My first semester of teaching in the hallowed halls of academe is in the rearview, and I’ve caught my breath enough to begin reflecting. It has been a learning experience for all of us!
As an adjunct professor at Lipscomb University, I taught three courses in the Fall 2019 term—almost a full load for full-time faculty and definitely a full load for an inexperienced professor. Two of those courses were online, so I was figuring out both how to lecture in person and how to facilitate a meaningful online experience. I have no illusions about how much I have to learn in order to become as good as my best teachers were. I have some hope, however, that I did a bit better than my worst teachers! In any case, here’s some of what I’ve begun grappling with in the university environment of our brave (still) new century.
I want to teach! One of the questions that my program at Fuller wisely puts to its PhD students is what they want to do with their degree. Unfortunately, once they have their degree, no few graduates find out that their heart is not really in teaching. Teacher-assistant work and the like is useful for confronting vocational questions early, but the only way to really know whether you want to spend your life in a classroom (and in front of a computer screen!), grading papers and tests, and dealing with student problems is to dive in. After working with college interns in the mission field, I was fairly sure about my direction. This semester has certainly tested my idealism about undergraduate education, but if anything I’m more passionate about teaching my students—or maybe figuring out how to teach my students—than ever. I’m still writing my dissertation, still in the thick of research and writing, and I’m confident that I enjoy that work more than many of my peers. I don’t imagine that I’ll ever stop loving the quest to understand better and articulate more. But I want to teach.
I love the university. My idealism underwent a reality check, but I’m still in love with the ideals of higher education. I do not buy the prominent narrative that every high school graduate should be on a college track, and I believe in the importance of other kinds of vocational training. Still, higher education is a profound good, and its proliferation is one of the great achievements of modernity. Indeed, there is an argument to be made that one of the reasons for contemporary Western social malaise is the failure of the academy to deliver on its promises. Those promises are, nonetheless, the right ones to make. Our culture is overwhelmed by ignorance despite the claim that the problem is too much information, by falsehood despite the fact that we have more widespread access to verifiable data than ever before, and by anti-intellectualism despite (or because of?) the fact that there are more bona fide intellectuals on the planet than ever before. The university is under existential threat for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the unfettered commodification of educational credentials, but I still find great hope in a class full of twenty-somethings who, even at obscene expense, have opted into a years-long process that is ostensibly about learning how to think broadly and deeply.
The university is in massive transition. The situation is complex, but in large part because of the commodification of degree-holding, the American university is undergoing radical upheaval on a cultural level.
On the one hand, it has become a buyer’s market. The typical university’s financial need to recruit and retain paying students weighs against rigorous standards for both acceptance and performance. Anecdotally, this is evident in the unwillingness and/or inability of students to read as much as was once the norm.[1. See the common complaint in, e.g., David Gooblar, “They Haven’t Done the Reading. Again,” Chronicle Vitae, September 24, 2014, https://chroniclevitae.com/news/719-they-haven-t-done-the-reading-again; Keith M. Parsons, “When Students Won’t Read,” HuffPost, March 9, 2015, https://www.huffpost.com/entry/when-students-wont-read_b_6334392; John Warner, “When Students Won’t Do the Reading,” Inside Higher Ed, January 18, 2016, https://www.insidehighered.com/blogs/just-visiting/when-students-wont-do-reading; Charlie Wesley, “Do You Assign Enough Reading? Or Too Much?,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, July 13, 2016, https://www.chronicle.com/article/Do-You-Assign-Enough-Reading-/237085; Angela Jenks, “Why Don’t Students Read?” Teaching Tools, Fieldsights, August 19, 2016, https://culanth.org/fieldsights/why-dont-students-read.] In conversations with professors at multiple institutions, I’ve heard the same refrain about “heavy” (meaning, more than minimal) reading loads: students simply will not do them. That notion continues to boggle my mind. Certainly, it should mean that they will not complete reading requirements if they are willing to make a grade that reflects the failure. On the contrary, however, the assumption seems to be that reading requirements should be adjusted to the level that students are willing to complete. Further, professors who assign “too much” reading earn reputations that affect enrollment in their classes. (That is a big problem for professors without tenure!) How can this be? What happened to the university student ensconced in the library, tackling a stack of books, exploring textual horizons unknown—becoming, in a word, a well-read person? The answer: that vision belongs to a seller’s market, a time when what the university offered was the privilege of being rigorously vetted as an educated person, and professors spake “go and read” with authority. Of course, that image was never more than a romantic fancy, but it was shared broadly in the culture nonetheless, and it fired the imaginations of generations of students. As far as I can tell, it does so no longer.
Because, on the other hand, many students are simply trying to get done as quickly as possible. Given how much students are paying for education, how much debt encumbers their early adulthood, and how quickly they need to move on to gainful employment, many are more interested in getting a degree than an education—and in this regard, I pass no judgment. Still, I lament the implications. The trajectory of online education is bound to this reality. And the online learning experience, which every career professor I’ve spoken with regarding online modalities discusses with resignation or disgust, so appeals to students because they are far more interested in getting the work done in the most efficient way possible. I do not say that students are generally ignorant of the educational advantages that in-the-flesh courses afford but that many are more motivated by the utility of online courses for checking boxes and jumping through hoops on the way to a career that pays bills. This new reality will only solidify in coming decades, so the work before us must be to align online modalities with the very best of the Western tradition of higher education. I resolve not to complain but to face this work soberly and hopefully, even if nostalgia has a role to play.
Giving bad grades is uncomfortable. My wife, my children, and my close friends might be surprised to hear that I don’t enjoy giving unvarnished critical feedback, but the truth is that, for me, that process depends absolutely on a relational context that is impossible to establish with students in the span of a semester, especially in an online forum. I’m confident that my students would not accuse me of being an easy grader, but grading was not easy. Despite my belief in the importance of critique for growth in any aspect of life and the veritable sanctity of truth in educational assessment, I found it difficult to tell students they had underperformed. I found myself scrutinizing my grading as I entered final grades, asking myself what the low grades really represented. The most important help in this regard is the students who did well in every respect. In the end, I gave a lot of well-earned As. Still, all sorts of questions about systemic disadvantages and particular circumstances inevitably arise. Those other grades made me wonder whether I did everything possible to help students succeed. I doubt that question will go away soon.
Communication is the name of the game. Most of my mistakes this first semester were about communication—not of content but of expectations, of how to succeed, and of what matters most. Of course, communication is a two-way street, but for my part, I learned a lot about how students experience the syllabus and how they hear instructions.
It’s about process more than content. Similarly, it is evident that most undergraduates are still learning how to learn. Perhaps it is strange for someone like me, who feels the reduction of reading standards so keenly, to admit that content is not king. And perhaps, if I’m totally transparent, I actually mean that it’s about process as much as content. My unavoidable conclusion, however, is that the more pressing issue at this level is capacity for content, so it matters little that the reading is carefully curated, the lectures are substantive, and the material is important if students cannot really process it at the pace that a course demands.
There is nothing better than watching students get it. It is the joy of teaching. The light comes on, and there is no way a student will ever see the world the same way again. A piece of the puzzle falls into place, and the picture gets a little easier to glimpse. A pathway into new territory opens up, and the possibilities demand deeper study. An old paradigm breaks, and the need to replace it becomes urgent. Assumptions come into view. Information obtains meaning. Interpretation becomes conscious and then skillful. This is why I love education.