courses per term. There’s no official limit, however, to how many courses an adjunct can teach. Adjunct pay is miserably low. My department at Drexel pays between $2,175-$3,000 per course. We’re on quarters, so an adjunct who teaches two courses per term for the standard academic year would have an annual salary of between $13,000-$18,000. Few people, especially people with student loan debt, can afford to live on so little, so most adjuncts teach more than two courses per term. In fact, many teach more than four.

“This class isn’t like the other critical reasoning classes,” one of my students commented recently. “My buddy took critical reasoning last term and he said it was easy. He said he never had to go and he still did well.” This student, my student, I mean, had added the class at the end of the second week of the term. When he went to add it, he’d found that mine was the only section he could get in. “All the others had 25 students,” he said, “but this one had only sixteen.”

“Yeah, I lost a lot of students,” I explained, “after they got their first essay back.” I’d originally had 25 (the official ceiling) in each of my sections, but no more than twenty actually showed up for the first class because I’d emailed them the syllabus, and I think that scared off a few. The syllabus lists the requirements for the course including the fact that there are quizzes every day on the readings and three in-class essays. That’s a lot of work for me, but it makes for a better class because the quizzes mean the students will do the readings and the essays mean they’ll learn to construct a persuasive argument.

I spend almost all my time during the terms when I’m teaching grading quizzes and essays and meeting with students to discuss them. I don’t mind doing the work because I know it’s important. I do mind having almost no free time, but there are breaks between terms and then the summer when I can do some real research. I can’t do much research while I’m teaching. There just isn’t time.

Here’s the kicker though. I’m tenured. I’m one of an increasingly tiny elite of tenured professors who have reasonable teaching loads and rock-solid job security. I teach two courses per term. Sounds pretty cushy, doesn’t it? It’s all I can handle though, if I want to do a good job.

I complained once to another critical reasoning instructor about the amount of time it took to grade essays.

“I don’t give essays,” he said, “I can’t, I’m teaching four other courses.”

He was an adjunct. He had to teach five classes, he explained, just to be able to pay his rent. Some adjuncts teach more than five classes. Not at Drexel. We don’t let them teach more than three for us. They go other places though. They have to just to be able to eat. Most of the sections of critical reasoning we offer in any given term are taught by contingent faculty. That’s why they’re “easy.” The instructors can’t give so many assignments as tenured or tenure-track faculty because they don’t have time to grade them.

Grading essays in enormously time consuming. I’ve spent as much as an hour on a single essay. They don’t usually take that long, but they sometimes do. First you have to figure out what someone is trying to say. You can’t give constructive feedback on how they might be more successful unless you know what they’re trying to say and figuring that out can require reading some essays over and over again. Figuring out what a student is trying to say is only the beginning of the task of grading. Once you’ve done that, you have to determine where they went wrong, precisely where and how they failed. That isn’t easy either. It’s easy enough to say “I can’t make heads or tails of this,” but that doesn’t help them. You’ve got to figure out why you can’t make heads or tails of it. After you’ve done that (“step two,” I call it) you have to figure out what you need to tell them that will be helpful. You can’t point out everything that went wrong. That’s demoralizing. They’ll just give up if you point out every problem. You’ve got to select from among the myriad things that could be improved, the ones that are absolutely crucial and then find a way to communicate them that doesn’t sound too harsh.

I’m fortunate because my job is secure. I have time to give my students substantial reading and writing assignments and I don’t have to worry that they will trash me in their evaluations if I’m hard on their papers. I trust them to be fair with me if I am fair with them, and they usually are. Tell an adjunct that, though. They’re hired by the course. If their evaluations aren’t good, they know that they can be easily replaced with some other recent Ph.D. who’ll be more accommodating.

There’s a lot of talk about how the consumer model of higher education is destroying it. I think if it were employed properly, it could save it. Students should be getting more for their money than most adjuncts, through no fault of their own, are able to give them. It’s not that adjuncts are less well qualified than tenured, or tenure-track professors. They’re occasionally better qualified.  The problem is that they’re overworked. Most aren’t able to give students the kind of attention, or assignments, or feedback on their assignments that a tenured or tenure-track professor could give them. If I were paying what students are paying nowadays to go to school, I’d want more for my money than I could get from and adjunct.

There’s a lot of discussion among academics about the increasing use of adjunct labor, but nearly all of that discussion concerns how exploitative that practice is–of the adjuncts. You almost never hear anyone point out that it is also exploitative of the students, that it exploits their ignorance. Most students are simply relieved to find they’ve got an “easy” class, a class where the instructor requires very little of them. They’re still assuming they’re in school to get that piece of paper that will get them a job and the easier it is to get that piece of paper the better. Most of them don’t realize yet that that piece of paper is not going to get them a job. That if there is any hope of their ever getting, or at least keeping, a job it will be because of the stuff they’ve actually learned in college.

Academics complain almost constantly about the preoccupation of students with “that piece of paper,” yet the academy itself encourages this attitude by turning so much instruction over to people who don’t have time to do more than rubber stamp a student’s transcript.

The recent spate of blaming academics for the decline in the quality of higher education is just another symptom of what Richard Hofstadter, among others, identified as the anti-intellectualism of American culture. What is increasingly referred to as the crisis in higher education is sometimes characterized as a battle between two different models of education: the liberal-arts model and the vocational one. “[I]s college,” asks James M. Maslow, “an apprenticeship for informed public participation or a store selling competitive private credentials?” (“Losing Our Faculties,” Academe). That’s a red herring, though, because the sad truth is we are failing miserably even at the task of teaching practical skills. American culture is very anti-intellectual, so you won’t find too many people in the general population clambering to rescue the liberal-arts model of higher education. People would scream bloody murder, though, if they realized they were paying tens of thousands of dollars to institutions where students weren’t even learning practical skills.

I’m a big proponent of the liberal-arts model of education, but most of the energy I put into teaching is actually directed at helping my students acquire the practical skills of being able to construct and analyze arguments. That’s true even with upper-level courses in epistemology and metaphysics. Most of my students don’t know the difference between an argument and a bunch of unsupported assertions strung together with a lot of non-argumentative rhetoric. Many of them have difficulty even remembering the topics of papers that are assigned in class. I’ll give them the topic and explain the structure the paper should have and still, many will turn in rambling, unstructured musings on unrelated topics. It’s not because they don’t care about doing well. They care very much, but their minds are so completely untrained that even teaching them the most rudimentary of practical skills requires enormous chunks of time, more time than most adjuncts have to give to their students.

People are blaming academics for the crisis in higher education. The decision to turn over increasing amounts of instruction to beleaguered adjuncts is not coming from academics, however, it’s coming from administrators who’ve migrated to academia from the world of business where cutting costs is pursued as if it were a holy grail.

Academics, even adjuncts, care about teaching, but faculties are being squeezed by bloated administrations that need to cut costs to justify their own existence and one of the ways they have chosen to cut costs is to replace tenured faculty with adjuncts. Students need feedback on their work. They need more than just a grade on an assignment if they have any hope of doing well and for many of them grades are crucial to their receiving the financial aid they need to be able to remain in school. Most adjuncts don’t have time to give much feedback though, or to meet with students one-on-one to discuss how they might improve their work. Imagine how frustrated, how desperately frustrated, a student could become who sees his or her grades slipping but can’t get enough feedback from an instructor to halt that downward trend.

Lack of feedback isn’t the only problem associated with the increasing use of adjuncts. I’ve had students who have never been to a single class email me in week eight of a ten-week term with some sob story as to why they’ve never been to class and begging me to make up some special assignments for them so that they can “still pass.” Where, in God’s name, I’ve asked myself, are these kids getting the idea that any instructor would do such a thing? It took me a while to figure that one out. I’ll bet there are a few adjuncts out there who’ll do it. If the student is still officially enrolled in the course, he can still do an evaluation and the instructor may fear he’ll get a bad evaluation if he doesn’t find some way to help the student pass.

Students are being led to believe that they don’t have to do any real work in order to earn an advanced degree. So then, when they run into an instructor who actually requires something from them, they protest the instructor is being unfair. What isn’t fair, however, is blaming tenured and tenure-track faculty for the diminished expectations that are being placed on students when evidence suggests the problem stems from the gradual takeover of instruction by overworked adjuncts who don’t have the time or energy to require much of their students. What isn’t fair is taking money from people and claiming to be educating them when you’re not.

“From the professorial perspective,” writes Benjamin Ginsberg in The Fall of the Faculty : The Rise of the All-Administrative University and Why It Matters (Oxford, 2011), “the university exists to promote teaching by providing faculty members with classrooms, laboratories, libraries, computers, and other instructional resources. From the administrative perspective, however, the purpose of teaching is to bring fees-paying customers (sometimes known as students) into its dormitories and classrooms.”

That’s the elephant in the room, the thing nobody wants to acknowledge because it makes everybody, meaning every institution, look bad. That’s the dirty little secret behind the crisis in higher education. It’s not so much a battle between populist vocational training and old-guard intellectual elitism. It’s a battle between academics who want to give students something for their money and expanding armies of administrators who care less and less about what sort of product they are providing, so long as the money keeps coming in.

This piece originally appeared in CounterPunchMay 29, 2012