In the 20th century, American professors built an incredibly powerful edifice for themselves and shored it up with sturdy walls of tenure.
In one way that’s good. It means they are free to research and publish in the most controversial areas, able to go where the evidence leads them, and be confident that their colleagues will support them if attacked from outside.
In another way it’s not so good. Tenure, which frees them to think anything, also enables the less energetic and scrupulous among them to think almost nothing. Every university lugs along its share of unproductive faculty members whose last publication immediately preceded the grant of tenure, 10, 20, or 30 years earlier. This is a case where the norms of professionalism may inhibit, rather than enhance, the achievement of excellence.
What’s worse, there are no faculty norms related to teaching. Many professors spend much of their lives teaching students, yet we live with the bizarre anomaly that they are never taught how to do it. The lucky ones may get a few days of preparation and some “tips for teaching” before becoming TA’s for the first time, in graduate school. After that they’re on their own, sinking or swimming each in his or her own way.
Lack of training, plus the widespread awareness that the rewards of academic life most often go to the scholars, not the teachers, makes teaching very much the poor relation. Students suffer accordingly.
Patrick Allitt is a professor of American history at Emory University.