Chapter 6 -- Teaching: What to Do About It | Pierre van den Berghe

Are you ready to discover your college program?

Search Colleges is an advertising-supported site. Featured programs and school search results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other information published on this site.

Teaching is a necessary evil and an annoying distraction from more profitable ventures. One of the basic problems the successful academic must solve is how to escape the following vicious circle: The lowlier one's status, the heavier one's teaching load; and the more one teaches, the less likely one is to rise in status. The less prestigious a college is, the more staggering its teaching load, and the lower one's rank is in a given institution, the more "contact hours" one has compared to one's colleagues. Yet it is the young assistant professor who most badly needs the time to do research and to write, so as to escape his humble station. To begin one's career with a high teaching load is analogous to trying to swim across the English Channel with a lead belt. Students are like barnacles: they cling to one and retard one's progress.

In theory, research and teaching are the twin activities to which a scholar should devote his studious existence, and, in theory again, he is supposed to be equally rewarded for excellence in both. Of course, everybody knows that the rewards go to those who do research and publish, while devotion to teaching seldom brings more than the opportunity to do a lot of it for little money.

There are several reasons why teaching goes unrewarded. The first is that it has to do with mere students, and since students are little more than a pretext for having universities, any position that brings you in contact with hordes of youthful philistines is regarded as inconsequential. The second reason is that your colleagues find it difficult to assess your teaching, because in most cases they have never heard you in a classroom.

The third reason why teaching matters so little is that academics strenuously resist accepting the evaluations of those best placed to judge teaching, namely the students. Of late, students have begun to realize that they could potentially wield some control over their teachers by publishing more or less truculent course critiques. However, under the present system where professors can still dismiss course critiques as impertinent pranks, teachers remain largely immune from the adverse consequences of their incompetence or laziness, or both.

One of the great advantages of the teaching profession over the "free" professions is that the teacher's income and position are completely independent of what his clients think of him. While lawyers, dentists, and physicians in private practice have achieved some success in preventing their victims from gaining an accurate perception of their competence or otherwise, they are still, in last analysis, dependent on the layman's satisfaction with the services he receives. That satisfaction is frequently ill-founded, and indeed success is in no small measure the reward of quackery, but, in the end, most professionals depend on the willingness of their victims to let themselves be fleeced.

The teacher is luckily spared that indignity, except in the charmingly obsolete and nearly defunct practice of a few German universities where lecturers' fees vary with the size of the audiences. On the whole, academic income and other rewards vary inversely with the number of students. The more insufferably boring your courses, and the fewer your students, the more leisure you have to publish, and the better off you are. Small classes can perhaps wound the vanity of those few professors who think of themselves as great teachers, but never their pocketbooks. Besides, you can always claim that students avoid your courses not because your courses are dull, but because they are difficult.

There is a notable exception, however, to the irrelevance of teaching to a professor's career. One of the more useful myths of academia is that there tends to be an inverse relationship between good teaching and good research. It is true, of course, that very few professors excel in both, but it should be equally obvious that most professors are quite mediocre (and quite a few downright incompetent) in both activities.

Nevertheless, the presumption often remains that if a colleague is not capable of producing publishable research, he must therefore be an able and devoted teacher, and hence an asset to the university. The case of the experimental genius who is reduced to an incoherent mumbler in the classroom, or whose intellect so towers over that of his fellow mortals that he finds it impossible to bring himself down to earth, is an exceedingly rare specimen indeed. By and large, professors who do good research are also reasonably good in teaching and vice versa.

Why then the myth? Almost every department has a few distressing cases of weak or lazy colleagues whose incompetence at research and publication has been amply demonstrated, but who are nevertheless such nice chaps that one would like to see them promoted. Far and away the best method of doing so is to invoke their unproven, and, happily, unprovable, excellence in the classroom.

There are basically four types of teachers with four corresponding styles of classroom performance:

Type One: Those who love both teaching and students.

Type Two: Those who love teaching but hate students.

Type Three: Those who hate teaching but love students.

Type Four: Those who hate both teaching and students.

1) The first type is characteristic of the young assistant professor who has not yet had the time to become bored with his subject and disgusted about his students' anti­-intellectualism. Happily, this set of attitudes seldom survives five years of abrasive contacts with students but while it lasts, it can do considerable damage to a young professor's career. Popularity-mongering is the lecturing style corresponding to that syndrome. With the neophyte's enthusiasm, many a young assistant professor polishes his lectures, practices them on his wife (or, more mercifully, in front of a mirror), and does his best to make them lively, dynamic, interesting, relevant to his students' life experiences, not too abstract and "academic," and interspersed with mildly salacious jokes. He regards students as idealistic, progressive, identity-searching youths who look to him as an elder brother leading them up the garden path of truth in a friendly, comradely fashion.

The dangers of this approach are obvious. To take one's lecturing seriously can be so time-consuming as to leave no time for anything else. The conscientious young professor may in extreme cases devote to each lecture as much preparation time as his rivals do to a journal article, but with widely discrepant consequences. The neophyte's vanity may bask for a while in his facile classroom successes, but he is in fact walking headlong on the path to academic Alaska. The danger of devoted teaching is compounded by the fact that such lovers of students, in their eagerness to attract large audiences, are also lenient in their grades and accessible to their charges.

Their courses get known as ''mickeys" (or whatever the current argot might be); their enrollments grow alarmingly; and their offices are assaulted by hordes of unscrupulous young barbarians seeking recognition, attention, solutions to their love affairs, or loans of money. The little time they can spare from lecture preparation is eaten up listening to students' problems. Three to five years later, the no-longer-so-young assistant professor is politely shown the door of his university with a suggestion that his teaching talents would receive greater recognition in a more modest institution that specializes in the lavish dispensation of personal attention to students. His long­haired coterie of progressive students may stage a little demonstration in his support in front of the dean's office and write a couple of letters to the student daily, but in the end he must pack his bags for some obscure and bucolic little college tucked away in the pinewoods of Maine, Pennsylvania, or Oregon, bemoaning the ingratitude of his colleagues and embittered about the unrewarding character of academic life.

The poignancy of his plight is that, at the very moment he is beginning to hate teaching, he has irrevocably engaged himself on the road to academic mediocrity where research is well-nigh impossible and heavy teaching loads unavoidable. For the remaining twenty-five or thirty years of his career, he will belong to the unhappiest category of academics: the Type Four teacher who missed his chance at the big league because he once loved teaching.

2) The Type Two teacher, the person who enjoys teaching but dislikes students, represents one of the more successful adaptations to the academic environment. He is the person who, because of his verbal fluency, likes to hear himself talk, especially to large and attentive audiences. The teacher with a gift for rhetoric and a flair for histrionics will not only find teaching enjoyable but often will be quite effective in the classroom as well. His verbal facility will spare him the necessity of spending much time preparing his lectures. A few phrases hastily jotted down ten or fifteen minutes before the lecture will do the trick. Or he may even extemporize his way through. Thus his precious time, unlike that of his Type One colleague, is not diverted from the more profitable channels. With little effort, he passes for a good lecturer, superficial though his treatment often is.

However, to be completely successful, the Type Two teacher must devise techniques to repel the students who might find his classroom manners enticing. Condescension, irony, and superciliousness are very effective means of making students hate, or at least fear, you, and hence of freeing yourself of their importunities. The more you cut the student down to size, the less you will see of him.

The main drawback of the Type Two approach is that, in order to be carried off successfully, it requires considerable self-confidence and talent. Failing that, your more perceptive students will call your bluff, and the attempt may end in humiliation. The professor who lacks the necessary histrionic and rhetorical gifts will find the Type Four solution safer though devoid of brio. The successful Type Two lecturer is frequently a campus prima donna because his verbal fluency makes him also a prolific writer, a public speaker much in demand in other universities, a well-known polemicist, in short a shining star of academe. Seldom does he make profound contributions to knowledge, but if his counterfeiting of scholarly currency is glittering enough, very few people will ever know the difference, least of all the colleagues who will promote him.

3) Type Three makes a sad contrast with Type Two. Here are found those pathetic figures who would like to be popular with students but to whom teaching is a traumatic ordeal because they lack self-confidence, are paralyzed by stage fright, or suffer from some speech impediments. No matter how hard they try, their lectures are boring, incoherent, and confusing. They spend as much time as Type One in preparing their lectures, but they do not have the satisfaction of basking in student popularity. They are the dull, nice fellows who never dare ask for a salary raise, who get promoted very slowly, but who nevertheless serve the useful functions of reducing their colleagues' teaching load and setting off their brilliance by contrast.

The lecture style (if one may use this term) corresponding to this type is the shy, modest, unassuming delivery made in a barely audible monotone, full of hesitations, clumsy constructions, and dangling sentences. Equally painful to the speaker and to the audience, such courses are best scheduled at 8 A.M. when one still has a good excuse for persistent yawning. Type Three is a beginner's syndrome, and may with appropriate therapy blossom into Type Four.

4) Finally Type Four, while it lacks the brio of Type Two, avoids the fatal pitfalls of Type One and the indignities of Type Three. In short, the Type Four teacher represents the norm to which most academics should strive, and which in fact most attain within five years of getting their Ph.D.'s. It represents an unglamorous but basically sound adaptation to the demands of academic life.

The Type Four teacher regards teaching as an annoying distraction from research and writing, and students as an evil necessary to justify his job in the eyes of the laymen who directly or indirectly pay his salary. His major aim is to spend as few hours in the classroom as possible, and to discourage as many students as possible from taking his courses. He keeps his classes small by giving dull, abstract, pedantic lectures in a crisp, matter-of-fact tone, by behaving in an authoritarian manner, by discouraging questions and class discussions, and by being stingy with grades. To minimize waste of time in preparation of lectures, the same course is given year after year. The course may even be mimeographed and distributed, thereby making physical presence in the classroom a purely perfunctory ritual.

Refinements on this style include the cultivated ability to finish lectures at the precise moment when the bell rings, and the cracking of jokes at carefully prearranged places. The important thing is to leave the student no doubt that the lecture is a purely mechanical one that scarcely if at all involves the intellect of the professor. Ideally, the professor must behave as if he were a videotape recording of himself. This will make the transition to the closed-circuit televersity of the future a smooth one, when professors and students will be spared the necessity of ever meeting face-to-face. [Editor's Note: An especially prescient comment, coming in 1970!]

It should be clear from the above that avoidance of teaching beyond the unavoidable minimum is the prime condition of success in an academic career. There is however a quaint and vestigial exception to that rule. For historical reasons, the mainstream of academic life is supposed to involve some teaching. It follows that positions which do not normally entail teaching (e.g., administrative jobs, research institute posts, or positions in the foundations) generally have lower or at least more insecure status than straight academic jobs with their professorial titles. Nobody quite knows what it means to be a "research associate" or "senior research fellow" in an institute. It could mean anything from a first-year graduate student to a person with twenty years of post-doctoral experience. But to be an associate professor at such-and-such a university places you fairly precisely on a dual ladder of academic rank and of institutional prestige.

Since a professor has to do at least a token amount of teaching, it follows that many deans, directors of research institutes, foundation executives, and the like are eager to hold a regular professorship as well, and thus to do a token amount of teaching to "keep their hand at it" and convince their mainstream colleagues that they are still bona fide academics.

University professors are very adept at not letting the public know how little they teach. Most taxpayers still believe that the staff at the state university teach twenty to twenty-five hours a week, while, in fact, they teach about one fourth that amount. Fifteen-hour loads that were common some ten or twelve years ago have been gradually whittled down to twelve, then to nine. By now, the top schools regard six hours a week as a maximum, and their more senior staff get by with an average of three or four hours a week in the classroom. Anything over six hours indicates that you are a poor bargainer or that you belong to a second-rate institution, and anything over nine hours puts you in academic Alaska.

State legislatures can sometimes be embarrassingly inquisitive about teaching loads in public institutions. But as in other professions, teachers can easily pull the wool over laymen's eyes. The story goes of a professor testifying before a legislative committee. When asked by a state representative how many hours he taught, he replied in all honesty, "Eight." Whereupon, the legislator was visibly satisfied and commented, "At least you put in an honest day's work." The professor, of course, meant per week.

Many state universities still claim to have a twelve-hour load while in fact they get away with half. A variety of effective devices are used to maintain that fiction. One of the best is to assign to each professor a certain number of inactive graduate students who are supposedly taking "thesis guidance" or "reading courses," but who, like Gogol's serfs in Dead Souls, scarcely ever show up. Another device is to have graduate teaching assistants ghost teach for the most senior staff. For a mere pittance of some $3,000 [Editor's Note: $18,000 in 2015] a year, hungry assistants on half-time will in fact teach as much as professors on full-time, and therefore nicely inflate on paper the latter's teaching load when departmental averages are computed. In the most favorable cases, teaching assistants, not being members of the regular staff, will appear on the debit side as students in teacher-student ratios, while their teaching will be credited to members of the full-time staff. Any dean worth his salt should be able to think of at least six different ways of manipulating statistics to hide the facts from laymen.

The inverse relationship between quantity of teaching and quality of school is not accidental. The two factors are causally related. The best staff are attracted by the schools that can offer the lowest teaching loads; a low teaching load means an opportunity to do research and publish; and this in turn enhances the prestige of both the individual and the institution. Conversely, the poor chap who has to accept a heavy load at a mediocre school will never produce much printed output, and both he and his institution can look forward to a shared future of obscurity and mediocrity.

Even within a given institution, an astute person can devise ways of reducing his load to something below the average in his department. The following are just a few suggestions:

1) Try to get the highest level of courses you can, graduate seminars being the best possible. This has a dual advantage. High-level courses have smaller enrollments because they are more specialized, and they are easier to teach especially if they are in your specialty. A graduate seminar in your field requires little if any preparation at all. You just distribute a reading list, assign topics to your students, let them do most of the talking, and confine your activities to two or three wise remarks a week. Unfortunately, senior professors are well aware of the advantages of graduate seminars and tend to monopolize them, so this leaves little scope for the young assistant professor.

2) Volunteer to take charge of the large introductory course. You will normally have little competition for the job, and your colleagues will take you for a fool, but do not let this bother you. First, you will be able to argue that the course is so large that by itself it constitutes a full load. Your colleagues will be so glad not to have to teach it, that they will readily concede the point, and your formal teaching will be limited to two or three hours a week, repeatable year after year. The number of students (which may run into the thousands) is actually quite irrelevant because you will be given a squad of teaching assistants to take charge of the sections and to mark the papers and examinations. In any case, you would give electronically marked multiple-choice exams.

There are two added advantages to controlling the introductory course. It makes you the biggest employer of graduate students in the department and hence gives you much power over them. And, should you decide to write a textbook, it gives you an assured market no matter how bad your book is.

3) Suggest that you share a course with a colleague, and argue that the course will be so much the better if students are exposed to two different but complementary points of view. This device automatically cuts lecturing in half for the course, and yet each of you gets credit for a full course.

4) Allow for a lot of discussion in class. This is fashionable and popular with students whom you give the illusion of freedom to express themselves. You have to be prepared to take a certain amount of criticism gracefully, but difficult or embarrassing questions can always be thrown back to the class. As most students prefer listening to their own drivel, there is no reason why you should not oblige for at least half of the time. You will pass for a pioneer of progressive thinking, compete with the "free" universities off campus, and have to devote little time in preparing your lectures. Be careful, however, to avoid the pitfalls of political activism and student popularity. Both are very time­consuming and seldom profitable.

5) Give your teaching assistant a chance to deliver a few lectures. He is probably eagerly waiting for the opportunity, will feel flattered that you have asked him, and will spend so much time preparing his lectures that he is likely to do at least as good a job as you. Thus he gains experience, you gain leisure, and the undergraduates will probably enjoy seeing a new face.

6) Try to organize a symposium type of course to which you invite your colleagues to give one or two lectures each in their specialties. For each of them, it only means one or two extra hours of work, and that device spares you practically a whole course. Furthermore you will acquire the reputation of being an innovative teacher, and of being tolerant of a wide variety of points of view.

7) Get a joint appointment with two departments if you can, and play one against the other. The product of your two half-loads should be a one-fourth load.

8) Get research grants that will buy you time off from teaching and give you paid summer vacations in addition. All you have to do in return is research, which you can then use to get more grants to do yet more research and less teaching.

A judicious combination of the above methods can whittle down your teaching load to virtually nothing, and win you a reputation as a progressive and effective teacher to boot. This calls, of course, for a certain amount of finesse. Affect an interest in teaching in early career stages. A blasé or cynical attitude toward teaching is one of the many privileges which come only with tenure. Affectation of sophistication by premature deprecation of teaching is dangerous for an assistant professor unless he is brilliant, but here again the odds are unfavorable.

On the other hand, do not overdo your professions of interest in the students. Enthusiasm could be correctly interpreted as insincerity, or incorrectly attributed to hetero- or homosexual proclivities. Benevolent and condescending interest in students combined with decorous distance is perhaps the most appropriate stance for the assistant professor hoping for tenure. This stance also has the advantage of repelling students, and hence of leaving the young professor enough time to write.

Should you be afflicted with a genuine interest in students, remedial therapy should include frank discussions of your predicament with well-disposed colleagues. Should this fail, try at least to exploit students by making them collect data or even ghost-write articles.

We suggested earlier in this chapter that most professors regard teaching as a necessary evil. I have tried to show that, with a little initiative and imagination, teaching is not even as necessary as it might first seem. Attacked on the right by the specter of videotapes and Skinner boxes, and on the left by free universities and student discussion groups, university teaching is becoming more and more vestigial anyway. Soon the dream of many professors, a university where students are nothing more than a decorative tableau vivant of fluttering miniskirts, may come into being. Conservative students will faithfully take in their daily dose of canned, televised lectures in the air-conditioned comfort of their rooms; radical students will divide their time between hygienic picketing of administration buildings and soul-searching orgies of free discussions in smoke-filled cellars; and professors will publish even more than they do now, an all-important activity to which we must now turn our attention.

Take the next step towards your future with online learning.

Discover schools with the programs and courses you’re interested in, and start learning today.

Woman working at desk