The Artificial Divide in Teaching

The university experience can be frustrating for those seeking intellectual engagement with peers and scholars. Most of the reason for this frustration can be laid at the feet of overwrought administration, ballooning credit requirements, and the separation of scholars from teachers in the hiring of adjuncts to teach the entry level (and most important) courses. This has led to a self-destructive attitude among faculty that somehow their own work is more important than, unrelated to, or distinct from teaching.

This attitude will not fare very well when the number of students required to make the university function as it is today begins to dwindle. They are already under intense marketing pressure to attend this or that university. These persuasive appeals often use things that you would find in a cruise ship advertisement - indoor rock walls to climb, nice private cabins, plenty of shipboard activities, and a tantalizing list of ports-of-call for the young and motivated graduate. Branding has trumped both research and teaching in the current appeals.

Future appeals will have to move to other things such as faculty quality. There will be only two types of university research that will get attention in the near future. The first will be the sort of research that brings in millions in grant funding. This research can easily staff a department, several labs, and compensate faculty for that research time in a way that can provide excellent teachers for the undergraduates in that field. The hands-on graduate experience with such a project and PI will be valuable too. 

For the rest of us whose research does not garner millions in grants, the only sort of research that will be worth doing will be research that directly engages the classroom. I'm not talking about pedagogical research. Instead, I am talking about treating classes as research, and research as classes. I'm suggesting we remove the most artificial barrier in university teaching - that is the distinction between scholar and student. Elimination of this barrier in a recognizable way will solve this dilemma, and also recover space for the sort of research we wish to do but may not have the obvious resources available to do it. Students, along with whatever else they are, are amazing resources and partners for thinking things through.

An air of superiority or a feeling that the professor is some expert font of knowledge about things is not a good way to conduct a classroom. It is an even worse way to engage scholarship, leading toward things such as confirmation bias and motivated reasoning in the genesis and development of the research project. In the classroom, the professor telling everyone what to think, question, or do is a poor strategy for teaching - there must be peer interaction and suggestions for meaning and investigation in the course. Likewise, the PI who runs his or her lab as a dictator is throwing away the valuable resource of other eyes and minds considering the hypotheses and the data in front of them. Nobody wants to do research with someone who thinks they already know the answer. Nobody wants to take a course from a professor who portrays that they know it all either.

In short, a good lab is a good classroom, and vice versa. 

I'm starting to think that this is the logical result of employing Paulo Friere's idea of "Generative Themes" in the classroom - the group decides what the starting point for teaching will be based on their own experiences and attitudes. From there, everyone can contribute to the investigation. The professor's role at this point is to contribute from the field, when applicable, and when it is appropriate to the conversation at hand. Generative themes - "start where the students are" - seem to require that the professor treat the other members of the class as co-investigators. The typical classroom where lecture and powerpoint are designed to pretend to include student response on a limited range of questions or ideas will not get much attention from either the world or the administration.

What will get attention is the student voice. Well beyond the lazy and disinterested grade-grubbers that most faculty portray and believe university students to be, current univeristy students want to be engaged, but are seldom pushed by their environment of consumer-oriented media. They want principles, but find a lot of pressure to dismiss the idea of principle all together in favor of a totally open, hard-principle free belief system of "whatever works for you." They want to engage the world directly and at the level of materiality, but find few leaders and fewer satisfying options with which to do something that appears to be measurable change. 

They will demand a critical engagement from their teachers because they will know that another university will be happy to have them. The much smaller pool of students interested in a 4 year on-campus program will mean that universities will finally have to start treating teaching as a central part of how they evaluate faculty. There won't be many alternatives. The classroom, not the lab, will become the place where the administration wants the most eyes. 

Several years ago, Bill Gates suggested that a good way to evaluate classroom teachers would be to record their teaching in digital video. This would produce a ready-made stream of content that could be cut for portfolio purposes, or parts could be pulled by mentor-teachers to help younger teachers identify errors made in the classroom. But teachers being primarily a group of frightened, insecure people rail against such an idea, fearing that it will mean that they will be fired for things that are not their fault.

We, of course, have made teachers this way through making them both the cause and the tool to fix poor performance by students on tests. It will take a long time to get the culture back to where it needs to be regarding self improvement, evaulation, and seeing teaching as an art, a craft, and a philosophy (a better word here is praxis). I think it's time for us to start the process of getting over ourselves, realizing our fields don't have much value without other people involved from outside of them, and valuing process above result - separating education and scholarship from the typical, default capitalist articulation of "the valuable."

The best way to return identifiable value to the university is to break down the artificial distinctions between research and teaching by considering our students as co-investigators, and treating our classrooms as important, grant-winning laboratories.