Saturday, June 7, 2014

Academia's Teaching Problem

I went to a Jesuit university as an undergraduate full of highly skilled teachers.  While my alma mater did not give me much insight into the recent trends in scholarship, it did provide me with engaging classes taught by faculty committed to the classroom.  I knew from friends and family that not all universities were like that.  I'd heard horror stories of disinterested faculty and incompetent teaching assistants.  It confused me, since I figured that university faculty were being paid to teach, and ought to not keep their jobs if they weren't capable of doing it.

Once I got to graduate school at a Big Ten university, I soon realized how deep the problem was.  My department had plenty of able teachers, many of whom also happened to be accomplished scholars.  However, it was obvious that those in the academic world who talked about or conspicuously sought to improve their classes were not to be considered serious scholars.  I remember one new hire whose manifest teaching ability had actually made her suspect in some people's eyes.  Graduate students were tracked from the beginning.  Those considered to have the best potential as scholars were spared from being TAs, as if getting trained how to teach would be useless in their future careers.

Of course, the vast majority of students that academics teach have little to no interest in the academic accomplishments of the people standing in front of the classroom.  Only highly-engaged majors in upper-level classes are aware of such things.  I hate to break to you, but nobody cares about your monograph.  Despite the fact that students form a much bigger audience than exists for most scholarship, there is a subset of profs who have absolute, unmasked contempt for their students.  I have heard them express such sentiments in the faculty lounge, online, and at conferences.  Don't take my word for it, just read Rebecca Schuman's piece on how critical theory poster boy Slavoj Zizek joked about not caring if his students committed suicide.  It is a decided minority who think and talk like this, but the culture of academia gives the haters a pass, and if they are accomplished scholars, defends them.

The combination of students being unaware or indifferent to their professors' scholarship with the negligence (and even malice) of so many university faculties towards their students means that with the humanities and higher education generally facing massive cutbacks, professors have few allies among the students.  Why would they stick their necks out for people who aren't invested in their own education?  Of course, there are many, many excellent teachers in higher education, and I have had the pleasure of knowing some of them.  I just think that deep down the fact that the faculty in toto sees teaching as a secondary, lesser pursuit is palpable among the students.

That attitude exists even among people trying to get out of academia.  As someone who has become a high school teacher, I am well aware of how difficult it is to teach K-12 and why that's not something many folks looking for a post-ac life preserver are enthusiastic about.  That said, when I read something like this, written by s struggling adjunct who acts like being a mere high school teacher is beneath him, I detect the same old snobbery.  I honestly don't see this cultural attitude changing, since it is so deeply ingrained.  In former times, when our universities had greater support and control, that disdain for teaching was not going to cause major problems for anyone except frustrated students.  Now, as the neoliberal assault is gaining speed with each passing day, academics have effectively set themselves apart from the students, who ought to be their natural allies in holding off the profiteers and educrats.

1 comment:

Cindy Mayer said...

I was not so lucky to have good teachers when I was a student. I don`t want to say that they were bad people but they were totally indifferent as teachers. All the time we had to search for assistance somewhere else (thanks to this helpful service which supported me in writing essays) To my mind educators should inspire their learners to do their best and gain new aims but what we had was constant pressure. Once I heard the comparison of teachers and medical workers, the only difference was that doctors treat our body and teachers treat our soul.