Our Underachieving Colleges

by Harry on May 14, 2018

At the end of the semester I ask students in my smaller classes to talk for 2 minutes about what they think they have learned. This semester, for the first time, I asked them to write out their reflections before we met, and then just talk for a minute or two in class. This produced a great deal more reflection than usual (and a lot of online interaction, which seems, among other things, to have committed me to hosting a couple of reunions next year). The class was on Values and Education, with the central text being Dilemmas of Educational Ethics: Cases and Commentaries.

Ryan Michaelson asked me for a spring break reading recommendation about higher education and, as always when faced with that request, I recommended Derek Bok’s Our Underachieving Colleges. Here’s an excerpt from his reflection (used with his permission):

For the past 20 years, I thought that simply showing up to class and doing the assigned work would develop me as individual. It could definitely be said that I was being naive or ignorant but to be fair I feel that this how most children are raised. You go to school, get good grades, go to college, get a diploma, and then get a good job. That is the traditional story of development as a person. After reading Derek Bok’s book though, the inklings of doubt that many college students, myself included, have about college and education were finally put into words. Not to sound dramatic but reading Our Underachieving Colleges, for me, laid the final foundational pieces of a new outlook that had been slowly developed throughout the semester.

Not to sound dramatic, but a decade ago Our Underachieving Colleges had similarly powerful impact on me; it has been a major inspiration for me in my practice as a teacher ever since. I long ago promised CB that I’d write a review. It’s a bit late for that, but my student’s comment, especially coming at the end of that particular class, prompted me to give it (yet) another look and think about what I had learned from it. Here’s the somewhat stream-of-consciousness upshot.

Our Underachieving Colleges is about exactly what the title suggests. The claim is simply that, under existing budgetary conditions, we could be producing more learning than we do if we had a better understanding of how to teach well; and a better understanding is not enormously costly to get. The tone is, as befits someone who was President of Harvard for such a long time, moderate, and not at all accusatory: he understands that getting faculty to change their behavior is not likely to be accomplished by someone in his position through haranguing.

He articulates the purposes of an undergraduate higher education through the chapters of the books. This was the first eye-opening feature of the book. I went to college in the UK, and, having already specialized early in high school, studies nothing except Philosophy, conceived fairly narrowly as Anglo-American analytic philosophy largely without any of the normative bits (we had a compulsory ethics paper, but even that one could get away with doing mainly meta-ethics: ie, applied philosophy of language). I sometimes quip that I had received a vocational training in a discipline that just happens to be one of the liberal arts. Whatever they are. I’d been in the US more than 20 years, and was well aware that students take a wide range of breadth requirements, but nobody had ever properly articulated to me why: people would talk about ‘liberal education’ (a term that still seems to mean different things to different people), or ‘educating the whole person’ (which, manifestly, requiring them to listen to a professor talk 75 minutes at a time, 30 times a semester, with 300 other students with whom they never speak, doesn’t do). Long into my career I harbored the assumption higher education was about learning for a handful who really liked it (people like the professors) and a kind of sorting of the others into professions. Bok articulates with a little more precision than I had previously heard the goals of a liberal education: Learning to Communicate; Learning to Think; Building Character; Living with Diversity; Preparing for a Global Society; Acquiring Broader Interests; Preparing for a Career.

These seem reasonable to me. They balance the interests of the students themselves with those of the broader society, and give appropriately little weight to the interests of professors. Bok’s theory of what an undergraduate higher education is for is normative, and he largely takes it for granted, rather than arguing for it. The second illuminating observation is that if we agree with him (and I roughly do) that those are the right purposes, we then have a standard for assessing how well we are doing. I think I judge our practice more harshly than Bok does, and I confess that is partly the zeal of the convert, and partly compensation for believing, with considerable warrant, that I spent half my career underachieving in lots of the ways that Bok identifies. But he observes that we now have quite a bit of evidence about what makes for effective, and what makes for ineffective, instruction. And not only do most faculty not know much of that evidence, but many have little interest in knowing it. We don’t have an infrastructure around improving our practice as instructors (whereas we have a massive infrastructure around improving our practice as researchers). And a lot of what we do seems at odds with the goals we profess. Learning exactly how is what laid the foundational pieces of a new outlook that I developed in the subsequent months and years.

For example, most professors rate ‘critical thinking’ as a very important goal of undergraduate education. But a great deal of teaching and assessment depends essentially on rote learning. Bok cites a study showing, for example, that students who were successful in introductory physics courses had no better understanding of the principles of Newtonian mechanics than similar students who had not taken the course. Another study:

A review of audiotapes made in 19 classes in diverse subjects at the University of Texas at Austin found that 88.5% of the available time was taken up by professors speaking with only 5% being used for talk by students. Most of the few questions asked by professors were administrative in nature, or asked students to recall factual knowledge.

Put that fact in front of a selection of students at institutions like mine (as I have done) and most will nod and say that is roughly their experience: they will add that assessments have the same character (merely recalling factual knowledge, or merely applying remembered algorithms). Of course, critical thinking is not well-defined, and we don’t exactly know how to measure it, but none of those professors developed their fine critical thinking skills by simply knowing facts and spitting them back.

The absence of discussion is not restricted to large lecture classes, and STEM. I’ve been teaching a 100-person class this semester, and one of the students asked to take another course from me next semester because “I have just finished my [unnamed social science but not economics] major, and I still have another year to go so I have some freedom”. I knew she was enjoying being able to discuss ideas in my class, so I observed that I am teaching much smaller classes next semester. The course on love and sex will be very discussion heavy, whereas the political philosophy course (an upper level intro for majors) will be more lecture/discussion:

“So, that will be like this class, then?”.
“Oh no, there’ll be much more discussion than in this class, there will only be 24 students, so no more than a third of the time will be me talking”.
“Really? This [100 person lecture] class has had more discussion than any other class I’ve taken”.
“Oh, that surprises me. I thought that there are plenty of small classes in [unnamed social science but not economics] major”.
“There are. I’m in two 20-person classes right now. But the professors lecture the whole period. They assign us two books a week to read, but that’s too much, and we don’t need to read them because their lectures tell us everything we need for the exam, and there’s no accountability in the classroom. All my upper-division classes have been like that.”

Some of Bok’s analogies are funny. He offers a plausible explanation for why teachers are so averse to discussion in the classroom:

Teaching by discussion can also seem forbidding because it makes instructors uncomfortably aware of their shortcomings. Lecturers can delude themselves that their courses are going well, but discussion leaders know when their teaching is failing to rouse the students’ interest by the indifferent quality of responses and the general torpor of the class. Trying to conduct a discussion with apathetic students is much like giving a bad dinner party

The sentiment, if not the analogy, rang true with me at the time, and still does. I confronted the problem head on during the fall after I read the book (2007) when I taught a small freshman class. The first three weeks I would come into each class with about 45 minutes of lecture prepared on the assumption they would ask questions and discuss things. But they couldn’t. They just stared at me and took notes, and it gradually became clear that they thought I was telling them truths that it was their job to repeat back to me. If I hadn’t had Bok’s guidance I think I’d never have taught that class again – in fact, I now teach it regularly, and really seem to have gotten the hang of getting them to read, think, and discuss, with me and with each other, in a way that is both engaged and disciplined.

My dad always says the most important things for a teacher is to know which questions to ask. Once you have decided to make students do intellectual work in the room you have to figure out how to structure that work to get the kind of thinking that you want from them.

Bok says:

A well-constructed course can avoid [students being discouraged from thinking carefully about ethical questions by persuading them that all such questions are inconclusive] if instructors make sure to include moral dilemmas of varying degrees of difficulty. Even when truly intractable issues arise, close analysis can at least dispose of much shoddy thinking and thereby clarify the nature of the underlying dispute. Students can gradually overcome… easy relativism… as they come to observe that some arguments are more grounded in fact and reason than others.

This passage helped me ask the right questions. I had recently devised an exercise about the aims of education: asking students to rank order a list of 13 aims and talk about their weightings. The first time I did it, it failed. The students were engaged and interested, because they had never had any such discussion before. But they wouldn’t make arguments, and they reached consensus too easily. So, the next time I did the exercise, I gave them the same list of 13, and required them to list just 5 to recommend to a school board. Magically, not only was the discussion lively and engaged, but students were forced to make arguments, because they had to cut some stuff off the list. That’s the guiding principle now for my questions: force the students to make trade-offs, and to give reasons for preferring one thing over another.

I also learned, inadvertently, the value of explaining one’s goals to one’s students. I assigned the book to a smallish group of students (a class in 2009 exclusively for students who had endured the almost disastrous 2007 course). Almost immediately students started discussing the ethnic studies requirement on campus. Like many campuses ours introduced an ethnic studies requirement for all students and, as you can imagine, that immediately became a source of competition among departments. Every one of the students in the class had already fulfilled the requirement, and every one of them testified that the purpose of the requirement had never been explained to them (not even by the professor in the class). This shouldn’t be hugely surprising: the first time I taught my large lecture course I was completely unaware that it fulfilled a business ethics requirement, because nobody bothered to tell me, and nobody bothered to ask. Of the 14 students 3 had positive experiences in ethnic studies, the others had viewed the course as a waste of time; all of those students said that if they had understood the purpose (which Bok articulates) they would have been happier to take the course and would have tried harder to learn from it (as opposed to trying to get an A, which is all that mattered to them). I now, always, talk to students about the point of the course I am teaching; and this is most important when teaching a requirement-fulfilling course. I introduce the business-ethics-requirement-fulfilling lecture course which I teach most semesters by saying something to the effect of “I know that many of you wouldn’t take a philosophy course if it didn’t meet a requirement. But I am grateful to the Business school for sending you to us: I really enjoy teaching Business students, and I design the course and my pedagogy with the aim of making sure that the experience will be genuinely valuable for you” and then specify the ways it will be valuable.

One final taster of the book. Re-reading my original copy (which is well-leafed, and much marked up, with hundreds of underlinings, rather uncharacteristic for me), I came across this passage, with three words scrawled in large letters across the page. The passage?:

Other [students] simply do not understand the basic principles. Many professors skip over these concepts too quickly, because they are so familiar with the ideas that they cannot appreciate how confusing this material can be to students or how often undergraduates come to the course with misunderstandings that make it harder for them to comprehend. In these circumstances bright undergraduates frequently use rote learning to pass the course without truly understanding the basic principles involved. So long as professors assign questions similar to those discussed in class, students can rely on their memory to find the right answers and their instructors never realize how little understanding they possess.

My (2007) scrawl?: “I DO THIS



Sphrag 05.14.18 at 1:49 pm

So long as the incentive structures for faculty push us in the direction of research at the expense of teaching and service, these things aren’t going to change. I have now been at one of our “elite” SLACs for over a decade, and I sit on the Tenure and Promotion board at the college, so I have seen these incentives up close for a few years now.

Even at this institution we only give lip service to teaching (and never mind service). It is research, research, research. For humanities faculty this now means at least one monograph published and a second well on the way. For STEM faculty it means at least one paper a year plus two major grants (NSF career, etc.) at a minimum.

I would have loved to devote more time to learning the craft of teaching as a junior faculty member, but I couldn’t invest that time if I wanted to keep my job. And having been indoctrinated into the research-is-everything culture, even faculty with tenure are far more likely to continue down that road.

Our colleges are underachieving because what they purport to do (educate students) is out of whack with what they really do (maintain the research industrial complex). I think most of us recognize this, but we lack the ability to do anything about it, unfortunately.


djr 05.14.18 at 2:27 pm

This is great, and potentially very useful. It looks like there’s a typo in this (important) part though:

Once you identifying trade-offs so that students couldn’t I had recently devised an exercise about the aims of education: asking students to rank order a list of 13 aims and talk about their weightings.


Harry 05.14.18 at 2:58 pm

Thanks. Fixed.


Sebastian H 05.14.18 at 2:59 pm

The chapter headings alone are a better explanation of why we do education than literally anything I’ve heard discussed.


JH 05.14.18 at 4:17 pm

Harry, this was very insightful. I especially liked the point about forcing students to confront tradeoffs. I’ve noticed that this works as well, but I’m going to take this more to heart when I teach from now on.

I’m a professor at a liberal arts college and I’ve come to some similar realizations about the failures of higher education, even at “teaching” institutions. Here’s some thing that recently struck me: I’ve never once been asked to explain how the empirical evidence on teaching effectiveness can inform my teaching. I was certainly never trained in light of this evidence or asked to read it. I remember that my teaching training as a graduate student was a one day workshop from 9am-12pm (if I recall correctly). Hard to believe.


NickS 05.14.18 at 4:32 pm

I’ll throw out a recommendation for Experiment At Evergreen (Jones 1981) as a book worth reading if you’re thinking about these questions. It does a good job of describing the original goals for Evergreen and making the case that it’s worth at least paying attention to experimental college design, and thinking about what lessons can be taken from that experience.


Daniel 05.14.18 at 6:45 pm

I think every college professor should take a class at least every five years. The class should be in a subject that is hard for the professor. I just took two such classes and learned a lot about teaching. One thing I learned is that instructors favor covering material over understanding and are really bad at realizing what students understand. One class had graded homework every week, the other just suggested homework that wasn’t turned in. Guess which worked. As any coach knows, constant feedback is essential to improvement.
Then there is the feeling of being unprepared for a test and the empathy for students that results. There’s more, but I’m grading finals and thinking about my inadequacies as a teacher.


Scott P. 05.14.18 at 7:43 pm

I agree with most of what you say. I try to teach critical thinking, and incorporate discussion where possible. But your last paragraph sums up a lot of the problems that I, at least, encounter — you say the students lack basic principles (which I agree), but how to present basic principles outside of a lecture format? Most of my survey classes and a good chunk of my upper-level surveys (in art history) are taken up in presenting basic concepts and, yes, facts that they have to know in order to simply make sense of any readings or to begin to discuss things in any kind of informed way.

If we are going to discuss an interpretation of Carolingian art, well, you’re going to have to at least know who the Carolingians were, where and when they ruled, and something about their dynastic ideology. You’re also probably going to have to know stuff like: What is a monastery? What is a bishop, and how are bishops different from priests? What does a Carolingian church look like? What is a manuscript? Etc. etc. Meanwhile most students don’t know a thing about Charlemagne or even Saint Peter.

It’s a huge hurdle to just get them to the point where you can have a discussion, because they certainly aren’t getting this material in other classes at a university level, let alone in high school. In philosophy, at least, students might start out with some sense of their ethical values, or opinions on what is ‘good’ and what is ‘bad’. They don’t start out with any notions regarding the Investiture Controversy.


Chris Stephens 05.14.18 at 7:50 pm

re: Sphrag: While I agree that the incentive structures at many Universities push in the direction of research at the expensive of teaching, it isn’t that hard to learn many of the basics of good teaching, and once implemented, many of these practices involve less time spent on course preparation. You might not have to spend as much time on preparing a well polished lecture if you have a well crafted activity, for example. As Harry notes, thinking about the right questions to ask can be more valuable than spending time on some obscure bit of knowledge to include in your lectures. And so on. So I see it more as how to better spend your time in teaching preparation, rather than spending more time on teaching preparation.


M Caswell 05.14.18 at 8:59 pm

“My dad always says the most important things for a teacher is to know which questions to ask.”

That’s for sure. Moreover, for the most part these really can’t be “canned” questions prepared ahead of time, but rather must respond to the actual thinking of the student in the moment, so to speak. I also try (but sometimes fail) to never ask a question I know the answer to.


Chris "merian" W. 05.14.18 at 9:39 pm

Thanks for this post, Harry. The CT posts on higher education pedagogy (from you and the other bloggers) are probably the ones I enjoy most straightforwardly. I’m a new PhD (after going to grad school late), and if everything goes to plan I’ll be teaching my first class as the lead instructor this Fall, after some experience with lab sections, guest lecturing and project mentoring. I’ll read “Our Underachieving Colleges”.

Being in STEM, and in a small field that isn’t a core requirement (as mathematics is) I have the feeling we see even less thoughtfulness about pedagogy than elsewhere. It does exist – there’s even a graduate certificate that is supposed to help grad students that might become profs to develop teaching skills. The lab sections I taught were in a class that is requirements-fulfilling (a science requirement). We lab instructors were told, but I wasn’t impressed with the returning instructors who found it necessary to give the newbies a heads-up about expectation in pretty disparaging terms (“you’ll have students who don’t know how to use a ruler”). This wasn’t completely untrue, but ruler skills aren’t hard to acquire, so this ins’t a reason to panic. What we weren’t told is that the class was a requirement specifically in the elementary education program, which was valuable to know in order to taylor the approach to this population.

Your passage about telling students *why* something is a requirement rings true. I’ve had one student who was intensely angry throughout the whole semester about having to take this class, which apparently was the only “low math prerequisite” science option available to them this semester. It was a conflict I’d like to have had more tools to eliminate. The class I’ll be teaching next won’t be a requirement, but an optional graduate/upper undergraduate level class that’s typically taken in order to catch up with some technical skills that are prerequisites in graduate classes and for most research in our department. Different set of challenges, same need to be thoughtful.

Evaluation is another area that I think is often a mess. Most of my university education (before I went back to grad school, in my 40s, in the USA) was in Germany, and in the old system there, the higher you got, the more interactive classes, and the more oral exams became. All my important exams were oral.

I sometimes hear people — invariably highly educated, comfortably middle-class people — talk disparagingly about (US) college and point to studies that apparently show that, tested 20 years after graduation, people tend to have forgotten the facts they learned in college. This is just an incredibly misguided attitude IMO. Back when I took my exams, I was sure expected to know, say, Maxwell’s equations by heart and write them down (in both forms). But more importantly, I was expected to know what they meant, to be able to explain it, to show which parts of the equations translated which physical property of electromagnetic fields, how they lead to electromagnetic waves, and what the effect of the extra terms was. After 20 years, even though my specialization is in a physical science, I probably wouldn’t be able to write them down without error, but I know most of the rest. And at the minimum I know how many there are, what they treat of, how they hang together with simpler ways to describe physical phenomena.

Now sometimes instructors know that this higher-level understanding is more important than the rote-learning part (what’s the sign in front of each term? constants? units?), and therefore only teach that part. This doesn’t work either. You need the nitty-gritty, the dates and terms and family trees and actual formulas, as stepping stones, otherwise the understanding will be flimsy and amateurish. Unlike Scott P. #8 though I think that it’s perfectly possible to teach the factual sub-structure in a discussion class… at least if the class size is small enough. For example, one of the best-taught classes I took recently was a stacked graduate/upper undergrad class in climate & climate change, which was entirely based on the study of figures. There were several students with some gaps in prerequisite knowledge (thermodynamics, gas laws, statistics), but mini-lectures (from the professor or other students) and collaborative explanations were used to fill them. The exams, too, were based on figures and graphs.


Alan White 05.14.18 at 10:20 pm

As you know Harry, I’m on board for this–and very much due to your influence, along with all my years at the front-lines of a public 4/4. Your approach to your business students mirrors how I came to teach bioethics in the last half of my career. Bioethics came into its own in the 80s, but was very heavy on theory and metatheory, and of course that’s how I taught it. But I was fortunate to stumble across Robert Veatch’s short and accessible Intro to Bioethics in the 90s, which was designed to be taught to medical students over a very brief course. Since many of my students were nursing majors, I supplemented his text with readings that directly addressed moral issues and conditions of the workplace, especially the hierarchy of hospitals. The course was transformed–and became very popular even with other majors. Translating issues of the emergence of rights in the 20th century against the more utility-oriented Hippocratic tradition–Veatch’s overall theme–worked very well with this emphasis of how moral issues play out in clinical settings from the professional and patient sides.


Plarry 05.14.18 at 11:06 pm

The incentive structure for professors is rather “research, research, research, while being a good teacher” where “good teacher” means “one getting good student evaluations”. This is what distorts the pedagogical process in my opinion.


floopmeister 05.15.18 at 4:23 am

Not to mention this same incentives system punishes those slogging along as a sessional tutor or course coordinator (Australian terminology). It is almost impossible to publish under the punishing level of teaching needed to support a family of four – and this is only compounded by the fact that sessionals live or die by their teaching scores while I have experienced firsthand (as both a student and a colleague) the horrendous teaching doled out by full time staff…

Sessionals with bad teaching scores barely last a semester, while (some!) lecturers and professors can churn out the same dross year after year with no consequences.

The situation is compounded somewhat in my case, because I actually came to undergraduate and postgraduate teaching with two teaching qualifications (ESL cert and a high school DipEd) and over 15 years of teaching behind me (ESL for adult migrants, business ESL, diplomatic skills and ESL, English for airline pilots and ESL for academics – that is, teaching ESL to Vietnamese teaching staff).

So I have found the last 6 years (while completing a MA and then a PhD) to be a strange but illuminating experience – I just teach the way my training and experience informs me it should be done – and I might as well be imparting alien knowledge by the reactions I get from both students and teaching colleagues.

Not meant to sound arrogant – but most sessionals have never been given any teaching training before entering the classroom, so it is not their fault.

Teaching is a skill – and I find it amazing that a supposedly meritocratic training institute like a uni cannot see the value in providing real training for their teachers – or in providing trained teachers to their students.

Anyway, I just got a research fellow position, so I dropped the teaching for this year and can actually attempt to get work published…


Peter Wolstenholme 05.15.18 at 8:23 am

I studied electrical engineering at Manchester (U.K.) and obtained first class honours in 1954. I was keen to really understand everything. But I felt, afterwards, that I could have done well, just on memory! Only one exam: second year electronics, really tested understanding. When I looked at the paper, I wondered if I might be in the wrong room. Further study showed that each question required knowledge, and even some understanding, of varied topics: much like real life in engineering. That is very hard to do for the examiner, of course, so it is rare but should be the norm.


relstprof 05.15.18 at 8:35 am

Why should I trust any methods laid out for me by “teaching institutes” or the advice of Education “Ph.D.s”, or former Harvard presidents (he, a well-paid sound-byte), when the whole rationale of these programs seems is money-making for institutions that are not just?

I won’t review the unjust economic machinations of the most well-endowed educational institutions in human history — there are plenty of peer-reviewed books outlining the dilemma. Have you not read them? If not, go forth!

Or look at the struggle of janitors, adjuncts and NTTs for a living wage in the ‘hallowed halls’ of the …. oh shit, I’m too tired to finish this sentence….

Ricoeur notes that virtuous intention is “aiming at the ‘good life’ with and for others in just institutions.” That is, we cannot be in some kind of truthful relationship with others if we are not at the same time willing their good as our own. Thus the institutional failure. We have to be with one another intentionally.


Just institutions?

Yes. The refusal of hierarchy — the refusal of the stupidity that allows these forms of deficient communications to exist at the expense of voices (black, female, queer, poor, less than poor, destitute). Why not?

Skills matter as much as human (and so, political) intention. Skills are worthless if skills only matter in a utilitarian calculus of a fake meritocracy that exists for exclusion. They’re not skills, they’re dogmatic intrusion. They take away. They’re constraints on creativity.

CT should read more psychoanalysis.


Trader Joe 05.15.18 at 11:37 am

Thoughtful and interesting discussion, but sadly about 180 degrees opposite of what I’m observing in most of my children’s university education.

Perhaps not true everywhere – but at one particular Class A research university there is clearly an increasing proportion of classes being taught “on-line” where some combination of on-line reading/testing, pre-recorded lectures and other resources are substituted for actual humans and lecture theaters. While this isn’t entirely bad and students appreciate being able to take the “class” at their convenience, its not teaching. Not as I understand it and certainly not at common university price tags.

I completely understand that some corners will get cut teaching a 500 person 101 level history or math class. I see why the tests will be multiple choice and why some of the teaching process will need to be more a factory assembly line than a hand crafted outcome. That said, increasingly this type of education is infiltrating courses that go well beyond the 101 level.

Sorry if this is off topic…I think its great that Harry and others here clearly care about perfecting the craft of teaching and sharing their observations and techniques. Unfortunately I think the problem is increasingly not one of making good teachers great, but making someone actually teach something rather than point students at a pile of books, problem sets and a syllabus and saying “there you go – learn”


Sphrag 05.15.18 at 11:54 am

@9 (Chris Stephens)

I agree that some courses do indeed allow this. But some do not. Some fields demand a more extensive introductory survey experience than others (art history is one, as mentioned above). So there is no getting around the fact that some courses entail an overwhelming amount of initial prep, a burden which falls on junior faculty disproportionately.

In fact, one problem I have seen is that faculty in fields where it is more possible to engage in effective pedagogies which can take less prep-time then impose those expectations on their colleagues in fields where it simply isn’t possible (the worst offenders here are in Political Science and Economics).

This may be pressing the point too far, but it does seem that faculty in fields which are article-centric and marked by relatively fast publishing rates are also blessed with classroom experiences marked by relatively little prep. Compare these to those with inordinately long publishing rates and are monograph-centric, who often also need to invest a great deal more time in crafting lectures and overall course preparation. These disparate experiences then lead to disparate norms and expectations. I am sure there are individual exceptions, but this has been an observable phenomenon here.


Matt 05.15.18 at 12:39 pm

Perhaps not true everywhere – but at one particular Class A research university there is clearly an increasing proportion of classes being taught “on-line” where some combination of on-line reading/testing, pre-recorded lectures and other resources are substituted for actual humans and lecture theaters. While this isn’t entirely bad and students appreciate being able to take the “class” at their convenience, its not teaching. Not as I understand it and certainly not at common university price tags.

This is, alas, the case at the university where I teach, and I agree that it’s not teaching. (The situation is actually a bit worse than described, but I don’t want to get into all the details.) The thing that makes me feel the worst is that the university markets itself this way, that you can “study anywhere” – listen to your lectures during your commute, or on the beach! Of course, the majority of students who try that find it a little difficult, at least with topics that require any real effort. The types of things Harry favors don’t lead to enough checks clearing, and cost too much money for more and more universities, it seems.


John R Garrett 05.15.18 at 1:06 pm

The elephant in the room here is divergent goals and expectations. Students want to be “prepared” for their fifty year work life, and have concluded that means learning (memorizing) a body of information. This is bad enough in STEM, worse elsewhere. Some faculty care about learning, but many play the game of pretending that there is a body of information which will lead to “success”, whatever that is, and they can convey it. But this is all nonsense: ask a successful professional in any field (microbiology, law, whatever) whether what the information in college led to success, and they will talk about work habits, social habits, friends, discussion skills. There are only three cognitive skills that matter: reading, writing, and thinking. We don’t teach any of them well.


anon/portly 05.15.18 at 6:02 pm

I agree a lot with Scott P.’s point in 8 – with some classes or topics, class discussion can be of limited value, as the students just don’t know enough to have a useful discussion. A lot of times the idea of teaching “critical thinking” can become “uncritical thinking” because students have no idea what they know and don’t know.

I think the whole idea of effective teaching techniques is a little over-rated – I think anyone can be a reasonably good teacher if they can, one, project or generate enthusiasm and effort in the students; and two, choose or have worthwhile material to impart. Maybe I got lucky, but I feel that I never took a poorly taught class in college, or if so I’ve forgotten, and the instructors used a wide variety of teaching styles. (I was a bad student at times, and I do recall some clinkers from high school and grad school). I even think an online class can be reasonably good if the material is good and the instructor can find a way to impart enthusiasm and generate feedback.

Obviously the “discussion” technique is a good one for generating interest and effort and enthusiasm in students – the students can probably see and feel that the instructor really cares and really believes the material is of value. But (again in light of 8) I don’t think it’s the only way to teach.

I always thought the classic failing of new teachers is that in order to be able to teach a subject, you really have to learn a lot, and new teachers then want to impart all of that information to their students – which is way too much information, and not all of it necessarily super-relevant. Maybe another reason for emphasizing class discussion is that it forces a teacher to effectively prune.


Leo Casey 05.15.18 at 8:08 pm

Isn’t the fundamental problem that the academy takes quite seriously the preparation of its doctoral candidates to do research, while it pays virtually no attention to their preparation to teach? Some thirty plus years ago, as I was doing my doctorate, my preparation came in the form of doing one lecture for a class that my thesis supervisor taught. Years of political organizing had better prepared me to teach than my doctoral program. It wasn’t until I later taught high school, where adolescents were not about to sit still for a 45 minute lecture, no matter how artfully done, that I actually learned something about the craft of teaching. I can’t claim to have first hand knowledge of what happens today in doctoral programs, but I suspect it isn’t a whole lot better. Are there any doctoral programs that even have formal requirements in the preparation to teach as part of their degree requirements, the way that they require students to demonstrate a reading knowledge of a second language related to their research?


Harry 05.15.18 at 9:25 pm

Thanks for lots of good comments (so far).

Leo — Its isn’t a whole lot better! Yes, I think that is the fundamental problem, though it is underwritten by a structural issue which is a combination of faculty capture of the institution (so it serves their ends) and absence of pressure to behave differently (because students confronted with bad teaching have short time horizons, and anyway find it hard to know what to do, and because whoever else is paying is concerned about the credential rather than the learning).

Physics is better, but because Carl Weiman used his Nobel to leverage resources into improving teaching and learning. I absolutely agree with you that making training in teaching part of a graduate degree is part of the solution (but only part, because continuing professional development is vital, and, anyway, it will take decades for those students to infuse the system).

I very much agree with anon/portly’s final paragraph (and agree with the rest, mark you) and maybe that should be written on every offer letter. Or in every classroom.

Trader Joe’s experience is depressing but not surprising. One thing– I agree very much that it is not about making good teachers great. The aim, for me, is to make all teachers somewhat better, however good or bad they currently are.


floopmeister 05.16.18 at 12:11 am

Isn’t the fundamental problem that the academy takes quite seriously the preparation of its doctoral candidates to do research, while it pays virtually no attention to their preparation to teach?


It wasn’t until I later taught high school, where adolescents were not about to sit still for a 45 minute lecture, no matter how artfully done, that I actually learned something about the craft of teaching.

And again, yes.


sanbikinoraion 05.16.18 at 1:31 pm

Students need to use their power – particularly through the NUS in the UK – to demand mandatory teaching instruction, qualifications and continuous improvement for their lecturers. The universities will never prioritize undergraduates until the students themselves start twisting their arms for money.


Rob Chametzky 05.16.18 at 7:47 pm

The University of Iowa offers a Graduate Certificate in College Teaching
for anyone enrolled in a PhD (or other terminal) degree program at UI.
Not sure how much, or little, it is encouraged in various programs.


And below is a fragment from my “teaching statement” from back when I used to sometimes still apply for academic positions. It has some bearing on some of the
points raised in the thread. N.B.: all-caps are the only sort of special script I know
how to create here; the ‘Bok’ reference is to the book in OP; and ‘Bain’ is Ken Bain, the author of “What the best college teachers do”.

. . . But there is something further that Bok, Bain, and the like fail to notice or appreciate, I think. It is frequently asserted that the best teachers are also leaders in their fields: there is no teaching vs. research problem. Sometimes these people are boundary pushing researchers, but if not, then people who are committed to deeply knowing their disciplines; ‘scholars’ one might call them. Studies apparently support this contention, and it’s certainly one that most of us are happy enough to assent to. Now, of course, this doesn’t mean that all (or most) researchers/scholars are great or good teachers; it’s a one way implication: the good/great teachers are all (or mostly) researchers / scholars. And it doesn’t mean that the institutional reward system in any way equally values or rewards teaching and research. But these observations are all known, noticed, and discussed, as are their implications.

What isn’t noted is that an interest in a discipline, in research, in scholarship, and an interest in teaching are simply DIFFERENT interests, and that, on the face of it, there’s no obvious reason why the same person should have both of these interests. One could even recognize that teaching, and questions of how to do it well or better, and how to really tell if/when something has been learned, are themselves abstractly interesting questions, without oneself being much interested in them. There are LOTS of abstractly interesting questions that each of us is not much interested in; just look around the university. Another way to get at this is to recognize that being a linguist, or a biologist, or a philosopher is NOT the same thing as being PROFESSOR OF linguistics, or OF biology, or OF philosophy. It may be NICE when these coincide, but it’s not evidently NECESSARY. We can, of course, just stipulate that to be a professor of X you have to be not just expert in X, but also interested in teaching (X, or in general); we can make it part of the requirements for the job. Well, we can’t really do THAT, can we? We can’t demand INTEREST. We can demand COMPETENCE, and we can offer ways to develop and improve competence. But we can’t really insist on interest. We don’t choose our interests; it’s more like they choose us.

People who become scholars and researchers are pretty typically grabbed by some question or problem or domain; something MOVES them and they need to pursue that something in inquiry. Some people, sometimes some of the same people, are moved to teach; often, it seems, by an experience with a teacher. If you happen to be one of the first who is not also one of the second, then there may be some problems. Some of these can be addressed, both in graduate school and by what we like to call ‘faculty development’. But we should also recognize that this condition is not evidence of some sort of pathology, of a moral, personal, or even professional failing, nor of ill-will or obtuseness. It seems to me more like cruciferous vegetables. Everyone knows they’re good for us. Some people also like them. Some don’t. It’s pleasant for the former to eat them. It’s not for the latter. And so some of the latter don’t eat enough crucifers, while some of them manage to, though they may need help (sauces, dips, purees, etc. etc.)


RJ 05.17.18 at 12:40 am

Long time lurker, first time caller. Just wanted to say that I love and benefit from the pedagogy posts here. Harry, do you write outside of blogs about such things? I think lots of people who may not make their way to the CT blog would also benefit from your thoughts on teaching. I am gonna go read this Bok book now.


Matt_ 05.17.18 at 2:40 pm

Thank you Harry, I love all the teaching and pedagogy posts here at Crooked Timber, but I appreciate the thoughtfulness of your approach and your interest in students in disciplines outside of Philosophy. This is all too rare in college teaching.

One thing I have noticed about colleagues in my own department and elsewhere in my university is how unreflective they are about how their own experiences as students were utterly unrepresentative of the college as a whole. We became grad students and later professors or practitioners in our disciplines because we had a knack for it, or because we were able to master it relatively easily. But this is freakishly rare. By definition, 99% of the students who fill college classrooms do not have the knack for understanding our discipline.

But we have all modeled our teaching on who we thought were the best teachers in our graduate and undergraduate careers. An apprenticeship is not a bad way to learn a craft or a skill, but what worked for us will probably not resonate with a typical student. We were unusual in that we already had an aptitude for, or curiosity about, the discipline. So what worked for us as students is probably not going to work for 99% of the student body.

As a result, its too easy to fall into the trap of teaching the “good students” the students who already have the knack for understanding the discipline. Then all you do is give them lots of practice and shove them out of the nest. It seems to me the goal of a good teaching practice is to help the 99% of students who “don’t get it.” A more thoughtful teaching practice will also help you coach the already excellent students as well.


Harry 05.18.18 at 1:26 pm

First, responding to RJ – -thanks! I don’t write about this anywhere else, no. This particular post seems to have reached a pretty wide audience courtesy of the FT. But… I do think from time to time about writing a short book that could be used by Teaching Assistants and new professors in the humanities and social sciences, drawing on these posts. Its difficult, because I don’t want to pretend to be an expert teacher (to some extent the message of my posts is “Forget about being an excellent teacher; just figure out how to get better than you are, however good that is”) and, although there is plenty of research supporting some of my observations, there isn’t much to support some other observations, and I don’t want to write a book that is replete with footnotes. If people encouraged me to do it I’d be more likely to do it!

Matt. Thanks! And… yes that is absolutely right. Our friends in college, and spouses, also tend to have been/be like us. I think this really afflicted me in the first part of my career, which is really pretty bad because it shouldn’t have been news that my students were unlike me. I think its really helped me that I get to know my students, because then it is pretty inescapable that they are very unlike me, in personality, background knowledge and assumptions, culturally, etc.

sanbikinoraion — I agree with that. I am constantly bugging students to complain. One of my student’s refrains is “Brighouse, you’re going to be mad at me — ” which is her preface to telling me a story about bad teaching that she hasn’t complained about…


Rob Chametzky 05.18.18 at 5:27 pm

Matt @ 28

My version of this, which I call the “teacher paradox” (to go along with the “student paradox”, all from my ‘teaching statement’ quoted @26 above)

. . . Let us, then, start from the other side. What makes me a ‘good teacher’? I am fully at ease and at home in my subject and in the classroom; I am enthusiastic about my subject and about teaching it; I welcome questions, comments, and discussion from the students who find the going either fascinating or difficult (perhaps both). But wait: exactly that which I take as my strengths, the very qualities which enabled me to move from sitting in the class to standing before it, also can prevent me from succeeding in the classroom. If above we have sketched the ‘student paradox’, what we are now sketching is the ‘teacher paradox’.

Among the qualities that get one to and through graduate school, and thus to the front of the classroom, are the following: engagement with the subject matter, facility with the subject matter (note these are, sadly, not the same), some non-zero level of identification with the institutional academic aspects of schooling, some non-zero level of ‘good student’ qualities, as adumbrated above. But now we can see that just these qualities serve to separate me from most of my students. They, typically, are not engaged with my subject, do not have facility with it, and do not identify with the institutional academic aspects of schooling. My experience, then, is radically at odds with theirs in the one place where we meet—the classroom—and wherein we are supposed to communicate with one another. Indeed, my experience in many ways might seem to uniquely disqualify me from exactly the task I have been given; few things are as difficult—or as frustrating—as being a devoted and talented advocate asked to understand and sympathize with indifferent, hostile, and untalented dabblers. By their very nature, the students’ problems and boredom can puzzle me, and by their very nature, my expertise and enthusiasm can alienate them. . .


Matt_ 05.18.18 at 5:42 pm

Harry, please write that short book about teaching. It would not necessarily have to be a summa by a master teacher. Recently, I have noticed a bunch of “scholarly memoirs” and autobiographies in my field: Katherine Verdery, _My Life as a Spy: Investigations in a Secret Police File_ (Duke: 2018) and Shiela Fitzpatrick, _A Spy in the Archives: A Memoir of Cold War Russia_ (IB Tarius: 2013). Why not a scholarly memoir about teaching? You could still use the relevant literature, but also foreground your own experiences and how you came to practice the profession the way you do now.

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