Teaching Is a Liberal Art

In his recent essay, “How Do Professors Learn to Teach (or Do They)?” Jason Fertig reminds us of the unhappy fact that most graduate programs do little to prepare graduate students to teach. Their aim is to produce researchers and specialized scholars, not teachers.

With some exceptions, graduate students are too busy doing coursework, preparing for qualifying exams, composing bibliographies, and of course, working on the dissertation to think about teaching at its theoretical and practical levels.

The scholarship of teaching and learning (SoTL), which emerged as a movement about forty years ago, was supposed to come to the rescue.

It touted a more systematic (“scholarly”) inquiry into student learning and best teaching practices. It offered objective and quantifiable means of assessment (e.g., surveys and analysis of observational research and case studies) that would enable instructors to identify specific problems, develop methods to solve them, apply those methods, study the results, measure the outcomes.

It created journals and websites so that teachers could publish the findings of their classroom experiments, thus quantifying their productivity and showing other colleagues and administrators that they were “scholars,” too.

In short, it promised to solve the problem of poor teaching and student learning outcomes that resulted in part from new college instructors having little or no experience in the classroom and from veteran faculty caring more about scholarship than they did about teaching.

But SoTL has failed to live up to its promise. In the first place, student learning outcomes haven’t improved—and in many instances have gotten worse—as the authors of Higher Education? and Academically Adrift (among others) have recently shown. In the second place, there’s not any evidence that college teaching has improved because of it. In fact, my own experience suggests the opposite.

Several years ago I was visiting assistant professor at a selective Midwestern four-year liberal arts college. Every week the dean of students gathered new faculty to discuss some of the latest findings of SoTL, from creating a rubric to grade papers to using classroom clickers to arouse student participation

Most of my colleagues grumbled about those sessions. Not only did they feel obligated as new faculty to make an impression on the dean, but they always left feeling unsatisfied and unfulfilled. When I asked why, a common response was that the methods and techniques presented by the dean tended to complicate issues unnecessarily and make teaching seem artificial, stilted, or stiff.

Talk about outcomes and assessment might appeal to administrators, but my colleagues were hankering to know what they really needed to be successful in the classroom. They wanted a synoptic and concise explication of the principles of teaching that would help them foster the aims of liberal education. What they wanted was the skinny on teaching, which is why I wrote my book, as Fertig mentions in his essay.

Take lecturing, for instance, which gets a bad rap from modern SoTL for promoting passive learning. The problem is not with the method; the problem is with professors who never learn how to speak effectively and instruct orally and who think that teaching requires little more than standing before a class spewing out facts or eliciting simple answers from students—like Ben Stein in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off: “Anyone? . . . Anyone?”

A good lecturer doesn’t simply reproduce information or summarize knowledge to save students the effort and time of reading for themselves.

A good lecturer convinces students that the theme is of first-rate importance, arousing curiosity and driving them to investigate the subject further on their own; he or she imparts genuinely new knowledge or a new point of view not obtainable in textbooks, from the Internet, or from the other obvious sources, and raises new problems upon old material, which force students to think for themselves how to solve them.

When done well, a good lecture is a useful and an effective mode of instruction because it gets students to think in ways they have not thought before, it fills in gaps in knowledge, and it cultivates understanding by correcting wrong impressions

No doubt this is easier said than done, but if you want to learn how to conduct a classroom discussion, study and imitate the mental agility of Socrates in Plato’s dialogues; if you want to know how the mind learns and retains knowledge, read and study Locke’s Of the Conduct of the Understanding and William James’s Talks to Teachers.

In addition to introducing us to the fundamentals of the cognitive process as it relates to teaching and learning—and anticipating what modern cognitive scientists tell us about this process, as I demonstrate in my book—these and other classic texts on education and pedagogy make us better teachers because they help us to pose the fundamental questions about teaching and education that all teachers should be asking.

They not only force us to return to the basic principles of our art, but also to resist easy and preferred answers by showing us others worthy of consideration. More importantly, they remind us that teaching is the essence of liberal education itself—that what we teach and how we teach are inseparable from the aims of undergraduate education.

Modern SoTL can hinder those aims because it often disregards sound methods rooted in concrete reality and the world of things, and because it reduces teaching to a system rather than approach it as an art that must be cultivated through practice, experience, and extensive study. It produces teaching technicians who (at best) know specialized techniques, but who (all too often) remain disconnected from the tradition of their profession and possess little or no knowledge of the inner philosophy of their art.

When all is said and done, SoTL adds almost nothing new to the fundamental principles of teaching and learning that hasn’t already been said in the classic texts on education and pedagogy; and it certainly hasn’t solved the real problem, which is why students are not learning the subjects they are supposed to learn.

No one has ever taught great teachers how to teach. Jason Fertig was right about that.

The good teachers—the best teachers—teach because it’s their passion, their calling. Like poets and writers and artists and scientists, they are willing to endure hardship and obscurity, and in most cases forgo better-paying jobs, because they love what they do, need to be in a classroom, and cannot imagine doing anything else. They are intrinsically motivated and willing to accept the activity itself as the reward of their achievement. Above all, they are willing to think about teaching and work hard to improve it.

Once we imbibe this basic truth, and practice it, the quality of undergraduate teaching—and of higher education as a whole—will improve drastically in American colleges and universities.