May 6th, 2008

College Teaching as a Profession


I’m reading other blogs now that I’ve started writing this one. My favorite so far is one on knitting written by an expert knitter. It’s funny, very informative, and some days even a bit inspirational. But overall I have to confess that I’m mostly unimpressed, especially with blogs devoted to higher education topics … maybe you can recommend some better ones.

Here’s an example (without the link because I don’t think there’s much to be learned about teaching and learning from this source). An adjunct professor asks for advice on teaching, says she wants to improve, but doesn’t know how and isn’t located in a place with lots of resources. After some hemming and hawing, the blogger (identified as an administrator), suggests contacting three our four outstanding faculty on campus and asking how they got that way.

That’s not a bad answer, but getting help this way depends on those faculty being able to articulate what they did to grow and develop as teachers. In my experience, some of the best don’t know. They claim they don’t do anything other than what comes naturally or they have a gift for which they are most grateful. Advice like that doesn’t do much for the inquirer.

What makes the answer something far less than impressive is the failure to refer this teacher to any number of wonderful written sources like McKeachie’s venerable Tips for Teachers or a pedagogical periodical like College Teaching or one for her discipline, or a newsletter (I shan’t mention names since I’m hopelessly biased about one of them). There are conferences, online seminars, even courses.

Maybe this sounds like an author who wishes more people would read her stuff. I hope not, because the issue is much larger and way more significant than that. The answer I’m berating is symptomatic of a fundamental problem with college teaching. We don’t treat it like a profession. How would you like it if your doctor worked on her skills by chatting with a couple more experienced docs? Would you feel comfortable if your lawyer honed his skills over coffee with a crony? Can you think of any other profession that doesn’t have a viable literature connected with its practice, that doesn’t have well-established norms expecting ongoing growth and development for practitioners?

Yeah, I’m not all that impressed with blogs so far, but I’m a whole lot more worried about the ways we don’t treat college teaching like profession.

—Maryellen Weimer

  • Dispersemos

    I appreciate your comments about locating substantive discussion on college teaching in blogs. I, too, have been searching for discussion of best teaching/research practices via blogs and have found mostly the woes of academic life. The few issues of The Teaching Professor that I've been able to read have been very helpful. Thanks for creating this genuinely instructive forum for discussion of teaching.I've been trying to lobby at my college for investment in a center for teaching and learning. We are seeking to spend some money on improving teaching on campus, but so far the suggestions include special teaching fellowships and workshops, which can be valuable, but they also seem to benefit only the few. I think we would be much better off with a center that provided faculty with resources and guidance in the day-to-day improvement of teaching (frequent observation, course development, mentoring, etc.). Any thoughts about this?Thanks again for the substantive posts. I'd love to read more and hear more reading suggestions for up and coming college teachers.

  • Jennifer Imazeki

    I'm fortunate to be at a University that generally takes teaching seriously (we have a great Center for Teaching and Learning, Instructional Technology Services people that take the Instructional part seriously, etc.). But even with these resources, I would say that the majority of my colleagues do not think much about their teaching beyond what they must do to get decent evaluations (if that). Do you think that part of the problem is the compartmentalized nature of universities? That is, there are certainly aspects of teaching that are universal but it can sometimes be hard for me to see how to apply lessons from other fields to my own.I'd also love to know if there are blogs on college teaching that you DO find useful and would recommend!

  • eagle

    To dismersemos:I feel really blessed to have a Teaching and Learning Center at my university. It offers so much more than the occasional workshop. n The staff are there day in and day out to respond to my questions, show me how to use a function on Blackboard, brainstorm a solution t a current problem, point me to appropriate literature and encourage me to keep learning and changing. Lobby for a center. It is SO worth it.