Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Dear Jordan

There is a sobering column in today's Duke Chronicle headed Dear Professors, in which Jordan Everson challenges his teachers to take their job seriously, to do a bit of actual "professing", to enthuse students, to engage them, to throw themselves into teaching. The piece has something of a negative tone, and it is clear that Jordan's experience at Duke has been less satisfactory than that of many other students, from whom I have heard more positive things. I can't help thinking that Jordan has been unlucky in his choice of courses if he has only found one professor who has really engaged him in three years; I thought that students all talked to one another about the best, most engaging courses to go to, though of course it is never easy to judge these things from the other side of the fence. Nevertheless, Jordan's piece is a helpful call to us all to take our students seriously and to take our teaching seriously, and his plea is well taken, at least from this corner. Jordan writes:
So then profess! Enlighten your students with the marvelous task you have undertaken, the ideas that inspired you, that you have dedicated your life to studying.

I know, I know, you spent years researching for that Ph.D., and before arriving here your main concern has probably been research.

There is little for you to gain from professing; Research, not teaching, determines your career advancement. Only disastrously bad student evaluations will hinder your upward mobility, an easily avoidable fate so long you reserve low grades only for the truly indolent and hand out evaluations during the last day of classes.

Still, as professors you have an obligation to teach us, your students.
In my perhaps naïve optimism, I am inclined to be a bit less cynical than this, not least because for me, and for colleagues I know, there is a genuine interaction between research and teaching. Some of my best research ideas emerge in teaching, and my teaching often provides the occasion for testing new ideas, or developing new ways of communicating older ideas, to talk to students about work in progress. One of the things I love about teaching at Duke is that the students are so bright, so engaged. I often come back from class thinking about some interesting question or observation that a student put to me. I might even dare to suggest that the best kind of research, especially if we are talking about the humanities, comes directly out of teaching, and the best kind of teaching emerges from the professor's research.

Perhaps I might throw in too that this week, after the summer hiatus, I found myself really looking forward to returning to teaching. Yes, it gives me less time to write, but it gives me no less time to think, to communicate, to engage, all of which are elements in research in the humanities. And somewhere like Duke gives one the luxury of being able to teach right in one's major areas of interest. It is not as if one has to teach courses in subjects that one has no primary competence or expertise in. Furthermore, Jordan underestimates just how important teaching is in hiring practices at Duke. Bear in mind that one of the major tests for incoming candidates is to present a lecture in which you need to be able to communicate effectively to undergraduate students, and the search committees, in which I have participated, spend a lot of time thinking about the candidates' teaching record (or potential). It is by no means the case that people are hired on research alone. Jordan later writes:
Professors, I implore you: Engage your students. Change the world not only through erudite publications but through the spread of wisdom to the men and women you have the luck to influence.

Do not return papers with a short comment and a letter grade, leaving your TAs to fill in the gaps. Write a paragraph about our work, about our thoughts against yours. If our only feedback on a paper is the letter grade, how can the goal of our learning be anything other than achieving a high letter grade? Before muscle can grow it must be torn. Provide resistance, be engaging, be demanding, and do not accept complacency.
The first paragraph I endorse, and the challenge is accepted, and encouraged. The second paragraph quoted is, I think, one of the most useful things Jordan says. I well remember receiving papers back, as a student, with only minimal guidance about what was good, bad or ugly in them, and I think it is vital that we try to give the fullest feedback possible. I will certainly be bearing this in mind in grading later this semester. The only thing I would want to add is that I am always happy, and I know that I am not alone in this, to provide detailed feedback in appointments with students. Many students, usually in my experience the ones with As and A-s, do not come for that feedback, but the door is always open.

Thanks, Jordan, for a provocative piece. One of the things that makes Duke a great place to teach is that it is full of students, like you, who take the academic experience so seriously, and who want to get the best out of their education.


Judy Redman said...

When I talk to academics about their teaching, it's quite clear that some make significant efforts to engage their students and others don't. In the past, I've certainly been taught by professors who clearly see teaching as something they have to do so they can also do research. Generally, it's not a pleasant experience.

I also know the frustration of getting unhelpful marks. The first exegesis I ever did in theological college came back with one word on it: "Credit" (this is roughly equivalent to a C in a letter grade system). I went to see the professor concerned and asked what I could have done to have got a better grade. He couldn't tell me. It was, he said, a good, solid treatment of the text and was worth a Credit and that was all he could tell me. His classes were interesting enough, but he wasn't a particularly good teacher. I probably would have given him a Credit in an evaluation, but I could have articulated why. :-)

jbyron said...

Jordan’s comments are legitimate, even if a bit cynical. Research and teaching are equally important! The best professors will engage both tasks. But I do worry when the balance tips in either direction. It is important to publish. But I am concerned by the amount of publications that are churned out every year. I almost get depressed walking around SBL looking at how many new commentaries are produced. Often time these new works add nothing of significance. In many ways, our publications have a much smaller sphere of influence in comparison to our teaching.

James F. McGrath said...

Of course, if one takes the time to provide extensive feedback, it is appreciated, but then students complain that they aren't getting their work back promptly enough.

I used to shoot myself in the foot by requiring one-page writing assignments for almost every class, as a way of ensuring the reading got done. Now I've moved in several classes to having a series of 7-10 shorter (2-3 page) mini research papers, and in one class I am trying having a final paper that weaves a unified whole out of those smaller parts produced during the semester, thus providing an opportunity not only for feedback but for revision.

The two relevant syllabi are at the following addresses:

Jeff Peterson said...

Yale Press has just brought out a book I'm looking forward to reading by Anthony T. Kronman, Education's End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life. I wonder how much student disenchantment with university education has to do with the failure to convey a common moral vision, or even to offer a variety of more or less compelling ones. Professional competence can inspire admiration (or perhaps envy), but it doesn't substitute for offering students a meaningful purpose toward which to direct their energies.

crystal said...

The teachers I found most inspiring at college were the ones who loved what they were teaching, which meant that they spent time on their sunject outside of class as well as in. I especially remember an art teacher, Mr. Goings, who inspiried me to major in art - he's even got a wikipedia page :-)

Eric Rowe said...

It does seem like Jordan is being a wee bit melodramatic. But along similar lines, one observation I made as an undergraduate at a relatively prestigious research university was that the criteria which determine a professor's employability at that kind of school are not the same as the criteria which make for excellent teachers. In fact, it became clear somewhere along the line that undergraduate students who went to schools with lower rankings in the major published lists of such things received educations that were taught and administered as well as mine. This kind of awakening could prompt a student at a school like Duke to wonder "Why again did I come here?"

Murray Wilcox said...

It seems to me that professors who are enthusiastic about their research can be equally so with their students. Of course not all are and for those, Jordan makes fair comment. However, not all students are excited about learning and some will readily credit their unexciting grade to poor teaching. Many students and professors really enjoy being in class. It takes all kinds!