Tuesday, November 15, 2005

The Art Of Teaching

Here's something bizarre: In my PhD program, I took upwards of a hundred credit hours of coursework, but I wasn't required to take a single course on how to teach. And that's not atypical. The first time I was ever asked to teach a course as a grad student, I simply received a form letter with my name and the name of the course on it. Next thing I knew, I was in the lion's den of a state university auditorium classroom.

Not having a clue, I cast about for help, and chanced upon the classic text, The Art Of Teaching (1950), by Gilbert Highet. It is a riot of a book – colorful, carpeted with sweeping generalizations, and oozing passion for the profession. After just a few paragraphs, I completely forgot to take notes. One wishes all academic writing were this full of personality and idiosyncrasy. Here’s a precious little sample from it:

It is an essential of good teaching to like the pupils. If you do not actually like boys and girls, or young men and young women, give up teaching. It is easy to like the young because they are young. They have no faults, except the very ones which they are asking you to eradicate: ignorance, shallowness, and inexperience. The really hateful faults are those which we grown men and women have. Some of these grow on us like diseases, others we build up and cherish as though they were virtues. Ingrained conceit, calculated cruelty, deep-rooted cowardice, slobbering greed, vulgar self-satisfaction, puffy laziness of mind and body--these and other real sins result from years, decades of careful cultivation. They show on our faces, they ring harsh or hollow in our voices, they have become bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh. The young do not sin in those ways. Heaven knows they are infuriatingly lazy and unbelievably stupid and sometimes detestably cruel -- but not for long, not all at once, and not (like grownups) as a matter of habit or policy.


Blogger girish said...

I think Acquarello spent the weekend in New York watching Norwegian movies.

November 15, 2005 8:06 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Sorta like L(adies) L(ove) Cool J(ames), I guess.

November 15, 2005 8:12 AM  
Blogger girish said...

One thing I've been doing Sundays: going to Matt's Week In Review post, and checking out all the cool article links.

November 15, 2005 8:15 AM  
Blogger Mike Slagor said...

And that's why I've dedicated my life to teaching....I'll have to pick up that book for sure!

November 15, 2005 10:18 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Mike, it's a hilarious read.
And made more colorful because it was written in a different era.

November 15, 2005 11:24 AM  
Anonymous Michael said...

Now that book sounds fascinating, not only because of the excerpt you posted, but also because my grad school experience was similar to yours: the students in my program were required to take only one course on teaching (which is one more than many Ph.D. programs require), and yet, after finishing our degrees, we were all expected to be university teachers. I couldn't figure that out, other than thinking, well, I guess I'll have to learn on the job.

November 15, 2005 1:01 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Michael, it's always baffled me too. Not to be cynical, but it seems to be a clear consequence of how low on the totem pole teaching happens to be in a large research-driven university. I know so many horror stories of profs, abysmal in the classroom, who sailed into tenure solely on the basis of their publications. Pretty sad.

November 15, 2005 1:38 PM  
Anonymous Michael said...

Your observation is more realistic than cynical. I also know too many stories in which profs would fail consistently in the classroom and get hammered by their students, only to earn merit increases and promotions. One of the striking things about the Highet excerpt is his insistence about liking students; I've known too many profs who clearly don't like students at all, and I would think to myself: if we're not here partly for the students, then why are we here?

November 15, 2005 3:22 PM  
Blogger Ed Garrity said...

A wonderful post Girish!!

I've been reflecting on a number of things lately - and this is central to many of my thoughts and reflections.

Quite true. The idea behind stressing research is that it allows one to stay current and if you believe in the teacher-scholar model, it makes one a "better teacher." But, wait a second. This is a case of taking the indirect measure OVER the direct measure.

Not too unlike the Draconian drug laws - 500 years for Marijuanna possession because drug use could lead to serious law-breaking, criminal behaviors, etc; of course if you murder you'll get off in less than 10 for good behavior.

Great rational thinking.

And this is in stark contrast to all of the Education majors that teach in "lower education."

November 15, 2005 6:04 PM  
Anonymous Darren said...

What a fantastic mini-polemic. I love it.

I have a B.S. in English Education and had planned to teach high school, but then I made the mistake of going to graduate school and falling in love with literary studies. I remember being surprised to discover that I was the only person in my class of masters students who'd ever stood in front of a classroom. My M.A. program did, at least, give TA's a year of mentoring before throwing them into classes of their own, but I know that's rare.

Having said all that, though, I'm pretty ambivalent about education courses, in general. Aside from a fantastic class on the social history of the American education system (the class where I first read Jonathan Kozol), I can't say that any of my undergraduate courses from the ed. department contributed in any significant way to my habits as a teacher. In fact, I think I would have been an even better teacher of English if I'd been required to devote more hours to literature courses instead.

Honestly, I tend to think that great teachers are born, but that good teachers can become better with sound mentoring and guidance. Bad teachers, in my experience, are bad teachers are bad teachers. In my job, I've worked with a lot of faculty who obviously teach only because a university is the only environment in which they can do the research that is their life's work, and I often pity them. It must be incredibly frustrating when teaching is nothing more to you than a necessary evil.

November 15, 2005 6:06 PM  
Blogger Campaspe said...

love the post, love the excerpt! And your comment is dead-on too. Getting a professor who could actually teach was a definite crap shoot at my alma mater, and it's a direct consequence of these priorities.

November 15, 2005 9:04 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Michael: "I've known too many profs who clearly don't like students at all."
Same here. I remember that having a good teacher who enjoyed students was the shining exception, somebody you got excited about and wanted to learn from.

Ed was one of my "elders" in the PhD program--clued me into the dark arts of the "strategic principles of dissertation committee formation."

Darren--how interesting! Didn't know about those experiences of yours.
I've always felt deprived because I never had a course in the Education department but maybe it wouldn't have helped me that much. You know, after that first semester of grad student teaching, I realized without hesitation that what I wanted to do was teach. My dissertation committee had some research heavies on it and they said they'd love to write me references to big, research schools. They were SO disappointed when I told them I had decided to go to a private, teaching-focused school. It felt like I had betrayed them.

And the Siren clearly learned despite her poor teachers--just look how well she writes. :-)

November 15, 2005 10:51 PM  
Blogger Shasta said...

Love it. I just checked it out and can't put it down.

November 16, 2005 5:27 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Glad you're enjoying it, Shasta.

November 16, 2005 7:11 AM  
Blogger girish said...

New blog find: "Andy Hardy Writes A Blog".

November 16, 2005 7:27 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Anthropodermic binding?

November 16, 2005 7:30 AM  
Blogger girish said...

The Guardian seems to think that blogs have coined a new tongue: Blog-lish.

November 16, 2005 7:33 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Check out this terrific Flickhead post. Yes, the comments too.

November 16, 2005 10:38 AM  
Blogger Brian said...

And then there are those of us who tried out teaching and liked the students very much, but never quite got the hang of classroom control and decided to put their pointer on the shelf, at least for the time being. I actually do sometimes think about returning to teaching someday, but it will have to be of a subject I can find more passion for than English as a Foreign Language.

November 16, 2005 2:35 PM  
Blogger girish said...

"Classroom control".
Brian, I'm wondering: what was the age/background of your students?
I think Darren has also taught ESL students (and still does).

November 16, 2005 3:03 PM  
Blogger Brian said...

Teenagers in Thailand, mostly. I did teach a few classes with adults there and found that a delight.

November 16, 2005 5:19 PM  
Blogger acquarello said...

Hey, didn't Doug C. also teach ESL, but in South Korea? Hmm...I'm sensing a trend here... I taught Physics 103 (Optics and Waves) one summer session once after the one professor who teaches the course failed about 75% of the class that year, and everyone demanded that someone else teach the summer class. Does physics count as a foreign language? :)

By the way, Girish, correction: I attended Liv Ullman's appearance, the films just kinda came with it. ;)

November 16, 2005 8:01 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Acquarello, I had forgotten about Doug doing that.
I remember "Optics" in my freshman year--along with "Mechanics", it was my arch-nemesis that year.

btw, I read Liv Ullmann's memoir, Changing, not long ago. It's a marvelous book--knocked me out.
Not like you don't have enough to read already but just sayin'...
Wondering: have you seen the films she's made (Faithless, or Kristin Lavransdatter)? Are they good?

November 16, 2005 8:10 PM  
Blogger acquarello said...

Argh! Now, I'm definitely going to have to pick up that Ullman book, maybe I can finish by the time the next Norwegian fest comes along.

Faithless is pretty true to Bergman's spirit, both in style and in theme. I actually wonder if he had given her a detailed shooting script, because the framing is very Bergmanesque as well (Ullman also uses some homage shots from his films). It's a bit like a cross between Wild Strawberries and Scenes from a Marriage, but even more self-critical and unforgiving.

November 16, 2005 8:55 PM  
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