Harry on becoming a better college teacher (if you’re lucky)

by Gina Schouten on October 1, 2019

For a long time, I’ve been convinced that we can only improve our teaching practice in a reliable, systematic way up to some threshold. Below that threshold, we can read books, talk to those who have more experience, and refine our teaching by growing our knowledge of best practices for getting students to learn. But once we’ve really effortfully done all that, further gains just aren’t something we can get through any sort of studied practice. We hope we continue to improve, but our best bet is just to figure out over time how to fully inhabit our teaching skin.

This was never meant as an excuse for complacency: Further reading and study might make improvement more likely, so we shouldn’t let up our efforts once the low hanging fruit begins to seem depleted. (For one thing, we might be wrong about its being depleted!) But the kind of progress we can hope to make is different above the threshold than below. Above it, for example, there are few standards of success that aren’t endogenous in important ways to questions of value that we settle at early stages of thinking about what we as teachers want for our students.

To put it roughly: I thought that below some threshold, teaching is a science, and above it, an art.

Harry’s contribution to the Fall 2019 issue of Daedalus is beginning to convince me otherwise.  The issue “Improving Teaching: Strengthening the College Learning Experience,” features thirteen essays that focus on “what goes on inside the ‘black box’ of teaching and learning.”

I’ve read only a couple of the issue’s essays to date, but the rest are at the top of my reading list. I’ll focus on Harry’s both because he’s prompted discussions over many of its ideas here on Crooked Timber, and because it’s the one that’s convincing me that a certain form of studied and steady effort can generate meaningful gains to teaching competence, even above the threshold of incompetence.

Harry’s essay is a retelling of his own experience becoming a better teacher, and his story attests to the possibility of learning how to become not just a decent but a good teacher through study and study-driven practice. To get a gist for his practice, we can just borrow his own extended analogy. Imagine that you find yourself employed as a plumber at a plumbing company. You have not been trained as a plumber nor read any books about plumbing, thought you grew up in a house with running water and have been present in a room with some professional plumbers while they were plumbing. (Unfortunately, their training was much the same as yours.) If you’re a professor in a research university, Harry suggests, this exercise of imagination might not be much of a stretch. Your incentives are likely not to favor you exerting much effort now to teach yourself to plumb. But you can and should act in defiance of those incentives.

For Harry, this involved reading a lot of books on teaching and learning, finding opportunities to watch more experienced teachers teach, and instituting a brown-bag series devoted to discussion of teaching and learning. More innovatively, it involved hiring an undergraduate teaching coach, having his teaching videotaped, and subsequently watching the footage with—and having it critiqued by—colleagues and students. The feedback Harry managed to get from his coach (and other coaches he hired subsequently) and peers has yielded improvements to his teaching practice that demand to be appreciated as improvements, no matter the peculiarities of any particular teacher’s values or learning goals. If you’re not yet convinced that this matters, then give Harry (and others in the issue) a chance to convince you that “instructional quality is the most neglected—and perhaps the most serious—equity issue in higher education” (25).

For me, an especially valuable take-away is the “gestalt-switch” Harry has devised to help himself be better at facilitating discussion among students rather than between himself and one other student at a time: “When a student speaks, instead of thinking that I am depriving her (of assurance or of some valuable thought) by not responding, I think to myself that I am depriving her precisely by responding: preventing interaction with her peers, the reasons they can give to her, and the opportunity to surprise and be surprised by them” (24).

Harry’s essay has convinced me that, when we dream big dreams of becoming excellent at our jobs, we don’t have to despair that the roadmap just ends somewhere around decently effective. The roadmap might run shorter than we’d like on detail, but Harry’s essay gives valuable direction for how to navigate some crucial turns. I’m excited to learn from the other contributors and get back on the road.



Dwight L. Cramer 10.01.19 at 1:46 pm

This is a wonderful topic. As a pontificating former adjunct who was awful (and untrained and unguided) 20 years ago married to a woman who was and is a very good primary teacher (and works hard at it), I’m really looking forward to following the comments, even though I have little to add. One observation I will make, which I’m pretty confident is generally true in the USA from the primary through post graduate university levels, is that the institutional incentives for good teaching are truly and bizarrely perverse. Teaching doesn’t fare well, as a skill (art or science) in a money-driven, celebrity obsessed culture.


Yon Yonson 10.01.19 at 4:41 pm

Two years ago I completed a post-grad teaching certificate and came out fired up to improve my teaching. The practical training elements were a bit minimal – the suggestions for classroom exercises mostly seemed to be things I’d already tried, while the suggestions for vibing up lectures had a painfully low hit-rate – but what I really got out of it was a sense of what teaching was about, what it was for. And what it was for was facilitating learning, helping students become the best, most curious, most critical people they could (I read a lot of Carl Rogers).

I turned one of my two classroom sessions into a completely open session, as recommended by Rogers. At the end of the year, most of the students who came to that session had demonstrably done better than the rest of the cohort – and I bonded with the core group like I never had before or since. OTOH, that still left 3/4 of the cohort, who had either given up on the open session or been assigned to the programmed session – and then given up on that. (Rogers says nothing about what to do when students bale on you.)

Last year – thanks to a sabbatical – I didn’t do any classroom teaching. I did some lectures, and didn’t try vibing them up very much. The students didn’t seem to mind.

This year, rather alarmingly, I’ve got a group of 50 for a single three-hour session (I specifically asked for three separate hours, but hey ho). I have no idea what I’m going to do with them – other than lecture, i.e. engage them for 10-15 minute bursts with long gaps in between. (Did I mention that we’re judged and evaluated on student survey data, i.e. how popular and well-liked our courses are?)

In short, what I’ve learnt about teaching is that (a) what I thought was good enough, isn’t and (b) trying to improve is fraught with danger, because if students don’t want to play, they won’t – and it’ll be on you. It’s all been weirdly demotivating. Perhaps I need to go back to Rogers.


Leo Casey 10.01.19 at 6:39 pm

As Harry points out in that nicely done essay, having a common language to discuss teaching, and in particular, having a shared sense of what constitutes good, accomplished teaching, is paramount. One of the virtues of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards is that it understood this to be the case for K-12 students, and went about identifying what good, accomplished teaching is through a rigorous consultative process. That understanding is the basis for the board certification process. Virtually everything that is written today in terms of the subject is midrash on what the NBPTS has done.


TheSophist 10.01.19 at 7:48 pm

One thing I’ve become very aware of over the years is how much the quality of the reading material matters. This morning I had a great discussion (class of 16 HS seniors) of Thomas Nagel’s NYRB review of Christine Korsgaard’s latest book. While I’d like to claim that it was my pedagogical brilliance that drove the discussion, in reality so much of it was that Nagel wrote so well, summarizing the arguments that Korsgaard made in a way that was both comprehensible and challenging.

What this means for my teaching practice, of course, is that I have to be constantly on the lookout for readings that do the job better than whatever I’ve previously used. (And at the completion of today’s class the first thing I did was fire off an email of gratitude to the colleague who had first shown me the article.)


Neville Morley 10.02.19 at 4:28 am

I was just going to comment on the occasional benefits of friction, so to speak – the disruptive influence, the group that simply doesn’t gel, equipment failures and other random problems – as a spur to innovation and improvement, especially for those of us who are fairly experienced and have got a series of routines that reliably work pretty well. My case in point; this year I’m teaching a big survey course for first and second year students, 160 students taught through a mixture of fortnightly seminars (which I don’t run, so it’s a question of trying to deliver my teaching aims and values via GTAs and help them develop individually at the same time), and a weekly two-hour lecture. I’ve done these before; way too many students in a completely unsuitable room for any normal approach to discussion, but talking at them for two solid hours would be disastrous, and giving them lots of unstructured time in between the lecturing is hopeless (and deeply unpopular, from experience; my job in their view is to fill that two-hour slot…). This really pushes me to think of productive ways to present the material, open up debates and get them thinking, suitable for such a large group. It’s terrifying but challenging in a good way.

And then Yon Yonson remarks that they have a THREE-hour session, with a larger number of students than one can comfortably seminar with…


Steve Kyle 10.02.19 at 12:57 pm

I am a professor at a research university and have taught at every level from intro to advanced PhD courses. I have worked hard to be a better teacher but I think there are a couple of things that have stood out to me as I tried:

1. There is no substitute for enthusiasm. If you really are fascinated by your subject that will communicate to the students. The trick is to fascinate yourself with the parts of courses that you dont much like.

2. The single most useful thing I ever did to improve teaching was to get videotaped giving a lecture and then sit through a comment/critique session with an experienced teacher of that same material. Kind of horrifying to see yourself but extremely useful. It ought to be required of every TA (as it was of me in grad school) before they get in front of a class.


oldster 10.02.19 at 5:39 pm

Steve Kyle —

Can you say more about how getting videotaped was a help to you? What did you learn from it, what changes did you make in response? Why could you not have learned and changed from other forms of feedback (e.g. oral testimony of students)?

Hearing about the wonderful new methods that were not available back when I was teaching, I am reminded of watching toddlers nowadays with their “balance bikes.” How I wish we had had those when our kids were young! Learning to ride a bike was a huge ordeal and right of passage, and now it turns out that with the right technology and techniques, it is as automatic as learning to walk, and easier.


Alan White 10.02.19 at 11:50 pm

Steve Kyle @ 6–I heartily endorse both of your points. I was only video-reviewed once, but it did have lasting effects on how I conducted classes thereafter (and yes it was very difficult to see myself teaching). But your first point about enthusiasm is probably the single most important thing that guided my career–I dearly loved philosophy and teaching it, and I think that came across for many students. And that can’t be faked either–which means that people considering the profession should come to terms with such a weighty demand.

And to oldster–I suspect like Kyle I drew very heavily from student feedback in many ways–not the least the day-to-day experience of good students–but mostly from trying to draw out those who were not so engaged. I know I failed many students anyway–but trying not to fail is a requisite part of the battle to teach well.


ph 10.03.19 at 9:42 pm

Hi Gina, I’ve enjoyed your posts and, like you, enjoy Harry’s posts immensely. I’ve enjoyed all the comments here.

Three-hours with 50 is a challenge which requires a step back and some thought. First, to make this workable the number of students and the time needs to be reduced. The good news is that exceptional circumstances permit the instructor to implement these changes at any point in the term, because all students (normally) recognize the logistical challenges. I regularly teach 3 hour sessions with 20, with a scheduled break dividing the time in two, and have for years. I also work in a community of teachers who do the same, so I benefit from lots of peer support.

Some basics which apply to all classes – 1. Clear beginnings and endings to each activity. The easiest and most effective way to mark these is with class-wide summary of activity goals done in pairs, and confirmed on the board. Then a brief rest for toilets etc. Begin with something fresh, and get students moving to get blood circulating. 2. Devise a Rationale / Action chart. Self-assessment or peer observation will detail what actions all class participants are engaged in. We should have a clear idea what we envision and desire our students to be doing at all points during the class ie reading, sleeping, staring out the window. You get my point. If we want students to be engaged in specific activities we need to think about how this is going to happen. This is known as “getting students on task.” Successful teachers identify specific tasks for all parts of the class and get students on task as soon as the bell goes. 3. Understand that we’re generally way behind the tech curve. Practically none of the best teachers I know recognize these changes because none of us grew up with smart phones in our hands from the cradle.

The Rationale/Action chart can be done on the back of any piece of paper in pencil. Divide the paper vertically in two. Write R and A at the top of each half. Under R write the desired outcome – under A pencil in the task. For example, at the beginning of the class I always wish to get students attention and control of the class. That’s R. Under Action I consider the best and quickest way to accomplish that task.

The R/A chart will be particularly effective with managing groups. The three-hour class is divided into a series of tasks. And instead of having too much time, we find that we don’t have enough to complete all the tasks each class. Tedium is transformed into excitement as students work together to complete the allotted task. Students present to each other, pose questions etc. Instructors monitor constantly offering support and praise, maybe teasing out additional questions. Students record other students arguments and must either support or contest with evidence. The dull turns lively in almost all cases.

Getting students to stand, rather than sit, at least part of the time will get the blood circulating. This is critical in my experience. All my students stand during discussions. But to each their own. I regard the one-piece desk as a cage of sorts. Of course, it isn’t!! Is it?

If the 3-hour class is a pure lecture, of 75 and upwards divide the lecture into parts with bathroom and banter breaks. The carrot and the carrot work best and he best carrot is finishing the class early. Once the students understand that each class/group period/ is comprised of a series of tasks which must be completed, things run smoothly. Good student preparation means lively classroom experiences, and if we’re satisfied with the task performance and students are sufficiently tired, we finish early to sighs of satisfaction and joy from students for work well done. We work hard and this hard work is rewarded. That’s how I conducted both my classes yesterday, one of which was a three-hour class. Attendance is near perfect and satisfaction rates are normally high.

Finally, if we go into the class looking to boost our own egos rather than helping students build their own, we’re unlikely to succeed in any sense. We leave our ego needs outside the classroom. Design the tasks to meet student need, be prepared to be radical – standing up? – remove the smart phones and other distractions at the outset – power off in bags, bags at back or side of the class. Give the students with something to do at all times through our time together. Break up the activities, members of groups, cliques, add variety. Keep tasks simple. All students should be able to complete all tasks with 70 percent success. Success repeated over the course of 5-20-60-150 minutes is the oil that keeps the entire process humming along smoothly.

Thanks for the great posts.


nastywoman 10.04.19 at 7:01 am

Did I just read from ph – advice how to teach students?

Sorry for my comment – but my eyes are burning?


Yon Yonson 10.04.19 at 9:28 am

ph – thanks for some relevant (but challenging) thoughts. I might have forgotten to mention that my three-hour session is scheduled in a room with fixed ‘lecture theatre’ seating…! It’s fine, I’ll get it changed.

Can’t help feeling a bit nostalgic for the third-year UG course I gave once, where the lecture component consisted of me talking & them taking notes, and the ‘classroom’ component consisted of me saying ‘have you done the reading?’ and prompting an informed discussion which took up all the time we had. But that was long ago and in a different institution.

Anyone else attempted to implement Carl Rogers’ ‘teaching’ methods? One participant’s account which stuck with me said something like “The first week, we didn’t know what was going on. The second week was worse. The third week, we were at one another’s throats – but then something clicked and suddenly we were working more productively than ever before…” And yes, it can work like that, except that in my experience many students won’t hang around to be baffled and frustrated; they don’t walk out mid-class, by and large, but if what happens in week 1 doesn’t make any sense a lot of them just won’t show up for week 2, let alone week 3.


ph 10.04.19 at 12:09 pm

Hi Yon. You’ve put your finger right into the wound. Negotiating basic literacy is a non-starter, however. If the students arrive in class without having done the readings, we’re all going to fail.

Insist students read all material twice and date and initial every page read in pencil. These are peer-checked; then the instructor check their texts/copies of the readings. Students understand that passing the class is contingent on completing the readings and arriving in class prepared before any other form of evaluation takes place. Testing preparation begins early in the term, in week two. That test includes asking the student to describe from memory the issues and arguments an author uses to begin the assigned reading, how the argument develops, how the author complicates the questions, and what specific conclusions are discussed, with their attendant concerns. With 50 that’s tough. With 16-20, it’s pretty easy. We don’t have to interview every student every class. Grill the first aggressively and the rest get the message quickly. We let the students know that we expect to find color-coded stick-it notes on pages through-out the readings.

Ensure each student understands that she/he will be working hard from the first class to master a specific set of tasks and materials. Students rarely mind if they understand the task, and that opting out of the work is not an option. In fact, most expect to work hard and have little respect for lax teachers, and/or teachers who believe students pay to come to class to “make friends with teacher.” They and their families pay good money for quality instruction. That seems reasonable. Cheers!

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