Teaching we can do; learning’s out of our hands

What parents and schools fail to do in 18 years is unlikely to be accomplished in a couple of courses, says Alan Ryan

January 23, 2014

Girding my loins for my final semester of teaching, my inclinations are more than usually at odds with reality. Realistically, I assume I shall give 24 lectures on the history of political thought much like those I delivered most recently – rewritten to bring them up to date, and vulnerable as always to the inner voice pointing out that what I’ve just said is simply false, or at best that I’ve no real evidence for it. Unrealistically, I would like to not lecture at all; not as the result of being shown the door by my employer, as will happen soon enough, but because lectures are a terrible way to teach. Since I am scheduled to give them, and can’t see how to provide one-on-one instruction to the nearly 200 students enrolled on the course, I know that I shall in fact stand up and talk for 50 minutes twice a week for 12 weeks. Even I can see that this is not the moment to lose faith in the whole exercise…

Of course, everyone knows that simple information is better ingested from a book, where you can flick back and forth to check on what you’ve read, rather than trying to remember what a lecturer said; and, if not a book, then its modern reincarnations on the internet. Where it’s a matter of imparting a skill, practising on problems is the only route; students spend a lot of time complaining about the intractability of this week’s problem sets, but don’t think they’re escapable. The best defence of lectures is that they dramatise the intellectual encounter with whatever the topic might be, a defence itself vulnerable to the limited acting abilities of most professors.

When told that our task also includes making our students good citizens, it is hard not to respond somewhat grumpily that what parents and schools fail to do in 18 years is unlikely to be accomplished by distracted professors in a couple of courses

What’s got under my skin, however, is the spate of books over the past two years that seem to demonstrate that we, who are labelled “instructors” by the colleges and universities that employ us, are called so by courtesy and not by impact. Horror stories abound; professors given the notes their students have taken in the course of a lecture are appalled by the incomprehension and miscomprehension they reveal. All too often, what a student writes down is the reverse of what the lecturer said – or thinks he said. And even if information gets in, it does not stay. The half-life of the information we convey seems to be around two weeks.

Much recent commentary on how little we teach our students strikes a somewhat accusatory note, directed less at teachers than at students who according to some accounts appear to have almost halved the time they spend on their academic work compared with their 1960s predecessors. Often, the accusation is that students and teachers conspire to lower standards with the connivance of administrators who would like to believe that grade inflation and low standards of effort and achievement are problems for other universities, but not theirs. Sometimes, there are flagrant scandals – professors who give high grades to football players without bothering even to give the course – but these are by definition out of the ordinary. It’s the ordinary ineffectiveness of well-intentioned higher education that has drawn attention.

Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa’s Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses set the tone in 2010 when the authors maintained that few students were better at writing or analytical reasoning on graduating from college than they had been when leaving high school. This chimed with the complaints of employers who had been saying much the same thing for years. As to what students did with their time, it appeared that social life had filled the hours quite satisfactorily.

It’s not only employers and educational sociologists who have doubts about how well we manage to educate our students. Derek Bok was president of Harvard for two decades, but in his recent book, Higher Education in America, he is equally anxious about the state of undergraduate education. I’m torn. I find it hard to resist the thought that students should arrive at a university already able to write coherent expository prose and to resolve problems that require a cool analytical intelligence. Complicated research techniques and difficult mathematics are a different matter, but the basic mental kit is acquired quicker and more effectively in secondary school – or even earlier. When you throw in the widespread conviction, in the US especially, that our task also includes making our students good citizens, it is hard not to respond somewhat grumpily that what parents and schools fail to do in 18 years is unlikely to be accomplished by distracted professors in a couple of courses. Can’t we just concentrate on getting a few bits of information into minds already equipped to do something with them?

US universities and colleges are, to be sure, different from their UK counterparts. They are committed to providing a general education as UK higher education is not; and even in the final two years when students pursue a “major”, it is only a major – half their time is left for them to fill as they choose. And when I ask myself what I want students to take away from an introductory course in the history of political thinking, I find I have given in, without knowing it, to the idea that they should above all have learned how to write lucidly and engage analytically with complicated problems: can they sympathise with Plato’s educational programme, fight off Hobbes’ defence of absolutism, get their minds round Rousseau’s claim for the infallibility of the General Will, and so on?

But as to the effectiveness of my own lectures in achieving this, thank goodness that there are discussion sections and office hours and casual encounters on the campus to fill in a few of the gaps.

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