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