Maintaining the Status Quo in Teaching

Every field of study has its standard way of teaching it to students.

Science is mostly taught through lectures and labs. Literature and philosophy are mostly taught through classroom discussion. And English composition is mostly taught through students writing essays and bringing them to class for their fellow students to read and evaluate.

I experienced that when I took upper-level undergraduate and graduate writing classes. Peer review was the primary method for teaching writing. Different professors did it somewhat differently, but peer review boils down to other students reading your writing and then giving you feedback.

That works quite well, provided that your fellow students are themselves good writers.

Writing teachers have thus experienced successful peer review as a good way to teach writing. As a result, most of them teach with that same approach, even in their freshman composition classes. I certainly did.

It has become the standard way to teach composition.

But what if it’s wrong? Honestly, that question never occurred to me until one of my developmental writing students approached me and asked why we did peer review since, “I feel like I’m getting nothing but bad advice. I mean, they don’t know any more than I do.”

That question sent a shockwave through me. I had noticed that I spent about half of my time going around telling students to ignore practically everything their fellow students told them to do. My students did not know grammar, or how to write a good sentence, or how to write a coherent paragraph, or how to make an argument – and I was asking them to critique their fellow students on precisely those points!

I then began discussing writing pedagogy with a fellow professor at University of North Texas-Dallas, and we observed that all of the good writers we knew were avid readers. The practice of reading good writing allows you to see what good sentences, good paragraphs, and good arguments look like.

We concluded that students need to read, and to read a lot, before they can learn how to write well.

Having realized that, I decided to focus more on reading. I wanted my students to understand what they were reading, to see how good arguments develop and what good sentences look like. I spent more time discussing the essays from A World if Ideas, and I added Milan Kundera’s novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being, which dealt with many of the same philosophical issues as discussed in the textbook. I did not cut back on the amount of writing students did, but I did cut back on what I considered to be the most damaging practice: peer review. I didn’t eliminate it entirely. On shorter assignments, students only received feedback from me, but on major projects I still had students peer review each other’s papers. Old habits die hard.

But it turns out that universities are not fond of people altering the way things are typically done.  Like most bureaucratic institutions, universities have procedures that tend to maintain the status quo.

One of the ways universities maintain the status quo is through classroom observations and evaluations. These observations have primarily been used for adjunct professors and lecturers, to determine if their contracts will be renewed. Once a year, an administrator will sit in on one of your classes, observe what is going on in the classroom on that one day, and give you written and oral feedback based on his observations.

This can be beneficial. Sometimes something is happening in a class that you are missing, but which an outsider might notice. Insofar as evaluations are used in this manner, they are useful.

There is, however, another way these evaluations are used, and that is to enforce pedagogical conformity. Any faculty member who deviates from the standard teaching approach is apt to be called on it following a classroom evaluation. That’s what I experienced.

I was observed by my department chair (who was not an English professor, since we had no English department, but rather were included in the Liberal Arts and Life Sciences department), and she could not understand why I was spending so much time having the students read outside of class and discussing those essays in class; that was not how the other English composition professors were teaching the class.

I was advised by the department chair that I should conform the way I taught composition to the way everyone else was teaching it. Neither she nor the dean showed any concern whatsoever as to whether or not my students were in fact learning how to write; the only concern was that I was not teaching how everyone else was teaching.

Enforcing pedagogical uniformity might make sense if we were certain that a particular method was the one and only right way to teach all students at all times, but there is certainly no evidence that peer review is the best possible way to teach writing. If anything, since university composition professors started using peer review, with the egalitarian reforms of the 1960s, student writing skills have gotten worse.

Ways of teaching within any given field are more the result of history of teaching and personal biases than scientific study of how humans learn best that particular subject. This is as true in composition classes as in others. Sometimes teachers happen upon the best methods, but heaven help you if you have happened upon a new way of teaching that clearly works, but nobody understands what you’re doing.

Those who support these kinds of classroom observations and evaluations may think that they prevent professors from indoctrinating their students or shirking in their teaching duties. But since the observation is just during one day, professors under evaluation can easily avoid going off topic and making it seem as though they’re working hard. Therefore, the main effect of classroom evaluations is to enforce conformity and to discourage discovery of new and potentially better methods of teaching.