The soft bigotry of low expectations

by Harry on August 26, 2018

Adam Grant offers excellent advice for students and administrators, and lets professors completely off the hook. Observing that the expert academic is often not an expert teacher, he advises students to look for professors who are good teachers, and advises administrators to create separate career tracks for researchers and teachers (something that, as we’ve talked about before, can work well only if the teaching faculty have equal governance rights and clear pathways for career advancement). So far so good.

But why are so many expert professors not good teachers? Well, it’s not in any sense their fault. Talking about his incompetent professors at Harvard he says:

It wasn’t that they didn’t care about teaching. It was that they knew too much about their subject, and had mastered it too long ago, to relate to my ignorance about it. Social scientists call it the curse of knowledge. As the psychologist Sian Beilock, now the president of Barnard College, writes, “As you get better and better at what you do, your ability to communicate your understanding or to help others learn that skill often gets worse and worse.”

Maybe, just maybe, that’s true of his professors. But its probably not. I would guess that, in fact, they didn’t care about teaching, or if they did they cared about it in the way that I care about the fate of the red squirrel: I really do wish it the very best but I am not going to do anything to help it. Most of his professors were probably good learners, and my educated guess is that they didn’t put a lot of that learning effort into learning how their students learn, or how to be effective instructors in the classroom. I do agree that being an expert in the field and having been top of the class when one was a student oneself are handicaps in acquiring and maintaining the complex skills that a teacher needs. But many can overcome them: observe excellent teachers; get others to observe you, talk to your students a lot, and especially to those who struggle with the material. Practice communicating effectively with students; keep practicing it. Talk to good high school teachers about how they motivate weaker students (I sat on a train yesterday while a 75 year old former headteacher gave my about-to-start-teaching daughter a brilliant refresher on how to approach her first 3 weeks in a secondary school — most of my colleagues, like me, are sufficiently good as learners and sufficiently limited as teachers, that sitting eavesdropping would have been as a fruitful use of their time as it was of mine). Establish formal mechanisms for discussing and improving teaching in your department. I can believe that one of his professors would have remained dreadful in the face of such effort, but not that all of them would have.



Chetan Murthy 08.26.18 at 8:56 am

You’re 100% right about this Harry. Certainly, in computer science and the I/T industry. And it’s not just about being effective teachers: it’s also about being effective communicators. Well-developed fields inevitably develop their own jargon, and specialists use that jargon in conversations amongst themselves. When speaking with outsiders (and students) they don’t bother to switch to a way of speaking that is comprehensible. And so, the non-cognoscenti fail to understand them, fail to learn from them.

But in every field, being able to communicate with outsiders is immensely valuable. In the I/T business, being able to explain to customers who are not at all I/T savvy, what’s going on so they can actually understand and make decisions, is very, very important. And again, it’s sheer laziness and lack of care on the part of the specialists, that prevents them from properly communicating with their own customers.

So yes, you’re right about academia, and teaching students. But it’s a far bigger problem than that, and from where I sit it seems to infect much of techology-based industry. And probably many other fields too [not gonna dip my toe into the whole “humanities need to develop their own jargon”/Adorno stuff, not my patch].


relstprof 08.26.18 at 9:03 am

Huh? wut? Why must the whole essay be framed in terms of businesses and their so-called productivity and efficiency? How weird, yet how normal for a batshit crazy capitalist culture.

Adam Grant: “But we’re doing it backward: We should be sending teachers out to run businesses.”

How convenient for the owners and their ilk & the business schools — god, wake up.

You know what good teachers do? They listen to students who suffer from poverty, need, and workplace abuse and try to alleviate it by STANDING UP to university administrations that support this untenable situation for so many young citizens who have no other means for economic advancement but try college. Even as college rips them apart economically.

Teachers also challenge comfortable students from privilege to think outside the narrowness of their own upbringing. To give things up for the common good.

We teachers can walk and chew gum. We can teach our subjects and point the way to a more equitable and just life — one that is creative about human organization and community — that attempts corporate forms of human endeavor that benefit the many: government careers, non-profit careers, the arts, the literary world, etc etc etc.

This is isn’t rocket science. It’s the kind of thinking that dominated for much of the 20th. So sad that the so-called “serious academic websites” in the 21st are so clueless.

Fail better, crooked timber.


Matt 08.26.18 at 9:54 am

But why are so many expert professors not good teachers?

I don’t know about fields I’ve not spent much time in. But, in the fields I know well (law and philosophy) and those I know modestly to more than that (history and English Language Education) I want to say, “Objections! Assumes facts not in evidence!” I don’t think I have ever had a professor who was a really first rate researcher who wasn’t also at least a good, and usually a very good, teacher. All of the truly excellent teachers I’ve had have also been good to better researchers. Most of the worst teachers I’ve had have been people who are not good researchers. Now maybe this is different in different fields. Again, I can’t say. But, too many times, this is the lament of people who _think themselves_ to be very good teachers but who don’t like to do research. They are often not as good of teachers as they think.

(Harry gives good evidence of being a good teachers. And, of course, he’s a top researcher himself. I’d be interested to hear, Harry, if you think you’d be a _better_ teacher if you gave up doing research, and if so, for how long?)

This strikes me as a journalistic ever-green, but somewhat doubtful as a real issue.


Chetan Murthy 08.26.18 at 10:14 am

Something else: it’s been widely remarked that Feynman was an excellent teacher, and that he was specifically excellent at explaining things to intro-level students. That he viewed a subject that couldn’t be explained to intro-level students as, at some level, incomplete and unfinished.

I think that’s a wonderful way of thinking of things.


J-D 08.26.18 at 10:38 am


Why must the whole essay be framed in terms of businesses and their so-called productivity and efficiency?

Hmm. I don’t know. Maybe it’s because people find what they’re looking for? Maybe you’re looking for examples of people framing things that way and so that’s what you find in that essay? On the other hand, I’m not particularly looking for that and so maybe that’s why I find one three-paragraph chunk of the essay that’s framed that way, but not the whole thing. Just a thought.


Steve Williams 08.26.18 at 12:13 pm

I teach, and train teachers, in EFL. My experience thus far in my career suggests that it really isn’t that hard for teachers to reach replacement level ability in teaching, as long as they are self-reflective. Becoming ‘brilliant’, ‘inspirational’ etc is a lot harder, and requires a real passion for teaching, reading about teaching, watching teachers teach and thinking critically about teaching techniques, but presumably in this post we’re focused mostly on those who are not even at replacement level.

In addition to the very good advice contained in the main post, some further tips/observations:

1- You would expect, for Dunning-Kruger reasons, that the teachers most blithely sure of themselves would also be the least reflective about their teaching, and hence the least likely to notice their own weaknesses, and this has been (mostly) true in my career. Two of the worst EFL teachers I have observed were Oxbridge graduates who waffled on with language far above their student’s level of comprehension, and were genuinely surprised when asked about this later. If there’s someone in your department who thinks he’s a brilliant teacher, but you really don’t see why he would think that, the chances are you’re right and you shouldn’t take him at his word.

2- There are some basic questions worth asking before an EFL lesson, and I imagine these (or very similar) are important in university teaching too: a) What do I want the students to know more about, or be better able to do, at the end of the session? b) How will I know if they can (ie, do I have an actual mechanism for demonstrating this?) c) Does every activity contribute to (a), or have I got some things in my plan because I like them/am interested in them/they worked quite well when I was teaching something else, and I feel like doing them again? and lastly d) How am I going to make what I’m doing, and what the group is doing, more interesting than checking Instagram/Twitter/WhatsApp etc.

3- Further to the last point, the most uncomfortable, but also the most effective, way to self-improvement is to video your lessons/lectures/seminars in such a way that you can see both yourself, and the students (obviously only if the students agree under no pressure, and with you having explained the purpose of the recording!) Then place yourself in their position: what, in your lesson/lecture, would you have enjoyed, as a student? What would you have learned from? What would you have found boring? And notice the behaviour of the students: if they’re checking their phones while you’re fiddling with PowerPoint, that’s something you need to change. If they aren’t taking notes when it comes to the crux of the lecture, the bit you really want them to remember, then why aren’t they? Do they not understand? Is it not clear that this is the main point? Is it actually too easy? Or is it something else?

I’m aware that not of these points are particularly advanced, but as I say, I don’t think you need to have some highly rare skillset to become an adequate-to-good teacher. (Real) self-reflection will get people most of the way there.


Harry 08.26.18 at 12:13 pm


Well, to answer your direct question, I don’t know. I do think I’d have been a (much) better teacher, on average, over the course of my career, if I’d been given serious training in teaching, and had put more time energy and effort into learning and maintaining the relevant skills, especially in the pre-tenure phase. As it is, I think I am probably a good-ish teacher, but not as good as I could be if I put more time energy and effort in than I do. If I stopped researching altogether, tomorrow, I might well be able to become better than I am as a teacher, and for sure I could teach more students. As things stand, I’ve been teaching one course in addition to my required 4 a year (without pay) for most of the past few years. If I stopped researching I could teach 7 or 8 a year really well. I think. There are more efficient ways of maintaining my skills than doing research.

However. I’m not sure I’d be as good as I am for many of my students (though I might be better for others) if I hadn’t done a fair bit of research and done it reasonably well. And, for some students, maybe for many, the fact that I do research and (perhaps more importantly) have high status enhances their sense that I value them by the efforts I make to teach them well and, occasionally, on their behalf in other ways. But if the status order were different (with a status track for teaching) they’d feel just as valued maybe.

On the data. Well, since we don’t have good measures of learning, we don’t really know who the good teachers are. And, I have no complaints about my own department. And, it all depends on the threshold we want to set for excellence in researchers. For what its worth I see plenty of what I find convincing evidence that a good number of researchers successful enough to get tenure at institutions like mine are less than good teachers, in fields well beyond, and including, STEM. Of course, there’s also great teaching from some excellent researchers. But even that may not be as good as it would be if they devoted, say, 5-10 hours a semester to observing, being observed, and giving and receiving feedback.

The warning: ‘don’t assume that a great researcher will even be a good teacher’ is a good one, as is the admonition to find out about the quality of the teachers you pick as teachers. Like lots of good advice about college, it is slightly annoying that its in the Times, where a particular kind of student will get it, and not, say, connected to snapchats about the Kardashians (whoever they are) and the NFL (whatever that is) where, maybe, other kinds of student would get it.


Harry 08.26.18 at 12:17 pm

‘the most uncomfortable, but also the most effective, way to self-improvement is to video your lessons/lectures/seminars in such a way that you can see both yourself, and the students (obviously only if the students agree under no pressure, and with you having explained the purpose of the recording!) Then place yourself in their position: what, in your lesson/lecture, would you have enjoyed, as a student? What would you have learned from? What would you have found boring?….’

Yes! But I have done something even more uncomfortable, and more effective, which is watch the video with colleagues and with a couple of students who were actually in the class….


Margaret Atherton 08.26.18 at 1:30 pm

Both the blessing and the curse of academics is that we are asked to do a lot of different things with our time so our lives are agreeably varied but it is still the case that each thing we do could be done better if we spent more time doing it. But, while research and teaching do to some extent call upon different skills, they call upon enough overlapping skills that I tend to be somewhat skeptical about the claim that good researchers are bad teachers while good teachers are not researchers.


M Caswell 08.26.18 at 1:37 pm

“I’ve been teaching one course in addition to my required 4 a year (without pay) for most of the past few years.”

Are you talking about a listed course for credit, with tuition-paying students in it? A course which otherwise would be staffed by another teacher working for pay?


Harry 08.26.18 at 2:19 pm

Um, is that a loaded question? My course does not impact the instructional budget in any way, so my department just offers an extra course, always small, meaning that other courses the students would otherwise have been in are smaller than if I weren’t offering mine. It is (nearly) always designed as a course primarily for students who participated in our first year interest group progam as freshmen, but to reconvene them as juniors in a course that will extend the learning they started as freshmen. This fall there’ll be one Philosophy major in it (I think), the others will be a diverse group from many majors. The FIG program is designed to (and does) enroll disproportionate numbers of first generation, low income and minority students; exactly the kinds of students who get the shorter straws in the competition for faculty attention at places like mine.

In the 60’s the standard teaching load for faculty in most humanities departments at UW-Madison was 3-3. It’s now 2-2, but there are lots of ways to reduce one’s load without bringing external funding into the institution. One of the causes of increased tuition costs at selective institutions is the reduction of faculty teaching loads and, basically, the correlative increase in the subsidy of faculty research by student tuition.

Not that your comment made me feel defensive or anything


Harry 08.26.18 at 2:23 pm

Margaret — yes, an offline commenter chided me for being too easy on Grant. He advises to look at how recently a teacher learned the material they are teaching, how difficult it was for them, and how good they are at communicating it. Only the third criterion is relevant. Many senior academics are good teachers because they have really taken teaching seriously. Many graduate students are dreadful, because even some of them who will be good have not yet had the time to develop the relevant skills. And some people (Feynman) who learned things easily are able really to communicate them well with a wide audience. My point was really that great researchers can be or become at least ok and sometimes great researchers: but they, like everyone else, have to work at it. And Grant’s teachers hadn’t done that.


M Caswell 08.26.18 at 2:46 pm

Yes, it was a loaded question, but your response is reassuring.

Back to the OP, one thing that isn’t always noted in these sorts of articles is the difference between being a good lecturer, and being a good leader of discussion classes. These aren’t the same capacity, and may even be in tension with each other.


Harry 08.26.18 at 3:33 pm

M Caswell,
And, yes, absolutely. In general, while communication skills are essential for good teaching, there’s a lot more to it than that, and he seems to have in mind a pure lecture model, full of teacher talk, whereas facilitating a discussion calls on very different skills — asking the right questions, figuring out how to engage the students with one another, knowing when to talk and when not to, etc. And of course, setting good essay questions, giving useful feedback, etc. Of course, all those do involve communication, I suppose. (And I’m skeptical that a good lecture ever involves just teacher talk).


bianca steele 08.26.18 at 3:46 pm

While I think Chetan Murthy puts it well—talk among experts uses different language from talk that explains the interface between the field and the real world for non-experts, so they can have the knowledge they need to use the product of the expert field—I can’t help feeling like Grant’s complaint is, as Matt puts it, “the lament of people who _think themselves_ to be very good [students] but who don’t like to” learn new things. Generally, there are separate courses for people who are already interested in the history of buildings and don’t need the teacher to show them why it’s “relevant,” and the same for cosmology. If I was frustrated as a 20 year old that questions I thought the material raised weren’t considered in class, I hope that 20 years later I would realize that was an opening for new work in the field that someone could have done, not whine that my teachers back then hadn’t already been able to answer, glibly, questions like “what is the universe expanding into?” At the most sophisticated, if not exactly “at best,” he almost seems to be suggesting that specialist subjects need to be subordinated to general social norms even within the classroom, and that teachers who expect students to put aside their personal, social, and emotional concerns in favor of art or science (let alone literature or philosophy) ought to be avoided.


Alan White 08.26.18 at 3:47 pm

From my own rather lengthy career at a teaching-focused multi campus institution (in the same system as Harry’s and Margaret’s here) I just want to give a strong second to the importance of peer-evaluation and review in building better instruction. I have sat in on classes (or have had mine sat in on) dozens of times, and found that observing and discussing instruction of many different qualities and approaches was the single largest influence on the evolution of my own teaching, which managed a bit of success in local, state, and national awards. Though student evals and feedback were especially helpful in identifying my many weaknesses, I have to say as far as an edifying influence is concerned, peer experiences in the classroom were most helpful overall. And I must say that I luckily fell into a state-wide philosophy department stocked with many excellent instructors to show me the way(s).


Rob Chametzky 08.26.18 at 4:05 pm

Nice to see these questions/issues receiving attention (and commupence?). And Harry’s posts and practice seem to me pretty much exemplary for professors at research universities, fwiw. I must admit, however, being partial to my own formulations of some of the problems/issues. So, hoping perhaps to amuse, though surely not to edify, any patient readers, some excerpts below from my “teaching statement” drafted ~10 years ago, when I was still sometimes applying for academic positions.


. . . 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 . . . .

. . . 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 biology, or 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 do’‟t eat enough crucifers, while some of them manage to, though they may need help (sauces, dips, purees, etc. etc.) . . .


Matt_L 08.26.18 at 6:29 pm

Thanks Harry, I always enjoy your teaching posts. I think it takes a lot of work to become a good teacher especially if you have not had any formal training in actual pedagogy or in classroom management. Too many PhDs in the humanities have been trained to teach by being TAs in large lecture classes for their mentors. This is a hit or miss strategy for training someone to teach.

I have worked hard at learning to become a better teacher, because I was learning all this stuff on my own or during a two hour professional development workshop at the beginning of the semester. I have tried to delve into the research and scholarship on teaching and learning, but to be honest, its like learning a whole new field. Plus, I teach a 4/4 so working on my teaching has earned the scorn of some of my colleagues who seem to think that we should have the scholarly productivity of a 2/2 school, even though our contracts emphasize our teaching role as our primary responsibility.


RickM 08.26.18 at 8:53 pm

Maybe I missed this in the previous comments, but the single most important trait of a good teacher is that s/he remembers, at all times, that s/he wasn’t born with the knowledge upon which his or her career is based. Without that empathy for all students, there is no hope. I also deal with the “too much knowledge” problem in colleagues all the time. Some, for example, cannot fathom that a first-year medical student (or practicing physician) really does not need to know which amino acid of the globin chain binds to the heme group beneath the oxygen molecule. However, that oxygen binding to hemoglobin is cooperative and what that means for human physiology, yes! But that is about it for the entire subject…


ph 08.26.18 at 9:04 pm

Expert academics unwilling to learn how to teach is less of a problem than willing and able teachers with little expertise. Good students should be willing to adjust to bad teachers.

My cousin and I shared the same prof as undergraduates. She (a great student) found his mumbling lectures flabby and disappointing. My own solution was to visit him regularly to ensure I benefited from his expertise despite his less than stellar teaching skills. Ideally, we get both. But expertise is valuable enough to warrant extra effort on the part of the student.

It’s nice to read that many profs are working hard to improve teaching skills.


Rob Chametzky 08.26.18 at 9:26 pm

The article linked to below, from almost 20 years ago, might be of interest to those engaged by the OP and the thread. It’s by a professor at the University of Iowa, still very active (a “named” Lehrstuhlinhalber), major Whitman Scholar.

Something that hasn’t changed in the ensuing years is that two more Iowa Prexies moved on up: another to an Ivy, one to Michigan. One change is that the former was, in fact, a UIowa guy, essentially forced out by the Regents. Another change is that the current Prexy is a nonacademic, entirely unqualified for the position, picked by the Regents in basically a hijacking of the process. But never mind that, it isn’t what the article is about–it’s about graduate programs at places like Iowa.


DCA 08.27.18 at 12:13 am

Chetan Murthy @ 4

My freshman year at Caltech we were taught physics out of the Feynman lectures, which were generally regarded as brilliant: just the thing for a senior, or an early grad student, to use for a refresher — but less than ideal for non-physics freshmen.* Somewhat later freshman physics was split into one course using a more conventional text and one using the Feynman lectures. The man himself provided a guest lecture, demonstrating different ways, mostly geometrical, to prove Kepler’s laws given an inverse-square central force. He was utterly captivating and extremely lucid–but I still remember saying to another student as we walked out “I’d never be able to reproduce any of this”.

*A correct description: the catalog still included the phrase “Applications from women will not be accepted”.


relstprof 08.27.18 at 8:58 am

Re: Research status in teaching

Well that’s a strange thing, since we have no data on what even that could mean in terms of teaching students our disciplines. It’s a self-selected group (of mostly graduate students) that might show up for a certain professor. This data point (or lack of one) isn’t super important when we’re considering the sheer numbers of students matriculating to colleges in the US.

Re: Research teaching overlap

Yeah, I’ve heard line a lot in my 15 years as a professor. ‘The best researches are also good teachers’. No data here, either. So much of academia is self-selected networks of small-group researchers. This line seems self-serving.

Re: Video yourself teaching

What’s the control group for this? I should trust students/admins invited to this? Like, students and university employees invested in the corporate expansion of the university will (OF COURSE) be up for critiquing any professor’s classroom demeanor. Why not? Let’s make it more available and nice for the university big-wigs and consumers of the university product.

I’m not sure what a conversation about effective university teaching looks like, but I’m wondering if the predetermined boundaries set-up in this conversation are really helpful.


Harry 08.27.18 at 10:20 am

“Expert academics unwilling to learn how to teach is less of a problem than willing and able teachers with little expertise”

Not among faculty at research universities.

“Good students should be willing to adjust to bad teachers.”

Of course, it’s prudent for them to do so. But neither the institution nor the bad teacher can use that as an excuse. In my experience the students who are most able to adjust to bad teachers are those with cultural capital and parental back-up. Bad teaching hits low income and first generation students worst because they are less able to work around it.

“I’m not sure what a conversation about effective university teaching looks like, but I’m wondering if the predetermined boundaries set-up in this conversation are really helpful.”

If you’ve been a professor for 15 years and haven’t been in a conversation about effective university teaching you’re entirely welcome to join the conversations we’ve been having here for years. And start some in your own department and on your own campus. That’s how to find out what they look like.


Fr. 08.27.18 at 11:01 am

I sat on a train yesterday while a 75 year old former headteacher gave my about-to-start-teaching daughter a brilliant refresher on how to approach her first 3 weeks in a secondary school

Would love to hear some of that!


Immanuel 08.27.18 at 11:03 am

At least a good teacher might check to see that Sian is a ‘she’ not a ‘he’


John Garrett 08.27.18 at 2:34 pm

Other than the few great lecturers (Feynman, Owen Lattimore) seems to me that the more students talk, the less the prof talks, the better the learning hence the better the teaching. And that is eminently measurable, and in secondary school settings well studied.



Trader Joe 08.27.18 at 2:43 pm

While the post is obviously directed to education, the same is entirely true in business as well.

Most all jobs have some teaching/explaining aspect to them and quite often those who become effective people managers are those that become skilled in listening, relating how to explain what’s needed or how to do something. Likewise just as teachers aren’t always given much curriculum in how to teach – managers aren’t given much training in how to manage (the Peter Principal).

I’ve had the good fortune to have spent some time both as an educator and as a manager and agree greatly with Harry’s points that in some respects boil down to – trial and error isn’t enough, one must reflect on their process, find a way of identifying flaws and actively try to fix them otherwise a poor technique will simply become ingrained and ineffective. Its a hard thing to find time to do given the multiple other priorities for time.


Harry 08.27.18 at 3:55 pm

“At least a good teacher might check to see that Sian is a ‘she’ not a ‘he’”

I don’t understand this. Who referred to her as a he?


Harry 08.27.18 at 3:56 pm

Fr: We’re working on that.


J-D 08.27.18 at 9:20 pm


“At least a good teacher might check to see that Sian is a ‘she’ not a ‘he’”

I don’t understand this. Who referred to her as a he?

You quote a passage from Adam Grant which concludes with a quotation by Adam Grant from Sian Beilock; in the next sentence after the quoted passage you use the pronominal adjective ‘his’, and it is possible to be confused about whether the intended antecedent is ‘Adam Grant’ or ‘Sian Beilock’.


Harry 08.27.18 at 10:37 pm

Oh I see. My assumption that someone called Sian is female and prior knowledge that this particular Sian is female blinded me to that possibility even on my several readings when I was puzzling about your comment.


Ebenezer Scrooge 08.27.18 at 11:51 pm

One difficulty of teaching is dealing with varying levels of ability. Even Feynman admitted that his lectures only “worked” on the best of his CalTech students. (!) And some profs work well for the lower-middle students, but the better students are bored. (Organic chemistry is notorious for this, since it serves as the pons asinorum for premeds, and doesn’t have a separate track for the science kids.)
The best teacher I ever had for varying levels of ability was my high school shop teacher in electronics. His class consisted of Ivy-bound science nerds and kids who wanted to be linemen for the phone company. Don’t ask me how, but he challenged them both at the same time, with the same lectures.


J-D 08.28.18 at 12:48 am


… I was puzzling about your comment.

It wasn’t my comment; I can confirm that ‘J-D’ and ‘Immanuel’ are not two different screen-names for the same person. It seems unlikely, though, that there is any explanation for Immanuel’s comment different from the one I deduced (although Immanuel can prove me wrong if I am).


Collin Street 08.28.18 at 3:16 am

Good students might reasonably be expected to adjust to bad teachers, yes. But that doesn’t make the teachers good. Anybody who’s saying “other people should adjust to my lack of ability” is, well, making a pretty entitled claim, obviously. And “entitled” doesn’t mean “unreasonable”, a person with leg issues might reasonably claim to be entitled to a ramp, but “I am frankly bad at my job and other people should adjust to that” is a bridge too far, I think.

I mean, I adjusted to a similar situation by ceasing my attempts to enter the teaching profession. It worked pretty well for everybody, I think.

Probably more discussion of what students should do to accommodate people with poor work skills should be discussed elsewhere rather than here.


Fuzzy Dunlop 08.28.18 at 3:40 am

While I’m sure there’s a lot that could be gained by more involved or sophisticated methods of (self-)evaluation, I and I bet a lot of others do my most trenchant self-evaluation while reading students’ writing. Were they able to do the thing I wanted them to do, given the amount of guidance I gave them? This is especially true when material is cumulative. If I have to spend a big chunk of class explain something I thought was crystal-clear a week ago, or the students show confusion about it in their writing, I know I didn’t teach it to them well. When this happens a lot, I know I haven’t been successful, and when I see students successfully building on ideas introduced earlier in the class, I know I have. I feel like I also have a pretty good grasp of if/when I’ve spoon-fed them too much and they’re just painting by numbers. I have a much more fine-grained understanding of this than could be seen from transcripts or assessment reports. I’m sure watching tapes of myself and consulting students from the class could be helpful–I’ve gotten great critical feedback from students before–but for the most part I can *see* if they’re getting it or not, and that gives me some kind of an idea of what I could communicate better. Trying to evaluate and analyze too far beyond that and we may be venturing into a different question, which is what general use is the material we’re teaching, and what could I be teaching them instead? (And on that–on the claim I’ve heard that college students end up not being much better critical thinkers than non-college-grads–who says that a lot of what we teach doesn’t diffuse from the college/grad school-educated to people w/o said degrees?)


Harry 08.28.18 at 6:42 am

“for the most part I can *see* if they’re getting it or not”

Yes, good point. I think my ability to do that varies quite a lot, depending on how well I have gotten to know them and on how familiar their demographic is to me. (So, eg, one lecture class I teach normally has about 70% Business majors, 70% seniors. A few semesters ago it was around 10% Business majors and 10% seniors, and I found the class much more inscrutable — and, of course, the work they produced was pretty different).

J-D — sorry, that was late night (my time) and I was not concentrating!


Harry 08.28.18 at 6:50 am

“Other than the few great lecturers (Feynman, Owen Lattimore) seems to me that the more students talk, the less the prof talks, the better the learning hence the better the teaching. And that is eminently measurable, and in secondary school settings well studied”

Yes, I agree with this, up to some threshold of student talk, and with the caveat that the student talk has to be structured, shaped and guided by the teacher.

The Gates Foundation ran a massive project of videorecording thousands of hours of middle and high school (I think) lessons. I haven’t seen any, but my understanding is that one observation was that teachers spend a hell of a lot of time talking in class. I think you’d find the same in higher ed, even in small, seminar-style, classes. Anecdote: in the spring a student who has completed her social science major told me that my large lecture class had more discussion in it than any class she has taken. I said I was surprised her major had no small seminar-style classes. She said there were plenty — she was in two 20-person classes for seniors at the time, and both were all lecture all the time. So the students didn’t do any of the reading (why would they, they were assigned too much, and the professor was telling them everything they needed for the tests — and, even in that size class, almost all the assessment was tests).


relstprof 08.28.18 at 7:06 am

“If you’ve been a professor for 15 years and haven’t been in a conversation about effective university teaching you’re entirely welcome to join the conversations we’ve been having here for years. And start some in your own department and on your own campus. That’s how to find out what they look like.”

Harry, I have been. And I’ve been frustrated. I guess my point is that we step back and re-assess how we conceive the conversation about teaching. My initial frustration with the OP is framing that I think is detrimental to the humanities and higher ed in general to bring commerce into it. I think we in the humanities (more broadly) always lose when the framing is financial and utilitarian.

Since 2015 or so, I’ve seen a tremendous loss of humanities majors at my private, mid-sized Midwestern university. Among the incoming first-years in my intro classes there are less than 2% choosing any major in the humanities.

There are wonderful teachers both TT and NTT at my university. (BTW, I hate this tenure distinction — it furthers hierarchical fake-meritocracy without acknowledgement of racial and class background.) I think we have to unravel a knot of bunched up threads. This includes the value of research, tech, and employment in relation to education and the expansion of the human mind.

I came in hot, I know. But I do care, as I know many contributors to this site also do.


Bill Benzon 08.28.18 at 8:15 am

Harry, #38: “… my understanding is that one observation was that teachers spend a hell of a lot of time talking in class. I think you’d find the same in higher ed, even in small, seminar-style, classes.”

That’s my observation from my graduate student years. I once did a quick calculation to the effect that of some 200+ hours in small seminar classes, mostly all but two of those hours consisted of the professor talking to us students. As for those two hours, the professor hadn’t had time to prepare, so he let us talk. It was wonderful. He even said so at the end of the two hours. But he didn’t do it again.


Neville Morley 08.28.18 at 9:25 am

In response to Fuzzy Dunlop #36: yes, looking at student work definitely tells me whether or not I’ve successfully communicated ideas and methods – but it doesn’t tell me *why* I failed if it’s clear that I haven’t. There’s a temptation to assume it’s just a matter of talking more slowly and breaking things down into smaller, easier bits, but I’ve found that sometimes it’s rather the material is more accessible in discussion rather than lecture format, or vice versa, or by working on practical exercises, or something else, and I think that’s where other approaches to self-evaluation can be useful.


Harry 08.28.18 at 9:27 am

relstprof: really, I didn’t mention business at all in the OP, and even in the article I linked to I thought it his observation about the business world was peripheral and unnecessary. It hasn’t framed the discussion here at all.

That said, the employment prospects (and prospects for contributing usefully to society) of students are relevant to discussions of improving teaching and learning in higher education. And, I think, to the place of the humanities in undergraduate education. It matters to me that my students are able to have fulfilling lives, which includes being employed; and it also matters to me (as it does to them) that they can have meaningful and worthwhile work and do it well. That affects how I teach, the conversations I have with them, and what skills I aim at producing in them. And, actually, it affects the classes I choose to teach (see comment 11 above — the majority of the students in that class are usually future nurses, social workers, teachers, counsellors, and that’s partly why I choose to teach it, and invest so much extra time in the students (somewhere on this site you’ll find a quote from a tragic email from a new teacher saying that her philosophy classes were where she learned her practical skills).

The decline in humanities majors is driven almost entirely by parents who are, frankly, misinformed about what will help their children in the labor market. It is not driven by administrators or by business. (Though, for sure, some administrators, mainly those who don’t understand their own internal budgeting, make bad decisions that further harm enrollments — I hasten to add that in my college that has not happened, mainly because of our Deanery’s values, but also because they have a very good handle on the budget).

The decline in credits is more complicated — the shift into professional majors is part of it, and the increase in giving Gen Ed credit for APs. How should we in the humanities respond? Well, that’s a long conversation, but I think it includes careful thinking about how to improve instruction (and how institutions can prompt improvement in instruction).

Bill. That’s really depressing….


engels 08.28.18 at 10:30 am

the employment prospects (and prospects for contributing usefully to society) of students are relevant to discussions of improving teaching and learning in higher education

Useful to whom?


Harry 08.28.18 at 11:54 am

Read the whole comment and infer my interpretation of usefulness.


SamChevre 08.28.18 at 12:46 pm

I’m not a teacher or an academic, but I still remember my teachers quite well, and I taught and tutored years ago. I’ve recently moved into a team lead position at work (which means I’m responsible for teaching newer employees how to work as part of our team) and I’ve observed the same thing that I did with teachers and teaching.

Being excellent is hard; teaching someone something requires understanding many things, communicating all of them clearly, keeping peoples attention…

But most of the benefit isn’t in being excellent; it’s in being not-terrible. Getting from “terrible” to “mostly OK” gets your students as much benefit, at least, as getting from “mostly OK” to “excellent”, and is far less work.

So that would be my challenge if I were thinking about improving teaching in a university department, as it is when I think about managing in a big company: how can I get the bottom 10% up to “mostly OK”?


Harry 08.28.18 at 3:39 pm

I agree with the main point (excellence is not the right goal), but I suspect that the effort required to get the bottom 10% up to mostly ok is probably as much as getting the mostly ok to excellent. My advice to deans (based on impressions, lots of chat, observations, a good understanding of the institutional incentives, absolutely nothing scientific) would be to target the middle 70-80% and just try to get them all to improve some. And to provide quite a lot of support (and incentives) to quite new professors, and to departments to improve their TAs (contrary to Grant’s implicature, many TAs are terrible — while, I hasten to add, many of the TAs in my own department are really very good indeed).

So, I’d revise what I just said slightly – – target the middle performers, and aim to improve them, but also target the terrible *young* performers — they’re more malleable than the old ones, and investing in in their improvement, if it works, will pay off for longer.


Harry 08.28.18 at 3:40 pm

BTW, Deans get trapped in the language of excellence because (politically) they have to talk about the excellent teachers, to impress both parents and potential funders. The language you or I would prefer use is… less inspiring, though much more practically oriented.


SamChevre 08.28.18 at 4:16 pm

Your standards for “mostly OK” may be higher than mine. In my experience, you can get to mostly OK simply by doing the basics, consistently.

Have a syllabus and follow it so students know what to study when
Grade and return assignments promptly
Don’t read your slides to the class
Don’t read the textbook to the class
Speak understandably
Have some way that students can contact you with questions–email, office hours, staying a few minutes after class
Don’t make it clear that you dislike teaching, consider it a distraction, and blame your students for needing to be taught
Test material that you have taught or that’s in the textbook.

This doesn’t get you anywhere near “a good teacher”–but I’d say it is likely to mean your class is not actively counterproductive.

I had two or three excellent teachers in four years. (The most memorable excellent teacher I had was my calc 1 professor; he was good enough that even though grades in his sections were no higher than in other sections, people would take 8:00 classes to get into one of his sections.) I had two or three that were really bad. The rest were mostly good, but not excellent.


Harry 08.28.18 at 10:28 pm

Yeah, you’re right I’m reading ‘mostly ok’ more demandingly, and you’re also probably, though depressingly, right that the bottom 10% could improve just by doing some, not even all, of the things on your list. There’s a book written by Michigan State undergrads called “Dear Professor” with tips for teachers from students: I bought it thinking it might be useful for me, but many of the items on you list are in the book, indicating, I hope, that I wasn’t the target audience but that the actual target audience is large enough to merit publishing a book.

That’s a lovely article about your teacher. Thanks for linking to it.


J-D 08.29.18 at 12:00 am


the employment prospects (and prospects for contributing usefully to society) of students are relevant to discussions of improving teaching and learning in higher education
Useful to whom?

‘contributing usefully to society’
To whom?
To society! It’s written right there!


Alan White 08.29.18 at 1:03 am

SamChevre @ 48:

That’s a great list overall (sometimes penetrating insights just require ticking off basic necessary conditions through careful reflection), but your point–

“Don’t make it clear that you dislike teaching, consider it a distraction, and blame your students for needing to be taught”

is the salient one, though put in minimalist necessary condition fashion. I don’t know how to make TAs on to professors actually *care* about the classroom, and *care* about students, and not *just* the best students that tend to assuage ones ego, but I’d argue that such an attitude is the pivotal necessary condition for improving higher-ed teaching, elevating it above the “mostly OK” baseline. How in inculcate such an attitude especially in R1 programs’ grad students and ongoing faculty–especially faculty already hired and tenured mainly for research accomplishment–is the biggest challenge. And this is precisely what Harry has taken on in his work and advocacy for quality teaching. Some work I’ve done recently shows (to me) that some influential faculty members in Harry’s own department in the early to middle 20th century paradoxically advocated for a more holistic and inclusive approach to the importance of undergrad education while also moving to more narrowly professionalize it by specialization with focus on research at the graduate level. No doubt competition among R1s pushed the eventual triumph of the research professional narrative over the pedagogical one. But Harry’s concerns were shared by people in his own department decades ago, and he is reviving that spirit in a very refreshing way.

I don’t know how to “mind-meld” Harry’s enthusiasm about teaching into his peers, but that attitude is what’s really missing in much of higher ed.


Harry 08.29.18 at 6:57 am

Alan’s comment reminds me of an event I was at about teaching and learning in higher education. A foundation had brought together a bunch of researchers who work on teaching and learning in k-12, with professors who have thought a lot about teaching. One of the researchers is known for his careful work on the skills of teaching — and the importance in teacher education of teaching those skills (which are, in the US, not emphasized – -one of the nice features of my daughter’s training in the UK has been its emphasis on skills). AT some point said researcher said, about his own teaching: “Its interesting that my students seem to learn much more these days, since I made a change, and they repeatedly say that its because they think I ‘care about them as people'”. My friend, who convened the event, was shocked — “Here is X, his whole research devoted to working out the skills of teaching, and he says something like that!”.

But my students also often say things like that. And I do think it helps a lot; without a skilled teacher the students might as well just read books and have a friend, but even with a skilled teacher, believing the teacher cares about them as people, and about their learning, seems to make a big difference. I tease my students saying “I know you think I care about you as people and care about your learning, but I have to make you believe that because my job is to make you learn a lot. I don’t really care”. But only in ones and twos, when I am confident that if they take it amiss I can assure them I’m joking…


engels 08.29.18 at 9:57 am

Actually if the dative ‘to society’ modified the adverb ‘usefully’ it would be ‘contributing, usefully to society, …’ Better authoritarian pedantry please!


SamChevre 08.29.18 at 12:24 pm

@ Alan White

I don’t know how to make TAs on to professors actually *care* about the classroom, and *care* about students

That is a much higher standard than the minimal necessary condition I was thinking of, and mine is intended to be much easier to meet.

The counter-example I had in mind was a fairly notorious professor in my college, who rarely managed to get through a class session without pointing out that his students were only here because they were too stupid to have gotten into a better school, that the material he was teaching would be obvious if we merely paid attention to the world around us so why was he bothering to tell us, and similar comments. I really meant it in minimal necessary form: don’t be openly, obviously contemptuous of your students and of teaching. I had some professors who clearly were researchers more than teachers; they were OK to good teachers–even though it was clear that their first love was figuring out their subject, not teaching the basics–because they weren’t openly hostile to their role as teachers.

The above is in no way to disagree that teachers who genuinely care about teaching, and care about their students as people, are far better teachers. (That was another way Dr Whitton was amazing; he remembered his students’ names years after they took his class, even though he taught multiple sections of freshman calculus every semester.)


YB 08.29.18 at 3:14 pm

Hi Harry,
Thanks for this, and all the other posts on this subject that you’ve published here over the years. I’ve been reading them since before I started my PhD, and they were a big influence on how I approached teaching when I finally got the chance to do so. More generally, they’ve supported my feeling that something was wrong with (many of) the educational practices that I ‘underwent’ as a student and then later observed among fellow academics . Luckily, they’ve also strengthened my belief that there are ways to improve this, both on an individual and departmental level. I think things have taken a turn for the better here in recent years, but there’s more work to be done, and these blogs have remained inspirational.

A few loose remarks that I don’t think have popped up in the discussion: first there’s the issue of the curriculum, and the ways in which individual teaching ‘pay-offs’ are really part of this wider network of knowledge and skills being taught to the students across the curriculum, with all the (missed) opportunities for comparative advantage/accumulation/interaction/… . Part of the reason (they also had excellent teachers) that I myself enjoyed studying economics much more and, I believe, also learned much from those courses compared to my BA+MA in political science, is that the economics curriculum was very cumulative and ‘interactive’ in design: courses built upon and presupposed knowledge and skills acquired in other classes, and a lot of the classes were later integrated in the theories or applications of others, or some parts were developed into in more detail. This enticed students (I think, perhaps it’s an unreflexive generalization from a ‘good’ student) to keep up, because it would always pay-off in other courses, but it also led to deeper and more ‘well-worn’ insights/skills &c. In contrast, in political science many of the courses would repeat introductory-level material (which you were usually expected to reproduce rather than apply or reflect upon), seemingly without much coordination across classes or study-years, and it was hard to discern any kind of ‘script’, it often felt as if we were randomly hacking at a big pile of knowledge before moving on to another, unrelated one.

My experience in the educational committee of the department where I studied and later obtained my PhD in political science, was that there was very little reflection about what we were trying to teach our students across the entire bachelor+masters’ program(s), and I think there was often limited knowledge of the contents (or pedagogy) of many of the classes, apart from a general notion derived from the course outlines. This was certainly aggravated (apart from the muddling-through inside politics of these things) by the fact that many of the courses were taught by other faculties (e.g. sociology, psychology, law), further reducing the amount of coordination and control.

A different kind of problem, which I’ve had to deal with as a teacher (with limited experience), which is perhaps less salient at your university but which I think is prevalent across Europe, is that the increasingly flexible system by which students can (and do) combine degrees and classes, as well as the increasing importance of English-language courses (I’m from Belgium), and the inflow of Erasmus students from across the continent, have made effective teaching harder because (i) the heterogeneity (background knowledge, skill sets, …) of our classes has increased and (ii) basic communication problems now emerge even in advanced courses, because teachers’ as well as students’ command of English is often less than perfect (and sometimes terrible). The latter poses a particularly obnoxious (because, in the course of your own class: irresolvable) hurdle, especially if you want to go beyond throwing ex-cathedra lectures at the classroom. I have no ideas on how to deal with such a situation, at least not without giving up on this (in itself wonderful) fluidity.

A final thought about the psychology of teaching-researchers (I might be rehashing a previous blog of yours): perhaps the extent to which some of these problems emerge from these uni-level lecturers thinking of themselves as ‘gatekeepers’ rather than teachers, i.e. whose role is to challenge, test, and ultimately sift the students, rather than make them smarter (&c). In many Belgian universities, at least, this mode of thinking is most visibly present in the traditional ‘sifting classes’, courses thrown at 1th year students whose main (implicit, but the students generally know) purpose is to cut into the amount of enrollees by way of extraordinarily difficult or (more commonly) voluminous amounts of material.

(All this text, while I should really be preparing for teaching assignment)


ph 08.29.18 at 6:23 pm

Teaching the humanities – with a little humanity?

Harry, what you’re not getting is the humanities teach intolerance in many cases. Humanities used to mean teaching core western civilization, some Christian culture, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Galileo, J.S. Mill, Shakespeare, and others.

In the eighties students used to be able to specialize and select from a very broad selection to balance things out. Few people are keen to pay to have their kids taught to hate their heritage, and be ashamed of events 20, 50, or a hundred years before students were born.

You can not want parents to worry about cultural indoctrination and bullying. Others are welcome to say that a MAGA hat is a hate symbol. But please don’t be too surprised when parents determine that the “humanities” teaches young men about ‘toxic masculinity’ etc.

I breathed a mighty sigh of relief when our oldest opted for technical high school followed immediately by work, and our second went directly into law. We give them a pretty rounded background on western civ as it is. I believe strongly in the benefits of a humanistic education. I’m just not sure where one can find one.


Harry 08.29.18 at 7:06 pm

ph. I really don’t think that is what deters parents. In particular, the pressures against majoring in the humanities and even taking classes are very strong on students of mine whose parents would be entirely delighted for them to be taught that a MAGA hat is a hate symbol — indeed who teach it themselves. They are concerned about employment prospects, and misinformed about what will help their children.

Now there’s a different question, about whether what you are worried about goes on in humanities classes. I’d say, yes, for sure it does in some, and it is a problem. I hear many stories from students of bad behavior, and I’ve written about it here before. I’d say that it is far more of a problem in some of the social sciences than most of the humanities. And far less of a problem than the problem I am writing about.

I assume you are not meaning to imply that I would tell a student that a MAGA hat is a hate symbol, or teach them to hate their heritage. It happens. I don’t do it. Though I do tease them about the fact that none of them know who Roy Orbison or Paul Robeson are, and gently admonish them for thinking what I know they think in their heads which is that I am some sort of English chauvinist. (Maybe I am, but no American who doesn’t appreciate the greatest of American culture has the right to think that I am).
My father in law thinks that everyone in the humanities is indoctrinating their students in Marxism, despite the fact that neither of his recently graduated daughters encountered that at all. He listens to Rush Limbaugh, and for obvious reasons I am rather unimpressed with that source (you may remember that Mr Limbaugh briefly demonized a book of mine for saying the opposite of what it actually said. His job is to toxify public discourse). He believes what he wants to, but I really don’t think its as much of an issue for most people as you’re suggesting, and anyway that couldn’t account for the flood into the professional majors of liberal students from liberal families. A while ago I did some googling, and found much less complaining about professors on these grounds from actual students than I’d have expected.

If you want a humanistic education for your kids tell them to take plenty of philosophy courses. The norms against using the classroom as a political pulpit are pretty strong in my discipline. You’ll find plenty of exceptions but they really will be exceptions.

YB, thanks for those kind words, it really helps me feel it it worthwhile writing all this stuff, and grateful that CT gives me an audience. I completely agree about the sequencing point. Disciplines that depend on students taking GenEds to find the major have a large structural problem; we induce students into the major through a scattershot approach, which makes sequencing really difficult. For what its worth, in my department numerous majors have told me that they switched to or added philosophy quite late because they took one class out of curiosity or just to fulfill a requirement, were impressed with the teacher and how much they were learning; then took another, but then had to really jump on things to get the major and graduate on time. (I’m rather impressed with how often I hear that story, and just how many of my colleagues have been mentioned to me as really making learning happen, in that context).


ph 08.29.18 at 8:18 pm

Harry, agreed – perhaps we need more practical skills in the humanities. I just met a young woman who did an apprenticeship in online marketing, and sales. I’ve sold cars and advertising and learned a great deal from doing both.

Re: you. I’d be delighted to have you teach our kids any topic and can offer no higher compliment.

What academics need to understand, perhaps even you, is that there’s already a parallel education system emerging, where students and parents independently and together go out and discover what universities refuse to provide.


Alan White 08.29.18 at 8:46 pm

SamChrvre @54

Thanks so much for your as usual thoughtful remarks–we are certainly on the same page, if not the same paragraph.

Your experience motivating your minimal condition is deeply regrettable. I’m very lucky: from college through grad school through my teaching career I never once encountered as student or colleague someone as you describe. (Though I never was at what you’d call a top R1 on either side of the desk either.) I’ve certainly heard such horror stories as yours though. Thanks for taking time to help make that sort of thing disappear.

I’ll also relate an experience that shows that even fulfilling that necessary condition in a strong way certainly isn’t sufficient for being a good instructor. Some years ago a colleague on the TT was known as a wildly popular teacher, loved by students, and, for all that anyone could determine, really cared about them too (packed office hours, long discussions after classes, terrific student evaluations etc.). This faculty member was genuinely a good person as well, devoting incredible amounts of time to important charitable work and the like. But as I (and many other peers) witnessed first hand on more than one occasion, this colleague was a pedagogical disaster in just about every imaginable dimension. There was little content or design to courses, and despite attempts at intervention and remediation, ultimately was let go (and to gauge the degree of popularity involved here, as a consequence the administration punished my department by refusing to grant a replacement TT position!).

And as others have said, Harry is owed much appreciation for his work here at CT and elsewhere (and there’s plenty of that elsewhere!)–so let me say for my own part–thanks so much.


Orange Watch 08.30.18 at 1:49 am

ph, for someone who purports to be a “voice for the deplorables” on CT, all your talk about whether parents are going to want to pay for their children studying X, Y, or Z in college sounds rather… out of touch and elitist. If you’re going to college in the US from a low-income background, it’s a whole lot more likely you’re going to be working through school (or fitting in school around ongoing work), taking out loans, and/or doing military service to afford college than having your parents pony up tuition. In fact, “several of the above” is the most likely scenario.


mch 08.30.18 at 4:17 am

I’ve enjoyed this discussion. Before retiring recently, I mentored and evaluated assistant professors for some 35 years after I got my own tenure at a college that expects excellence in both scholarship and teaching — a tricky balancing act, such that some people with somewhat weaker scholarly achievement might get tenure, while someone with a remarkable scholarly record who lacks at least very good teaching would not. I am so imbued with the notion that scholarship contributes to excellent teaching that I cannot subscribe to the premise of Grant’s argument. From my own experience and colleagues’, I am also confident that teaching — that the students themselves — will raise questions for the teacher and suggest fresh approaches to one’s scholarship. Of course, I taught at a SLAC, and graduate universities have different challenges and concerns. (For instance, a professor who might be just okay in graduate seminars might be an excellent dissertation adviser. A brilliant lab researcher may be a dull lecturer.)

My college has developed over the years numerous ways to help assistant professors develop their teaching skills. We should be doing more for tenured professors (we do a little, but not enough). Focused programs for tenured faculty aside, just visiting assistant professors’ classes, advising them on developing courses and syllabi, and other such mentoring that the tenured faculty perform helps them improve their own teaching.

Over the years at a college chock-full of fine scholars (with a number of excellent scholars, by which I mean, in part, with national reputations in their fields) and of excellent teachers — a situation made possible, I’d be the first to acknowledge, by the college’s wealth, but also by its dedication to the ideal of the teacher-scholar — I’d offer this. Even when teaching students who are nearly all talented and hardworking, a single teacher will have her strengths and weaknesses, or simply be better with some students than with others, or with some types/levels of course than with others. None of us should be aiming to be all things to all students in every teaching context. Each of us has different things to give to different students.

I think of an old bit of wisdom. Imagine how diminished your world would be without your treasured mentor. Then imagine how diminished your world would be if that mentor were your only teacher.

Perhaps the finest teacher I have ever observed (now chairing the department from which I retired — he is also a highly published scholar in two different fields) excels in every type of course he teaches (and he teaches quite a variety). Whether a seminar of ten or a lecture class of forty (the outer limit for a lecture course in my department), he does most of the talking in class, but in talking he focuses the students entirely on the text at hand, and the students are absorbed in the text, not in him. (Though a student in interviews once confessed, “May I say this? I just love to listen to his voice.” I understood entirely.) He calls his approach “modeling.” He also spends innumerable hours with individual students in his office — they flock to him to discuss questions that came up in class, their paper topics or the papers he has returned, their personal lives. He has an inimitable magic as a teacher, and I only offer his story to say that wonderful teaching, even at the small seminar level, need not entail students’ doing most of the talking, and to suggest that while many teaching skills certainly can and should be taught in a self-conscious and rigorous manner (few of us will ever be “naturals” like the teacher I just described), in the end effective teaching by all of us rests on equal parts of devotion to what you are teaching (hence, the importance of scholarly activity) and to your students. You are inviting them to share a world.


ph 08.30.18 at 6:49 am

@60 purporting etc.

I speak only for myself, thanks. CT is one of the only platforms where even my modest dissent is tolerated. And as you know well, there are a small number of active commenters who find even one dissenting voice – deplorable.

I agree, btw, re: low-income families. I served and regard the military to be full of of unsavory views, but a great place to learn a trade among people generally more mature, open-minded, and enlightened than the average humanities prof, at least from my experience.

That door you hear slamming shut? –


ph 08.30.18 at 7:01 am

Voices from outside the bubble:

“A new Harris poll of blue-collar workers, conducted on behalf of Express Employment Professionals and released today, bears this out…

…blue-collar laborers are among the most optimistic groups in the country: A whopping “85 percent of [them] see their lives heading ‘in the right direction’ and 51 percent say the same about the country. That is 12 percentage points higher than among all Americans who say the country is heading in the right direction (39 percent), according to the July edition of the Harvard-Harris Poll polling average.”

That optimism carries over into other areas. Fifty-five percent say they are better off now than they were five years ago. And they believe this positive momentum will carry forward in the years ahead: A stunning 88 percent of blue-collar parents agree with the statement, “My children will have a better future than I will.”

Indeed, the poll reports that 80 percent of blue-collar workers are optimistic about the future, and more than one-third (34 percent) say they are “very optimistic.” Eighty percent also agree that “the harder you work, the more successful you will be,” and 70 percent believe that the “American dream is alive for people like me.”

This 39 percent of voters are roundly regarded as racist, deplorable, and/or stupid by many of their self-declared betters. You’ll be reading about these folks again in November.

Having been abandoned by the Democratic elites, these Americans have found happiness elsewhere. Bad them.


ph 08.30.18 at 7:28 am

Finally, making parents feel better about their future (even ‘bad’ people who don’t vote the way ‘they’re supposed to’) improves the chances of them borrowing and spending money on their kids’ education. See above. But that’s contingent on whether or not ‘humanities’ continues to be a form of political indoctrination.

Back on topic, making classroom time more rewarding for students helps a lot. I’ve been arguing for some time that removing phones and computers from classrooms is a necessary condition of ‘active’ exchanges of information, discussion, and exploration.


Harry 08.30.18 at 11:57 am

Yes. Its essential to ban phones. Laptops — in large classes banned, in small classes they can have them on the desk, shut, and they can open them if and only if I ask people to use them to look something up or to write. This is pretty widespread now.


engels 08.30.18 at 3:19 pm

A stunning 88 percent of blue-collar parents agree with the statement, “My children will have a better future than I will.”

“There is no sadder sight than a young pessimist, except an old optimist”—Mark Twain


Rob Chametzky 08.30.18 at 4:42 pm

mch @61

” in the end effective teaching by all of us rests on equal parts of devotion to what you are teaching (hence, the importance of scholarly activity) and to your students. You are inviting them to share a world.”

Yes, and well said, but I see it perhaps ever-so-slightly differently, viz.,

“Our goal as teachers is to provide our students with a potential entry point to the possibilities of their own minds.”

And again, I’d sort-of echo what you say here

“Even when teaching students who are nearly all talented and hardworking, a single teacher will have her strengths and weaknesses, or simply be better with some students than with others, or with some types/levels of course than with others. None of us should be aiming to be all things to all students in every teaching context. Each of us has different things to give to different students.”

with this:

“More broadly, if we understand the point of an undergraduate curriculum to be the placing of enough and varied intellectual obstacles in the students’ paths so that chances are substantially increased of forcing them to stop and think for a while, then we should adopt a stance of PRINCIPLED OPPORTUNISM in teaching. We need to realize, first, that there is no such thing as ‘good teaching’ simpliciter. There are just too many kinds of classes, students, and teachers for that. This leads to the principled part of the deal: analyzing and understanding the specificity of who you are, who your students are, and what the pedagogic purpose of your interaction is (supposed to be). From this flows the opportunism: having in hand and mind an ever widening range of teaching stances and approaches which one can flexibly and openly deploy as responses to the evolving classroom situation. The goal, as Abbot suggests, is to provide the students (and you) with an experience that is about as close to a Zen Koan as most of them (us) are likely to come: not in itself enlightenment, but nonetheless, if they (we) truly engage its unfamiliarity, a viable means to enlightenment.”

Sounds like it has been an enjoyable and enviable 35+ years.



relstprof 08.31.18 at 10:54 am

“The decline in humanities majors is driven almost entirely by parents who are, frankly, misinformed about what will help their children in the labor market. It is not driven by administrators or by business.”

Again we find a opinion statement, not an argument. No data here.

For anyone reading this, coming to this website looking for meaningful conversation about the role of teaching in the contemporary American academy, take note.

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