Semester has begun

As I sit waiting for blood to be drawn again, I am already behind by several weeks in a number of different areas from teaching and writing to other professional responsibilities at a local and national level.

It is easy, too easy, to become inundated as an academic. There are too few of us to do too many jobs. As universities continue to cut back on spending for those that teach and spend more on overhead, there is little left for simple things like cost of living raises for faculty and financial support for students.

I start my tenure in a down economy and contentious political climate where academics and instructors are continuously under attack in virulent discourse in every major media outlet, which is more than a tad depressing.

I do think that things can improve for teachers and learners, but only if we can take some form of control over the discourse that paints teachers as greedy, stupid, and unwilling to help learners.

We need to better tell the stories of overcrowded classrooms and outdated instructional and assessment methods foisted on them by systems that prepare the for the jobs of 50 years ago. We need to tell the stories of teachers innovating to overcome system challenges and share their methods with other teachers and academics to improve learning.

In my doctoral course last week I noted that there is a political faction in the U.S. demanding that tenured faculty teach more undergraduates under the false impression that it will improve learning outcomes or retention. This is a fallacy, because it assumes that all faculty are trained experts in pedagogy. Instead, outside of schools of education, faculty in general do not receive courses on how to teach or basic theories of teaching. In my PHD program, we had course in theory and research, but pedagogy was a concept without application for most. We were given strategies with no real world connections not because they didn’t want to but because giving 30 students teaching experiences in a semester was not practical. That was in a school of education. In other fields where the knowledge is very specialized such as chemistry, medicine, business, etc. Students rarely, if ever, receive any sort of training on teaching and a cursory glance at our university catalogue shows no required courses on teaching for scientists.

This begs questions: is having a teaching assistant untrained in developing curriculum or executing instruction worse than having a tenured faculty member do it? How can we change PHD program curriculum to improve learning outcomes at universities with the knowledge that many that graduate will teach somewhere at some time? Can we better connect those that are experts at teaching with those that are not to improve pedagogical content knowledge? Instead of producing tenure track faculty with little interest in teaching and a very narrow content knowledge base, can we design programs that convey the benefit and need for good teaching at every level of academia instead of treating it as an afterthought or something faculty have to do instead of want to do?

I propose that we begin with discourse about the best ways to engage in a systemic change of programs to engender better teaching faculty in every discipline and help universities see their role as producing well-rounded future faculty members rather than grant writers.

Those that criticize universities for failing our undergraduates and even graduate students are not wrong. They are just attributing a solution to the problem that will not address it. Instead, we need to look at the systemic problems of the production of university faculty, the perception of teaching by faculty, and seek solutions that can result in meaningful change.


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