Teaching’s not exactly brain surgery, is it?

by Harry on September 10, 2015

Here’s the text from which I gave a talk to our Geography Department’s welcome lunch for new graduate students, postdocs, etc, at the start of this semester. The charge was to come up with something that would be relevant to everyone in the room, and would be funny. A previous speaker told lots of Ole and Lena jokes. So…

Thank you for inviting me to talk. When I was asked to talk to you, I was stumped about what to talk about, especially when told that previous speakers were humorous. It ruled out Philosophy as a subject, and, really, ruled out explaining the Laws of Cricket, which is my second go-to. Anyone want to know about the subsequent career paths of all the cast of The Love Boat? Or the history of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal? Or why I know anything about those subjects? No, I thought not.

So I thought I’d talk about something that you all should be thinking about right now, that is, teaching. You will all, or almost all, be teachers of some sort. Some will become professors, who teach graduate students and/or undergraduates and the general public. But every professional teaches – whether it is students, or clients, or co-workers, or mentees, or, sometimes, one’s supervisors. And typically, actual, well informed, high-quality, training in teaching is a low priority in research universities. So, I thought I’d talk about why it should be a higher priority, and how we could do it better (the training, and the teaching).

Since I am a philosopher, let’s start with one of my favourite sayings: “Teaching’s not exactly brain surgery, is it?”. The declarative phrase in that sentence is true. And there is some good news, but also some bad news, in its truth.

The good news is that teaching is more important than brain surgery. Look at my two pictures.



The graduates there will become social workers, human resource managers, school teachers, couples counselors, engineers, spouses, parents, co-workers, nurses, even, some of them, philosophers and geographers. The more learned they are – the better their characters, skills, and knowledge – the better they will treat their friends, coworkers, children, fellow-citizens, and the more they will contribute to society through their work. Good teaching improves their characters, skills, and knowledge. The surgeon — well, he’s just fixing something. It matters to the person being fixed, and no doubt their friends and relative, but it is just restoring a functioning, and its just one person. Important, to be sure, but it is not as though it is teaching, is it?

Now for the bad news. Teaching is harder than brain surgery. Look at my next two pictures.


lecture hall2

First look at the surgeon. He has numerous highly skilled people — who have had years of training and experience — helping him. The patient knows what it would be like to get better, and wants to get better – completely compliant. No distractions – nobody is on their cellphones, or messing around with facebook, and I would bet that there are no workman drilling in the next room. The patient didn’t get stoned before class, and even if she did, it doesn’t matter because she is anesthetized! She just lies there, and lets him cut her open and fiddle around. He has lights on the parts which he is fiddling with. Oh, and, by the way, he has been trained, intensely, for this, for years. He practiced on dead brains and got good at it before he was allowed anywhere near a living brain.

Now look at the teacher. He has, let’s say, 150 students, and no help at all, skilled or otherwise (he probably had to figure out the AV himself, unless he had the sense to ask a student to help). However eager they are in principle, many of the students have very little interest in learning at that moment. Some are distracted, by cellphones, Facebook, twitter, some of them are stoned, several hungover, many of them sleep-deprived, the athletes are tired from their 2 hour workout earlier in the day, some are fantasizing about sex, some are thinking about a job interview coming up, one is still drunk from the night before, and another is drinking a screwdriver from her flask (yep, you know who you are, reader!); and then there are the things over which they have no control – someone is anxious because their parents just separated, or a parent is guilt tripping them about visiting the other parent, or not having called enough, or they have mental illness and forgot to take their medication this morning, or have recently had a bad break-up, or fallen in love, or have been sexually assaulted, or have been up all night with a friend who has a mental illness, or recently had a bad break-up or was assaulted or…. Many of them are taking the class to fulfil a requirement the point of which has never been explained to them and to which the content is not especially well calibrated anyway. And, with all these distractions, the professor has to make them learn. He or she can’t even resort to anaesthetizing the students, because then they won’t learn anything at all (quite apart from it being illegal)! Whereas the surgeon just opens up one head and one brain, and looks inside, the teacher has to read 150 minds without opening any of them up, figuring out what misapprehensions the students have, and what mistakes they have made doing the reading, those of them that actually have done the reading. And whereas the surgeon has been trained for years, and practice on dead brains with an expert watching over him, and has several highly skilled people assisting him, the professor has had minimal training, and has nobody even watching to tell him what mistakes he made after the fact.

In the comments on a blog post I once made criticizing lecturing as a pedagogical practice, and arguing that a good deal could be done to improve undergraduate teaching at institutions like ours, someone said something to the effect of “Professors should profess – the clue’s in the name”. And that comment helped me to understand that I don’t think, and don’t think you should think, about teaching as professing. Professing is extremely tempting for academics. You have lots of expertise, and most of you, like me, enjoy thinking about how to structure and express – profess – your expertise. 75 minutes of talking at 20, 30, 40, 160 students, especially if they have mastered the skill of looking like they are listening, is easy for me. But it isn’t teaching. Our focus, when we teach, should not be on us, and our expertise; it should be on them, and their lack of our expertise, and what and how they can learn. “Teaching” is what the ordinary language philosophers would call a success term — it is not professing, it is making students learn.

Deborah Ball talks about teaching as an unnatural activity involving a complex set of skills. Thinking about it that way gives us a clue about how to learn to teach, and how to get better at it. Think about learning to play the guitar. What do you do? You observe expert guitarists, and watch, and listen to, what they do. Then you try to mimic what they do. You get feedback – some of that feedback is from your own ears, but some is from other people – and then you try again, and again. Then you listen/watch some more, mimic again, get more feedback… and you keep on doing that till you have mastered the guitar.

Or even beyond when you have mastered it! Athletes and musicians (though, it is true, not always rock musicians) continue to attend lessons, and continue to employ coaches, even after they have mastered their skills. They continually seek feedback, and coaching, so they can get better, and/or maintain their mastery.

This is roughly what we, professors, do when we are learning to become, and trying to improve as, researchers. As graduate students we take graduate seminars, in which we are inducted into the practices of research, and various skills are modelled by our teachers and advisors. We read vast amounts of research by other, already accomplished, researchers, and we try to emulate their efforts. We present at conferences, ask colleagues and professors to read our papers, get feedback, and improve (if all goes well). As professors we continue to observe other researchers, interact with them, and continually seek feedback from peers so that we can maintain and improve our skills. It is true that after tenure we rarely have formal mentors (coaches), but we usually have a group of people whom we respect and from whom we seek criticism.

But, I would submit, it is not really what we do with respect to teaching. Once you have a tenure track job in an institution like ours, as long as you meet some fairly low bar as a teacher, your incentives are to improve only as a researcher. Most professors read numerous papers or books every month – but most months they do not observe anyone else teaching, or get any direct feedback other than the perfunctory evaluations that students fill in at the end of the term. Despite the fact that, as I’ve said, teaching is more difficult than brain surgery.

Initiating the process I have described – observe experts, mimic them, get feedback, etc – is actually especially difficult for teaching. The reason is that, whereas it is easy to identify an expert guitarist, it is very difficult to identify an expert teacher. You carry around in your head a pretty accurate gauge of excellence for guitar playing. You listen, and evaluate the sound that the guitarist makes. The performance just is what you evaluate. But you can’t identify an expert teacher the same way. Why? Because the performance is not what you evaluate. Teaching is a success term: the output of the good teacher is not the performance, but the learning that the students did. So to identify expert teachers with great confidence we want to know how much the students learned. NOT the outcomes! They might have started by knowing and being able to do lots, but not learned anything – you can deserve, and get, an A in a course without learning anything in it, by having learned it all before the course.

So we want to have measures of learning. And most disciplines, however imperfect their measures, lack ways of measuring learning on a course-by-course basis. I have seen numerous (really, numerous!) formal reviews of programs here at UW Madison, and almost all of them, when asked to evaluate what their students have learned focus, instead, on what their students know. But this is no measure at all of a program’s effectiveness. It might just be a measure of the competitiveness of our admissions process.
As I say, this makes learning how to teach well even more difficult than learning how to do other difficult things well. But, and I’ll end with some good news, I don’t think it is impossible, and I think there are some fairly simple things we can do, without large resource expenditures, that can improve our practice somewhat, while we develop better measures of learning.

1. First, set aside two related thoughts. The first is that some people are great teachers, and you’ll never be a great teacher. It maybe true, but it’s irrelevant. You don’t give up on improving as a researcher just because you’ll never be a great one. You just want to figure out how to be better than you are. And, by the way, you have no idea who the great teachers are. One very famous Madison professor (who was already deceased when I got here) is widely cited as one of the greatest teachers we have had. And he may have been. But I have never once heard anybody talk about how much students learned from him, When people talk about great professors they too often talk about the professor, and not often enough about the students. The second thought is that these great teachers are born, not made. Personally I disagree – teaching involves skills that have to be developed, practiced, and maintained, and this is never effortless. But even if it were true, again, it would be irrelevant to you. Our campus does not need more great teachers. It needs all our teachers (except, perhaps, the handful of great ones) to get better than they are, now. Not 100% or 1000% better. Just continually better.

2. Figure out, through talking to colleagues, and to students, who seems to be good at things you know you are not so good at. For example, you know that when you conduct classroom discussions, only about 30% of the students talk. Or very few women talk. Or your students continue to make the same mistakes in their papers even though you (think you) have corrected them. Or, in those disciplines where you do have good measures of learning, whose students show much larger gains than yours do. Find colleagues who report success in those areas (or whose students report it). Ask them how they do it – but don’t take their answers at face value; ask to observe them, because they may be doing things that you will be able to see and they are unaware of.

3. Ask those same teachers to observe you. Don’t deliberately screw up the session they watch for the fun of it, but also don’t put on a good show for them; and ask your students not to put on a specially good show too! I’ve often observed junior colleagues, for evaluation and mentoring purposes, and too often they do, indeed, do very well, but what I wanted to see was what they weren’t doing well. (An aside – for the purpose of improving teaching, evaluation and mentoring don’t go very well together; ideally each teacher in a department would have a mentor, whose assessments would be entirely private, and never get into their file). Ask the observers for frank feedback.

4. Syllabuses, lesson plans, and discussion prompts should all be treated as public property. And powerpoints, and lecture notes. Especially early in your career as a teacher, you are liable to waste a lot of time reinventing the wheel. Less time building teaching materials gives you more time to improve them, and more time to interact with students, and more time not to be stressed.

5. Students typically do not know what evaluations are for. Tell them. Basically, in my institution, as long as you are above some threshold, the numerical parts of the evaluations can’t help or hurt you (they might help you win teaching awards at the very top end, or trigger some words from your chair at the other, though I have never known the latter happen). But the open-ended written comments can be extremely valuable. Tell them, explicitly, that you want them to identify i) things that you should do differently and ii) things that you should NOT do differently. A recent conversation was interesting: a young woman I was sitting next to on a plane who, having described a number of suboptimal teaching practices, said that she never wrote negative things on teaching evaluations in college because she was always reluctant to do anything that would harm the professor. I told her that, for the most part, post-tenure, only the professors themselves read the comments, so you should regard it as your one chance, anonymously, to influence their future practice, without fear of harming them, or expectation of benefiting them, in any other way. Tell your students that! If you do not have tenure, do shadow evaluations, with only open-ended questions in which you ask them to be completely frank, after you have gotten them to complete the regular evaluations.

6. Get a coach! They are cheap – in fact most kids will do it for independent study credit, and it is great for their resumes.

So. The good news is teaching is more important than brain surgery, the bad news is that its more difficult, and the not so bad news is that we can learn how to do it and improve at it, at least to some extent, anyway.

Note: obviously this talk was inspired by this Mitchell and Webb sketch:



Lynne 09.10.15 at 6:47 pm

I love this, Harry. My new favourite saying is “Well, brain surgery, it’s not _teaching_, is it?”


Neville Morley 09.10.15 at 7:55 pm

Great stuff. But could we also have a post on NWOBHM history?


MPAVictoria 09.10.15 at 8:23 pm



Val 09.10.15 at 8:46 pm

Great post, your commitment is inspiring.

As a graduate student, I find it difficult to give the necessary time to improve my teaching as the pressure is always to focus on the PhD. However the issue I struggle with most is assessment. My university some decades ago tried a system where some subjects just got a satisfactory completion award, but I don’t think it lasted very long.

We have a P, C, D, HD system, (and of course N) but I think it could at least be simplified to a Pass (seem to have done only enough to pass this assignment/subject), Pass with credit (have clearly worked hard and thought about this and done a good job) and R (worked hard, done a good job, seem to have talent for this subject, recommended to continue studies with a view to potential postgrad study).

Even that would be difficult, I know, because there are always borderline cases, teaching biases, etc, and it is complicated by language and cultural issues (my university has many international students) but at least it seems to fulfil the functions of rewarding effort and also identifying particular aptitude.

Just some thoughts on the issue before I return to marking the 18 essays and 40 online assignments that I have to finish today :)


Val 09.10.15 at 9:02 pm

Sorry for second post in a row but this is an issue I’m very interested in and not just at university level. Here in Aus (and I think it’s the same in many countries) we have a ridiculous obsession with placing kids on minutely ranked orders of results.

I feel my suggestion (you’ve done enough to pass/you’ve worked hard and deserve credit/ you’ve worked hard and also seem to have a particular aptitude for this subject) is a starting point for discussion at least.

(And as a disclaimer, I have to say that I and my children have at times done very well under the detailed ranking approach, so it’s not sour grapes).


Robert Halford 09.10.15 at 9:14 pm

Wait, what is your deep knowledge about NWOBHM?


Metatone 09.10.15 at 10:02 pm

Thinking about a colleague of mine, who is IMHO a great teacher. Great at getting students to think, great at getting them involved in their own education.

Her background is theatre and improv. I think classes in those areas look like really good investments in getting better at holding a space for a group of people.
Of course, there is a charisma factor – and I don’t have that kind of charisma.
So I struggle along and rely on a lot of planning and set pieces and backup set pieces.

Things I’ve learned along the way:

1) There’s a necessary confidence involved in trying different, esp. more open-ended activities. You can psyche yourself out from this and end up being very much a “traditional lecturer” because students are happy to collaborate in traditionalism (perhaps so long as they can have their phone in their lap for distraction…)

2) I teach (part time) US undergraduates who are in London for a term or a similar short period and the difference between students from different institutions is pretty stark. For me the killer difference is some are interested in the world, curious about it – and others are mechanically there to go through some kind of process. (In their minds it goes Lecture, Quiz, Final, Nice Grade.) That stark difference is a helpful reminder that a lot of what happens regarding learning isn’t in my control. I only see them for a little time each week…

3) @Val, don’t get me started on assessment… all the worse in the “student as consumer” and “student as scared scrabbler needing a certain GPA to get the resume through HR filters” world…


engels 09.10.15 at 11:34 pm

The graduates there will become social workers, human resource managers, school teachers, couples counselors, engineers, spouses, parents, co-workers, nurses, even, some of them, philosophers and geographers. The more learned they are – the better their characters, skills, and knowledge – the better they will treat their friends, coworkers, children, fellow-citizens, and the more they will contribute to society through their work.

I don’t think being ‘learned’ implies having a ‘better…character’ and I don’t think there’s any reason to expect someone who is more learned to treat ‘friends, coworkers, children, fellow-citizens’ better or to ‘contribute [more] to society through their work’, at least if this is intended in a positive sense. The second depends on the job and the person, it seems to me. Of the ones you listed, a ‘learned’ human resources manager could easily make employees’ more miserable (in the cause of raising productivity, say), a learned engineer to use her learning to build nuclear missiles or surveillance software, and a learned philosopher could use hers to try to make Reaganism intellectually respectable.


Watson Ladd 09.11.15 at 12:54 am

Recently the New York Times had an in-depth article about what it takes to have a premed program that produces doctors from students who were rather unpromising. And with no surprise to anyone, it was a matter of getting the students to work, on a curriculum designed to help them succeed and was outside of the professor’s control, having continuous feedback on how students were performing, and letting them know when they were in danger of failing. That takes institutional will, and lots of resources. I don’t think you get there by asking students what you should do, but instead by studying what works.

The article


kidneystones 09.11.15 at 1:09 am

@ 9 Completely right. Let’s add that ad hoc/winging it by untrained ‘professionals’ is generally regarded as the supreme indictment of teachers pre-K-12 and through K-12. Yet, magically, teacher training has no place in ‘higher-ed’. The overwhelming majority of my peers have no idea at all how to plan lessons, design activities for specific outcomes over the term, for the beginning of the class, etc. etc.

One of the better interview questions I recall hearing of was: ‘I walk into your classroom at the ten-minute point of an intermediate second-year class at week six, what activities will the students be involved in?

Students are coddled, higher-ed students of the type Harry describes receive no formal support or training, and then administrators complain. Maybe more money for better teachers, fewer students, and more training for everyone might help. That certainly seems to be the ‘solution’ in regular schools.


Alan White 09.11.15 at 1:44 am

Very good article Harry. I admire and deeply respect your ongoing committment to teaching, especially at your R1.

I’ve taught (including grad school) going on now my 38th year–which I can hardly believe myself seeing it typed out. I have in my old age that familiar experience though–I think it partly motivates your own excellent post–that I have heard time and time again voiced by some collegaues at retirement: now that’s it’s over and too late, I think I finallly get something about how to teach.

What they mean captures a core of what you mean. We learn, finally and most effectively, by our own mistakes. But a complex and subtle practice like teaching requires a huge time commitment to make, and reflect on, a lot of mistakes in order to improve. Some of us can be good teachers when we start–maybe luck can make some of us great out-of-the-grad-school-box–but it takes experience and reflection to recognize mistakes and correct them whether we are good, bad, or (the worst) indifferent about teaching.

This is why your previous remarks at CT about rewarding improvements in teaching are on the mark. Such a posture recognizes that only time will tell if a professor absorbs not just the rewards but the failures of the classroom, but it takes time to know if we’ve improved–or failed to.

So I identify with your points 2-3: they are about self-reflection on shortcomings and failure. These are the heart of improving us in any good endeavor, whether teaching or research.

I’ve taught about 150 sections of 101 in my career so far. I honestly think only now I am really teaching an effective class. And I think I can improve.


Glen Tomkins 09.11.15 at 1:59 am

You left out the biggest difference between brain surgery and just about everything else.

Most people survive just about everything else but brain surgery.


harry b 09.11.15 at 3:50 am

Very quickly because I’m on a very patchy connection:

in the US, assessment is lower stakes — a kid takes maybe 32-40 courses, and the final grade is composed of the grades in each course. Grading is left to the individual professor which is, I think, all things considered bad, but in some ways good.

engels — yes, for all the reasons you give, learned is the wrong word. I thought about it, and couldn’t figure out the right word. Educated, I suppose, is the word I should have used. I used human resources as an example deliberately, because a bad HR person can really make people’s lives miserable; it is an important job, and under-valued.

WL and kidney: so, I agree with all that. The problem is that many disciplines have no good measures of learning. We should develop them, but individual professors lack the time, resources, and, crucially, the expertise, to do it by themselves. In the absence of that we have to use our judgment, and train our judgment — and as Alan White says, training our judgment takes large commitments of time, reflection, and intellectual energy — and, as metatone says, it requires willingness to try out new things that we will screw up. Anyway, in many disciplines we don’t know what works (which as a profession is to our shame, but as individuals leaves us having to use our wits). And evidence about what works is always very contextual, anyway, so requires judgment. ANd — I am not proposing that we take what students say as authoritative — just that they often have insights that, once we hear them, it is useful for us to reflect on.

Thanks so much for linking to th NYT article, it was great but.. good grief it was long-winded!


harry b 09.11.15 at 4:07 am

On NWOBHM – I’ve just listened to a lot of documentaries about it. I think, actually, CB is the closest CTer to the NWOBHM — I think he taught Bruce Dickinson to play the guitar, or something.


Moz of Yarramulla 09.11.15 at 5:35 am

Teaching skill seems to be one of those things that’s on the end of a long list of desirable things academics should have. Starting with publication ability, followed by research skills and ideally some facility for independent thinking, but there’s budgeting and fundraising in the list too, as well as political and general people skills. Even, ideally some skill with the local language.

Looking back at my time as a student, I can identify staff who were seriously deficient in all of those skills (and not one disastrous staff member, unfortunately the deficiencies were spread across the whole department). We had one professor who I’m told was quite brilliant as a teacher, if only one was fortunate enough to have him teaching in Spanish rather than English. In the latter language it was more a matter of studying the textbook and hoping to pick up occasional hints from his scrawling on the board.

I recall that teaching assistance was available at the university I went to, but it was optional. And, unfortunately, provided largely by the Education Department, a faculty most remarkable for the inability of its staff to actually teach. Leading to rather nasty things being said about their motivations for moving into research.


magari 09.11.15 at 8:53 am

One of the better interview questions I recall hearing of was: ‘I walk into your classroom at the ten-minute point of an intermediate second-year class at week six, what activities will the students be involved in?’

WTF? That is simultaneously a terrifying and ridiculous question. Anyone with teaching experience knows that the progression of a semester is wholly contingent and that this question is therefore unanswerable. Where you end up and the pace by which you get there is totally dependent upon variables such as (a) student interest, (b) student preparedness, and (c) instructor response to a+b. Plus, I hate the term ‘activities’ — so loaded with the implication that listening and taking notes is not ‘active’ but ‘passive’. This is a fashionable idea totally debunked by the literature on learning that emphasizes the way in which note-taking is an active, synthetic process integral to building knowledge.


kidneystones 09.11.15 at 10:02 am

@16 Sorry. Hope you get yourself under control. At the risk of making your situation worse, I’ll note that France, Japan, and other nations have a national syllabus for k-12, so that pretty much every teacher working in these systems can answer these questions.

K-12 educators ordinarily have to submit a syllabus with these activities, with desired outcomes, and timings listed for each class taught before the term starts, or did when I was trained some decades ago. So, however terrifying planning a syllabus, planning activities, and setting and determining outcomes may to you, it’s part and parcel of the teacher’s work, work we are expected to do before the teacher sets foot in the classroom. In some cases, administrator-instructors organize these activities for a groups of teacher following the same syllabus.

As for ‘contingencies,’ I assume you mean variations in student response to activities. Yes, these have to be planned for and anticipated as much as possible. We need consider what we are trying to do at each stage of each class from period one. That includes individual level checks, planning activities to produce high levels of success to boost confidence, designing mixed method research instruments do assess aptitude and efficacy of methods, and on and on and on.

Almost makes teaching sound like a profession, doesn’t it? Who knew?


praisegod barebones 09.11.15 at 12:10 pm

‘Almost makes teaching sound like a profession, doesn’t it. Who knew?’

‘I walk in to court at quarter past ten on a day when you’re defending a first-time offender on a charge of aggravated burglary. What are you saying to the judge?’

Good interview question, or not?


engels 09.11.15 at 12:39 pm

Harry, it wasn’t your choice of words I disagreed with but the assumption that being better educated means you will have a more positive impact on society. I’m assuming that being better educated makes you more effective at your job. No doubt the world is made better by more effective social workers. Is it made better by more effective weapons engineers or spin doctors? Having worked for some ineffective and incompetent managers and some highly effective and educated ones my personal experience was of being more miserable in the latter case (though doubtless more ‘productive’).


engels 09.11.15 at 12:55 pm


C Trombley 09.11.15 at 1:06 pm

I spend a lot of time thinking about what can and can’t be taught. That’s what keeps me up at night, teaching-wise. My field, mathematics, is an eminently teachable field. But there are still things that can’t be taught, problem solving skills that come from having bashed your head on many different problems. I swear that calculus can’t really be taught (which isn’t to say we shouldn’t try our damndest!), it’s just a matter of getting integration in the bones. Analysis can be taught, though. It’s the difference between playing a sax and harmonic theory.

My favorite metaphor is a true story. At the university where I used to work, the shop for the engineers etc. was run by two men. They taught welding frequently. One had a systemic program to teach welding so that after you were done, you could almost do okay. The other would put the torch in your hand, grab your arm and you’d weld like a puppet. Then he’d say “The rest is experience!” and let you work.

Is one of these “right” and the other “wrong”? I don’t think so. Different students in different moods on different subjects for different teachers will call for different styles. The two styles are seen in philosophy too, a professor who wants his students to learn specific knowledge vs one who who wants them to read and argue.


kidneystones 09.11.15 at 1:41 pm

@18 I’ll show you slightly more respect than you show the teaching profession. If you frame a like to like comparison, I might give you an answer.

Here’s another nugget I served up to a relative who happened to be extremely effective career academic specializing in teacher training, just to make your day complete.

In my experience, the biggest tight-asses in the university classroom are usually standing at the front of the class – who take any and every criticism as mortal insult. The untrained are just that. Now, you’re welcome to take issue with the virtues and merits of teaching teachers to teach. But you’re demonstrating a palpable fear that I just might be right.

As I noted, very few of my peers have the training to even participate in a discussion of the elemental concerns of lesson planning and syllabus design. The question I cite is a verbatim quote passed on to me by an education professional asked that very question at a very fine teaching university.


oldster 09.11.15 at 4:20 pm

Dear Marshall,

Thank you for immediately disclosing that you know nothing about teaching at a university.


Sumana Harihareswara 09.11.15 at 5:03 pm

This post reminds me that I want to take the Software Carpentry course to become a SC instructor and help scientists learn how to program. “In [the course], we cover the basics of educational psychology and instructional design, and look at how to use these ideas in both intensive workshops and regular classes.”


hellblazer 09.11.15 at 10:03 pm

Delurking just to stick up for #16 against the apparent cant of kidneystones. Who said tertiary education was like K12?

Besides, while I think the question would be a reasonable one to ask someone at the end of their first year of employment, asking it at interview is at best disconcerting and at worst spurious. There will be _loads_ of contingent factors dependent on the institution and the cohort which an interviewee simply cannot be expected to know. I would be somewhat suspicious of an interviewee who gave extremely precise answers to such a question, since this smacks of dogmatism or prescriptivism or of “parroting the answers that sounds good”.

There is a case that K-12 is much more standardized. If kidneystones wants to try and extend his or her own expertise in his or her own discipline to tell me what I should do for my students in my discipline in my country in my own context of employment and expectations, then fire away.

Since the desired outcomes of scholars and students may not always coincide, and may differ in ways that are really not apparent to interviewees, I think this kind of question veers towards reflecting badly on the interviewers, to be frank.


anon 09.11.15 at 11:02 pm

@16 and @18, as a high school teacher for even a very short time, I must say that kidneystones is right. There may be more or less flexibility in the curriculum/syllabus at different schools and in different countries, but teachers need to submit a scheme of work for the entire year including planned activities, required materials, learning outcomes, and skills developed by the activity. Those activities might change slightly, again depending on the flexibility allowed teachers in that particular school system, but you should at least have an idea, as a teacher, of what kind of activity students at a particular level at a particular time in a particular course at a particular time in the lesson would be doing. The 10-minute point was chosen because the introduction to the activity should last only 5-10 minutes, followed by the main activity. This is how lesson plans are structured at the k-12 level because we know that that’s about the amount of time needed to warm up the class, get students interested in the topic, and provide them the information/instruction they need to be able to complete the main task. And ALL of that information was given in the question, to enable you to tailor the activity to the students in your response. So even if you’re not 100% sure, you should be able to give a reasonable answer based on past experience.

It’s not necessarily about giving them a specific lesson plan then and there, it’s about knowing what kind of activity would best help students at that level, in that course, to learn and apply the material. I know some students are able to learn through note-taking (usually self-motivated students who go beyond the lecture to make connections to existing knowledge, do all the reading, and contemplate it–these students could probably get their education from a library, though), but in order to engage all students, and unless the objective of the lesson is note-taking skills, other activities should be employed to use other skills, engage other learning modes/styles, and allow students to apply the material, as people understand and remember things much better when they have worked through it on their own.


Alan White 09.11.15 at 11:57 pm

I’m with hellblazer. (I have waited a lifetime to say that.)

A question like kidneystones’ is ludicrous as applied to any institution that values academic freedom (typically even US K-12 has no such concerns–only competency). Higher ed tenures people in part as a sign of earned trust to exercise academic freedom not just to most flexibly pursure truth as channeled through one’s expertise, but to modify pedagogy on-the-run as the professor sees fit. Plan presentations/lectures? Sure. Plan examples, responses, thought-paths so that no deviation from schedule is allowed? Ridiculous! Most of my best insights were made extemporaneously as prompted by reactions and insights by my students. Who would wish to put a damper on that most creative side of academic freedom?


mdc 09.12.15 at 1:35 am

Higher ed is plagued by a lack of lesson plans, and by a shortage of detailed syllabi.


hellblazer 09.12.15 at 1:40 am

MDC: figures? data? which disciplines, at what level, in which country?


magari 09.12.15 at 3:11 am

You guys said it, so I don’t have to belabor the point, but kidneystones equation of university education to K-12 education strikes me as obviously problematic. I had no idea s/he encountered that question in a K-12 interview; it strikes me as one that has virtually no probability of ever being fielded in an academic setting.


Meredith 09.12.15 at 5:40 am

“Professors should profess – the clue’s in the name”

Could that have been me? Sounds like me. If so, or if not…. You seem to me to be “professing” here just as I (would have?) meant. Things may be lost in translation (across divides of generation, country, discipline, type of institution), but they may also be found. I’d just be careful of over-rationalizing the process of training good teachers. Yes, take advantage of all the resources available, but also, go with who you are and who were your best teachers. We don’t want to become sausage-machines.


navarro 09.12.15 at 11:46 am

“Who said tertiary education was like K12?”
no one should say it because k12 education is much more rigorously grounded and adheres better to successful peer-reviewed models of learning than tertiary education. i’ve had a chemistry professor who bragged that he had never taken an education class or gone to a teaching seminar in his life who read the freaking book to a graduate level physical chemistry class.

i teach 6th grade science in a public school in texas and have taught here for 21 years. i can tell you that for all the over-reliance on high-stakes standardized testing we also have our principals and assistant principals who conduct numerous walkthroughs each year and provide us with detailed notes on what we were doing well, what we were doing poorly, and what we weren’t doing at all. we also have instructional specialists and instructional coaches who also conduct walkthroughs with similar feedback. if a teacher is doing well they have a variety of professional development opportunities they can attend during the summer the choice o which is at their discretion and if a teacher is doing poorly in some area the principal or specialist will suggest some pd sessions which could help fill in the gaps in their abilities or knowledge.

perhaps i’m showing bias towards my own profession but there are few actual teachers in higher education and, based on my experiences throughout my time spent in the college classroom both for my undergraduate degree and in graduate classes since, any professor who calls themselves a teacher is truly flattering themselves and is quite possibly delusional.


magari 09.12.15 at 12:34 pm

Wow. I find that post quite insulting.


AcademicLurker 09.12.15 at 1:09 pm

Woe. This thread is looking like the comments section at Inside Higher Education. All that’s missing are complaints about “socialist indoctrination in the classroom” and the “opulent lifestyles” of college professors.


Watson Ladd 09.12.15 at 1:30 pm

Navarro, college students should be able to learn independently. If after 12 years of education they haven’t mastered that skill, so much for the vaunted skills of the K-12 educators.


navarro 09.12.15 at 2:07 pm

watson ladd, college professors should be able to learn independently. if after decades of research in education and learning they haven’t incorporated the results of that research into their pedagogy, so much for the vaunted skills of the professors.


hellblazer 09.12.15 at 2:14 pm

I may have misunderstood kidneystones’s initial comment as I thought he or she was referring to intermediate as a stage within tertiary education, and hence to the context of 2nd year education at university. If that were the case then I would still stand by my response above. Since I have no experience of teaching at secondary level I would not presume to tell people there what they should and shouldn’t do, or should and shouldn’t be expected to do. (I do know a few people who are secondary-level teachers in the UK, and what is described above does sound in accord with what my friends have told me.)

Let me just say that learning outcomes for a course depend on the initial conditions, and there can at years 2 and 3 of tertiary level be considerable variability — especially in a North American system where the honours cohorts in some subjects can be small and can vary significantly from year to year. It would actually have been easier — when I was teaching in that context — for me to be completely prescriptive at the start, and stick to a script for the next 30 lectures that I could write during the summer months; but this would have done a grave disservice to the 15 individuals I was actually teaching, and been almost Procrustean.

Can I just reply to
based on my experiences throughout my time spent in the college classroom both for my undergraduate degree and in graduate classes since, any professor who calls themselves a teacher is truly flattering themselves and is quite possibly delusional
by suggesting that extrapolating this much from such a small sample is, erm, debatable? Teaching to an end goal (i.e. “learn these things and you will pass these exams to go to the next level”) should hopefully not be the be all and end all of what makes a teacher…


hellblazer 09.12.15 at 2:29 pm

Also, #36 does not strike me as a fair reflection of #35. I have recently completed some professional development that might be described (somewhat unfairly or inaccurately) as “teacher training” and although useful pedagogical points and techniques were raised, it was recognized by those leading the instruction that they could not and should not be prescriptive of what lecturers do in their various disciplines. (This is “lecturers” in the UK sense.)

i’ve had a chemistry professor … who read the freaking book to a graduate level physical chemistry class.

FWIW, none of my colleagues in my discipline would do that. I had the opportunity to talk to some chemistry lecturers (and physics lecturers, and law lecturers, and psychology lecturers) during said training, and none of us would have even thought of doing that even before we were all shanghaied onto this “teacher training” program.

I’ll admit I’m not a great teacher. I am, however, a competent and conscientious one, who pays attention to when students are struggling and seeks to adjust in order to help them resolve or ameliorate the difficulties. It is therefore hard not to take the closing sentence of Navarro’s comment at #32 as insulting if it is meant seriously, and unproductive if it was meant as thetorical hyperbole.


hellblazer 09.12.15 at 2:41 pm

Might I also ask the CT audience as a whole: what is it exactly that you think we in UK tertiary education should be preparing our students for, when we “design our intended learning outcomes”, and when we plan (yes, guys, I know everyone you like to slag off doesn’t plan, but actually many of those I’ve met and worked with do) how we will carry out the course to work towards those outcomes…

To name two extremes: am I supposed to be participating in a process whereby some of those I teach could emerge in a state ready to pursue future academic study in my discipline? Or am I supposed to be giving students some hurdles to jump over for three years, which all of them can eventually clear at their different paces, before they go off into the workplace? (I can paint the hurdles with pretty colours if that would help.)


Cranky Observer 09.12.15 at 2:42 pm

= = = (I do know a few people who are secondary-level teachers in the UK, and what is described above does sound in accord with what my friends have told me.) = = =

Our US K-6 school, reasonably well ranked by US and international standards, has an exchange program with a similar school in the UK. Typical experience of the UK teachers is that in the first year they are confused by the US approach and horrified by the lack of standardization. The second year they are confused and somewhat horrified by the prospect of returning to the UK system where they will have minimal ability to customize their work to meet the needs of their individual classes and students.

Both systems can work, although the question of what happens in the UK when a class has e.g. a higher percentage of differently-abled students concerns me a bit. Having observed quite a few different public K-8 schools, classes, and teachers in different communities in the US I would not make any facile assumption that the heavily structured, standardized, and controlled approach is “better” or leads to better outcomes.


mdc 09.12.15 at 3:54 pm


Sorry, that was a joke. That view was supposed to appear obviously ridiculous.


hellblazer 09.12.15 at 4:42 pm

MDC: ah, sorry. My ferric detector is rusty; and one sees similar views to those in your comment proposed earnestly.


RSA 09.12.15 at 6:05 pm

The good news is that teaching is more important than brain surgery… Now for the bad news. Teaching is harder than brain surgery.

I found this framing mildly humorous, and I liked the advice on teaching, but I disliked the direct comparison between professions. Both contribute to society, and I think the conclusion kind of depends on the audience not having any experience with brain surgery, right? Here’s mine:

Some years ago, my wife needed emergency brain surgery. While I was in the neuro-ICU waiting room, I thought about all the years I’d spent in grad school and then as a professor, following a standard career path, when I might have gone to med school instead, so I’d know what was going on and could maybe do something. Would it have been possible? Fruitless thoughts, but probably unavoidable. When the surgeon came out to talk with me, after four or five hours, he said that the surgery had been successful. I told him, “Thank you. You saved her life.”

As you might guess, at that point I saw brain surgery as being more important and harder than anything I had done in my life, including teaching.

The comparison is debatable, of course. But if it’s not a throwaway conclusion, then we’d also want to say that ordinary and very common activities are more important and harder than either brain surgery or teaching: raising a child, for example, or hospice care.

I’d have gone with a rocket science comparison, for what it’s worth.


navarro 09.12.15 at 7:43 pm

@hellblazer–dr. read-aloud was one of a kind, fortunately, but his pride in having never been sullied by education classes was very common among the professors in the science department of my alma mater–i heard similar expressions from professors in geology, physics, chemistry, and mathematics when they discovered i was going into teaching. indeed, the only professors i had who expressed an interest in research trends in successful teaching were those from the department of education. i applaud you for working at being a conscientious teacher to your students. i’m sure you’re not alone but you do not seem to me to be in the majority.

in general the level of irritation, here, with my view from the trenches of actual teaching is almost charmingly amusing. folks, i’m well aware that the plural of anecdote is not data but while a catalog of my experiences is not conclusive it is certainly suggestive. and to say that my response to 35 is not a fair reflection of his sarcastic riposte demonstrates either inattention to detail or a willful misreading of my sarcastic riposte. as for the conclusion of my initial comment, it was somewhat hyperbolic but was intended to convey my belief that highly effective, quality teaching seldom takes place in a college clasroom.

i see that i cannot make any of this palatable to most of you, clearly the mildest uses of anecdote, sarcasm, and hyperbole have left some of you angry, defensive, and dismissive. so it goes.


Tom West 09.12.15 at 8:22 pm

I’ll admit I’m of two minds. In terms of material mastery, there’s no doubt the most successful courses had a carefully defined syllabus, well-planned lectures, etc. I had a few of those, and those courses tended to be the ones in which I remembered all the equations and material that I would need for further courses and for my career.

However, the courses that actually inspired and interested me were given by professors who loved the subject, but tended to meander around, concentrating on the interesting parts. They were by far the most memorable and certainly inspired me towards that particular discipline, but in terms of sheer content mastery, they were often quite weak indeed, and more particularly, they left the weaker students facing near certain doom in future courses.

Not certain how that particular circle gets squared.


DrP 09.12.15 at 8:34 pm

Question for any teacher: What is your theory of learning, and what does it assert about how learning happens?

Then, sort:

Box #1 intuitions about learning that are ‘folk psychological’ reckonings

Box #2 something like an actual theory of learning


hellblazer 09.12.15 at 9:32 pm

in general the level of irritation, here, with my view from the trenches of actual teaching …

Snap. There are other trenches besides yours.

As it happens, navarro’s comments are from the most irritating/upsetting that I might read/hear about what I (supposedly) do (or don’t do), and that’s before we get on to all the world events and developments which are considerably more important and upsetting and enraging. But I thought I would beg the audience’s indulgence by pushing back a little, just to point out that when people toss out these generalizations, they are statements about actual people who may read and have different perspectives.

Or, if that’s all too prolix: “what do you mean `we’, Paleface?” as the joke goes.


navarro 09.13.15 at 12:34 am

“Snap. There are other trenches besides yours.”

and as it happens the post that started this and the comments that i initially felt compelled to comment on are very near to the ones i’m in.

“. . .and that’s before we get on to all the world events and developments which are considerably more important and upsetting and enraging. ”

and here i was thinking this post and comment thread were about the notion of teaching as it applies to tertiary-level education.

so it goes.


hellblazer 09.13.15 at 2:13 am

In case it makes any difference: there was a daft typo in my previous comment, and what I meant to write was

… are far from the most irritating/upsetting that I might read/hear about


TM 09.13.15 at 2:49 am

“Question for any teacher: What is your theory of learning”

My theory is that learning is an active process that takes time and effort. To the best of my knowledge, education science hasn’t developed any technologies that noticeably reduce the time and effort needed to learn a difficult subject. That is why discussions about education always go in circles.


john c. halasz 09.13.15 at 3:11 am


Are you familiar with the anti-lecture movement in university education, in favor of a more group-learning, problem-solving approach? It originated amongst physicists.


TM 09.13.15 at 3:36 am

Yes. Why are you asking?


john c. halasz 09.13.15 at 3:45 am


Because your comment seemed to imply that “time and effort” are an isolated process, and that no remedies had been proposed by “education science”.


TM 09.13.15 at 3:51 am

In case you are alluding to the “flipped classroom” idea: I think it’s a fad. That you need problem solving practice to learn physics is hardly news (same in math, or probably any discipline, except that in some disciplines it’s not always clear what constitutes “problem solving” means). The “flipped classroom” purports to bring more practice into the classroom but the expectation that students will learn the theory at home by reading materials and watching videos is naive (I have been involved in a flipped classroom experiment and I can assure you the students didn’t pay attention to the videos, if they watched them. I was also told by students in an anonymous survey that three quarters never or rarely read the text book.)

I would advocate for a mixture of theory and practice in the classroom but there is no denying that a significant part of the learning process has to happen outside the classroom. Typical college classes in the US are premised on the principle that 3 hours of classroom instruction is supplemented by 6 hours of home study. However well designed your lectures and activities, the investment of time and effort cannot be avoided.


TM 09.13.15 at 3:53 am

52: we crossed. I don’t know what you mean by “isolated process” and by “remedies”. As I said, I believe that there is no remedy that would spare the student the investment of time and effort.


magari 09.13.15 at 6:15 am

Navarro has clearly revealed her/himself to be a troll. Don’t feed. A shame that such a beautiful post by Harry devolved into angry K-12 teachers sniping at higher ed. The N here is small, so I won’t form a conclusion, but it makes me wonder if there’s more solidarity extended from higher ed to K-12 educators than vice versa.


Jose Bonilla 09.13.15 at 2:06 pm

> perhaps i’m showing bias towards my own profession but there are few actual
> teachers in higher education and, based on my experiences throughout my time
> spent in the college classroom both for my undergraduate degree and in
> graduate classes since, any professor who calls themselves a teacher is truly
> flattering themselves and is quite possibly delusional.
Navarro is not entirely wrong. Professors are part of the Higher Ed system. They don’t provide the type of social support that teachers do. Thus, they fail in their job of teaching.

Many, many “colleges” in America leave students less employable than they were prior to college.


Tom West 09.14.15 at 3:58 am

> Navarro has clearly revealed her/himself to be a troll.

Oh please, let’s not start “You’re a troll!”. “No, you’re a troll.”

Here’s what I see happening here: You have a post talking about teaching, and the people who job it is to *teach*, day after day, chime in with what they consider necessary to successfully teach, as defined by making certain that the students master the content of the course material.

They get push back from those who don’t like this “mechanization” of teaching.

K-12 teachers point out this *is* the most effective means we know of to teach (and everything I’ve read, this applies to almost all forms of mass teaching, both children and adults), and some are annoyed at having their expertise dismissed.

The catch, as I see it, is that both sides have quite different definitions of teaching. For teachers in K12 and in adult training settings, teaching is predicated more or less solely on whether the students master the content of the course. For many professors, content mastery is only one of the factors, and occasionally not even the most important aspect of teaching.

This reminds me of nothing so much as arguments between technologists and doctors that computer-aided diagnosis of diseases statistically significantly outperforms doctor’s intuitions about diseases, and doctor’s replies that treating the patient is about far more than simply the diagnosis, and mechanizing this aspect of the profession is a big mistake.


Bloix 09.15.15 at 2:59 pm

“I have seen numerous (really, numerous!) formal reviews of programs here at UW Madison, and almost all of them, when asked to evaluate what their students have learned focus, instead, on what their students know. But this is no measure at all of a program’s effectiveness. It might just be a measure of the competitiveness of our admissions process.”

Well, that’s a pretty depressing admission. The cross-country coach times his runners the first day of practice – otherwise he won’t be able to tell if they make any improvement. But you’re telling us that the Ph.D.’s who conduct formal program reviews aren’t as smart as much as the cross-country coach.

How can that be? Is it that they don’t really want to know?


Metatone 09.15.15 at 3:53 pm

@Bloix : The institution doesn’t want to know. The obsession is ranking – and the control checks invariable focus on whether the ranking looks like last year. In effect, whether there is a curve or not, admins judge you by your ability to reproduce last years curve with minimal student appeals. Only very particular institutions are amenable to the idea that this class of students is significantly better or worse than the last one.

Second – there are many discussions of the “knowledge work” problem in business – so it’s not just a college problem. Simple tasks are easily turned into metrics. More complex ones, less so. If you don’t have a handy metric, then you don’t get easy comparisons.

I’ll throw in that much as the “click through” measurement led to an existential crisis in the value of advertising, so the issue of “program effectiveness” creates serious problems – because it conflicts with ranking.

Finally, I’ll do the vulnerable thing and say it: What distinguishes students in my class – and most college classes in my field – is heavily dependent on the organisation and thinking skills the students likely entered the institution with. Just about all the students in my class pick up the basic knowledge and principles – but going beyond that correlates highly with the piece of writing they do for me on the first day…


TM 09.15.15 at 3:56 pm

I don’t think that’s such an apt comparison. The coach precisely isn’t evaluated by the progress the athletes make but by their competition results. If improvement were the main goal, the coach would select weak, untrained runners. They will likely make the most progress (but probably won’t win races).

I also think that the argument about evaluating teaching by progress rather than proficiency is debatable. Most classes do have specific goals and it is legitimate to ask the question whether these goals are reached. The catch is that most classes are designed on the premise that students have broadly comparable prior knowledge and fulfill specific preconditions but in reality that isn’t the case. But then it is problematic to evaluate the quality of teaching by its effect on students who were not supposed to take the class in the first place (or on students who already knew the material).


TM 09.15.15 at 3:57 pm

That was re 58 but I agree with much of 59.


Metatone 09.15.15 at 4:03 pm

Much of what I’ve said depends on the institution and the employment relationship.

As an adjunct I’m not being paid enough to spend more time on the class than I already do. Detailed lesson plans, or assessing what students have learned (rather than ranking them on what they know) are luxuries. All the more so because syllabuses change more often than you’d hope for – that’s assuming you even get to teach the same class next term…


Shelley 09.15.15 at 4:08 pm

I don’t like the teachers on Jeopardy who say they try to be “entertaining.” On the other hand, I don’t like the professors on the Book Channel who give their talk and obviously have been listened to by a forced audience for so many years that they’re not even trying to project to the audience.

I think the third way is to be in love with your subject. That’s contagious.


Metatone 09.15.15 at 4:12 pm

Final rant – as an adjunct it has become clear how utterly banal so many of the standard resources used in university education are at the moment.

The textbooks, the supplementary exercises, the video materials, the notional assessment aids. Very few of them (despite the expense) are well-written, compelling, etc. This doesn’t fly in an era when students are surrounded by high-production values media.

It’s easy to say “well, with a good teacher that kind of thing doesn’t matter” but that’s a complete evasion of the economic forces at work – especially for adjuncts.


TM 09.15.15 at 4:49 pm

Btw (this as a follow-up to the coach analogy) some VAM measures in secondary schools have resulted in teachers with the highest scoring students being labeled bad teachers because their students didn’t “improve” enough. This points to a deeper methodological problem with the project of “measuring learning”: if the student population is highly inhomogenous, there is no reason to assume that one student’s learning can be meaningfully compared (on a quantitative interval scale) with another student’s learning.

We are probably all aware that quantifying knowledge and learning are difficult and contentious matters but I think the methodological challenges are even worse than most people think when they think about it at all. Apart from everything else, there is no reason to believe that standardized test scores (or any test scores) represent an interval variable. At best they give a reasonable ranking but there is no basis for the belief that an improvement from 50 to 60 is the same as an improvement from 80 to 90 (on whatever arbitrary scale you are using).


Metatone 09.15.15 at 4:55 pm

@TM 65 – to add on – as students progress through tertiary education, fewer and fewer of the classes are large enough to have standardised tests available anyway.


TM 09.15.15 at 5:14 pm

Agreed, and I also think that as students progress through higher education, the learning process becomes looks less and less like a variable that can be quantitatively measured. Or to put it differently, it’s usually easier to specify what constitutes basic proficiency in a discipline than to specify what constitutes mastery.


Bloix 09.15.15 at 9:55 pm

A lot of the objections to measuring learning sound like the pundits who told Nate Silver that elections can’t be predicted from polls. The argument that learning can’t be measured is an argument for replacing professors with adjuncts and adjuncts with MOOCs.


TM 09.16.15 at 2:07 pm

I can’t follow you at all.


Matt_L 09.16.15 at 2:23 pm

I teach history at a medium sized comprehensive university in the American Midwest. I am also the coordinator for our assessment program. I completely agree with Harry that there are some disciplines where we do not know how to measure learning. History is one of them.

Our department has developed its learning outcomes for the lower division courses by working backwards from the US and World AP history exam standards. The reason being that the best research on teaching and learning in history seems to come from studies about High School AP programs or from places like Standford History Education Group. The pedagogy, learning outcomes, assessments, and scaffolding exercises translate very easily into our introductory courses.

But we face other problems: 1) we have no good way of assessing the major as a whole because we do not have measurable learning outcomes at the program level. We cannot agree on what a history major should do in terms that can be measured. This is true of every history program in the United States. Period. The AHA Tuning Project is trying to address this issue, but its not had immediate acceptance or results. 2) The intermediate and advanced level courses are a mess because we cannot agree on learning outcomes or how they fit together to form a curriculum.

I feel pretty confident that we can improve teaching and learning in our 100 level courses and express this in outcomes that we can measure. But this is mainly because we are teaching knowledge and skills from fairly low down on the Blooms Taxonomy of educational objectives. These are the easiest to measure. I despair of the upper level classes because we haven’t been able to put them into written outcomes, much less measure them. This is something where we actually need to do real research, but it does not seem like there is any interest in doing that kind of work.


Bloix 09.16.15 at 6:18 pm

“We cannot agree on what a history major should do in terms that can be measured.”

Isn’t this an indictment of the discipline rather than a problem of measurement? That is, there is no agreement among historians on what history is. There is no common understanding of what a person with a B.A. in history should know. And there is resistance among historians to discussions of the issue because (1) it immediately becomes a political debate and (2) tenure means never having to give up even one inch of personal autonomy.


joe koss 09.16.15 at 6:43 pm

I enjoyed this. Thanks Harry.


Matt_L 09.16.15 at 7:51 pm


I agree with point 1, the political dimensions are part of the problem, but not as much as one would think. I would argue that the larger problem with defining what a BA in history means is that there is no cannon anymore. The development historical research over the last thirty years has been incredible. The catch is that the teaching side of things has not caught up. We keep shoehorning an increasingly wide range of cultural, social, and gender history into the Procrustean bed of our course descriptions. You could go back to the course catalogs of the 1980s and find almost the same types of classes on the books and a similar structure for the major. The problem is that most of those courses were designed to teach narrative political histories of the nation state. They focused on narrative and memorizing knowledge not analysis or doing historical research. The scope of history is wider now and we have no idea how to convey this in a coherent manner.

I’d take issue with point 2. Tenure is not really the problem. If you abolished tenure tomorrow, you still would not resolve the assessment question except in a top down manner. Maybe you could just assign what ever textbooks they use in Texas junior high social studies classes and be done with it. Or you could fire everyone. Then the dean could hire a contractor from McKinsey group to write the curriculum, but I doubt anyone thinks that is a satisfactory answer.

To answer the question, “what does a BA in history mean?” we will actually have to figure out a new cannon of not only knowledge but skills and competencies. The hard part might be admitting we don’t know how to teach those competencies and that we will actually have to do research on how college students learn history.


TM 09.16.15 at 9:00 pm

There is no common understanding of what a person with a B.A. in history should know.

I thought studying history is more than learning a set of facts one “should know” (and I believe that is true for pretty much any scholarly discipline). This whole line of argument is such a tired old hat.

Matt: I understand that cannons have a place in the study of history but perhaps not literally in the classroom!


Matt_L 09.17.15 at 2:43 am

sorry, TM that was hastily typed while eating lunch over my keyboard. That sneaky spell check thingie does not distinguish between canon and cannon. (Apparently I don’t either when clutching a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.)

No, most professors I know do not think the discipline of history is a list of facts you should know. Most of use try to emphasize historical thinking, research skills, and writing. The problem is that we have a course catalog that reflects the pedagogy of the past when there was more emphasis on knowledge of the facts. I think there is also a wide range of opinion on what constitutes “historical awareness” or “historical thinking.” I say opinion because there is no research at the college level to back any of these competing definitions up. We don’t know what historical thinking should look like for a junior history major because we don’t have a definition based on evidence. We have hunches. We have our own subjective memories of what we knew when we were juniors in college and trying to pick classes to complete the major.

Indiana University has done some stuff under the “Decoding the Discipline” program that is interesting. The AHA’s tuning program grew out of that experience, but even then the tuners came up with over a dozen suggested learning objectives. Its a start, but somebody needs to test a couple of them empirically. Until then we are guessing and have no idea what works for students or what skills they need to master, when they need to master them, etc.

Finally, one of the big jobs for our department is to prepare primary and secondary teaching majors to teach in the subject areas of history and social science. We have to cover a certain amount of “knowledge” and narrative material so they can go out take the tests which qualify them to teach. So yes, history is about skills and not so much about knowledge. But other departments and programs, as well as teaching certification tests and state wide standards ask us to teach a lot of stuff that fits into the box called facts.

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