• September 2, 2015

Can We Create a Culture That Values Good Teaching?

We like to talk about the value of pedagogy, but we never seem to get around to rewarding it

Teaching 2 Careers Illustration

Brian Taylor

How do you change academic culture? One reason that question gets asked a lot is that it’s so hard to answer. Another reason is that so much of academic culture needs changing.

How might we create a culture that actually esteems effective teaching? The value of such a thing ought to be clear, if only because it would blunt some of the frequent public criticisms of universities for a too-narrow focus on research. But creating a teaching culture hasn’t proved so easy. It’s not that campuses don’t harbor great teachers—even the most research-intensive universities do. But those professors usually tend their personal classroom gardens on their own. They don’t labor as members of a community—or culture—that rewards their teaching and propagates their best ideas about it.

The challenge of how to make good teaching into a communal value has been the subject of the Teagle Foundation’s academic philanthropy for some years now. Last month the foundation convened a meeting, "Community of Scholars, Community of Teachers," to showcase the efforts of some of its grantees. Professors and administrators described what they had done to create "teaching-positive" environments in the liberal arts at their institutions.

Every one of the grant programs centered on the teaching of undergraduates by graduate students. That’s not surprising. Graduate students do an enormous amount of that work at most universities, so they’re necessary members of any university’s teaching community. But the programs on display at different institutions employ graduate students differently, and at different levels.

Cornell University is working from the bottom up. The university’s teaching center recruited graduate students (in both the humanities and the sciences) for a new fellowship program that leads to a certificate. Fellows studied technology, assessment, and related topics, and did independent research on teaching.

Graduate-student fellows embraced the training enthusiastically, said Richard C. Kiely, Cornell’s director of engaged learning and research. Once they did, the center used them as a bridge to bring in faculty members via their departments. The effort—Kiely calls it "a social movement"—continues, with ever-larger cohorts each year. In this way, graduate students lay the foundation for widening changes in attitude and practice toward teaching at a research university.

Other Teagle-supported programs work from the top down. Stanford University, for example, used its grant money in 2010 to set up a collaborative-teaching project that annually paired eight senior professors with graduate-student teachers. The two-person teams, all drawn from humanities departments, each devised and taught an undergraduate course together.

The eight teams—new ones are named each year—come together several times each quarter to discuss their experience and assigned readings on teaching and learning. The emphasis is on horizontal partnership: The professor and the graduate student are supposed to work together as equals, as nearly as possible, despite their vertical differences in rank and status. The program has been a success, so much so that the Stanford administration seems poised to pick up the cost of the program after the Teagle grant runs out.

Russell A. Berman, a professor of German who presented the Stanford initiative, urged that we stop "assuming that graduate education is a series of seminars, and move toward a model of collaborative teaching." That vision gains further persuasive force from the shrinking of some Ph.D. programs. Fewer graduate students may mean fewer seminars, but smaller student cohorts also offer more opportunities for creative partnerships, pedagogical and otherwise.

I came to the Teagle meeting skeptical—and I’ll explain why shortly—but I was happily surprised by the vitality of the programs, and especially by their success. These efforts are actually working: They change attitudes. People teach better, and maybe more innovatively, because there’s more interest in teaching around them. Though of different sizes and scopes, the Teagle programs seem to be genuinely affecting their local surroundings.

They’re also transforming the graduate students who pass through them—for the better. Helping doctoral students become accomplished teachers has great practical value. First, it helps them compete for academic jobs at institutions where teaching is particularly valued. Graduate students who pile on research and neglect their teaching may put themselves out of the running for jobs that demand experienced and committed teachers from the point of hiring. (I’ve written about how faculty employment resembles an ecosystem, with various niches that require different balances of skills.)

Effective teaching is also a highly transferable skill that’s valuable in all kinds of nonclassroom settings. Not all graduate students will become professors, and the graduate curriculum has to change to reflect that reality. The promotion of teaching helps prepare graduate students for diverse employment possibilities by giving them applicable skills.

Intensive attention to pedagogy also helps faculty members. Jennifer Summit, an English professor at Stanford, observed at the Teagle meeting that "graduate-student development is stealth faculty development." It gives professors new ways of looking at what they do.

But no matter how vital any new culture of teaching, the culture of research still dominates the university landscape and, to some degree, all of academe. That’s why I was skeptical of these initiatives going in. Because we like to talk about the value of good teaching, but we never seem to get around to rewarding it on the bottom line.

Put simply, publication still wins the biggest prizes in academe. The demand for it is largely unexamined (we want it because everyone else does), and almost entirely unchecked (just look at how much graduate students need to publish just to be considered for a tenure-track job). It’s not that teaching doesn’t matter, but even many community colleges are looking for publication these days. It’s the only credential that crosses institutional boundaries, so it’s the easiest one for institutions to brag on.

The enthusiasm for good teaching soared at the Teagle gathering, but the primacy of publication remains a lead weight tied to graduate students’ feet. For example, a Teagle-financed pedagogy seminar held at the University of Virginia offered students no course credit. It speaks to the character of the graduate students who took it that they participated enthusiastically and made it successful, without any tangible reward. But how much commitment can we expect of graduate students—and faculty members—when we pile extra training in teaching on top of everything they already have to do? Even today’s Energizer Bunny graduate students have to run out of juice sometime.

Institutional culture coheres, wrote the education scholars J. Douglas Toma, Greg Dubrow, and Matthew Hartley in a 2005 essay on the subject, when people perceive their values as belonging to the group’s values. Cultures connect people through these shared values. Academics have a pretty strong shared culture that’s built on the value of research. So I wonder: How much can a culture change when its fundamental hierarchy of values stays the same?

There’s a limit to how much a teaching culture can thrive when it remains subordinate to the dominant research culture. If teaching is to avoid being forever pushed to the side of the proverbial plate, it has to be integrated into research culture so that it becomes a more explicit part of it. (Many scholars talk about how their teaching informs their research, but that’s not explicit, and anyway, it only reaffirms the existing hierarchy.)

The Teagle initiatives offer some trailheads toward the goal of bringing teaching into the space normally set aside for research. For one thing, these new programs show that teaching doesn’t simply grow out of research, but also can be a legitimate subject of research—and even publication.

The Teagle-sponsored work leaves me optimistic that more than I thought can be done to shift our values. We’re making progress, but it’s slow going. Because when it comes to changing our values, our values keep getting in the way.

Leonard Cassuto, a professor of English at Fordham University, writes regularly about graduate education in this space. He welcomes comments, suggestions, and stories at lcassuto@erols.com. Now on twitter: @LCassuto.

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