Sunday, June 13, 2010

Teaching as a Foreign Language?

The least appealling thing about the thought of returning to a university research position is that it implies returning to teaching. It is not that I don't like teaching as such, certainly not that I don't like the students. As with research, I get a lot of intrinsic enjoyment out of teaching. What worries me are the extrinsic conditions that teaching is increasingly subject to. Research is also subject to extrinsic pressures, of course, but I feel more confident about facing them. In this post I want to work through my concerns about teaching.

The teacher presumably knows something and the basic problem of teaching is presumably to get that knowledge "across" to the students. Unfortunately, the increasing demands for greater "relevance" in higher education is subtly undermining these basic presumptions with another: the students presumably need to know something in order to succeed in life. While it seems uncontroversial to suggest that the university ought to provide that knowledge, it is, in fact, an impossible demand.

This was driven home to me recently during a conversation about how to develop the skill of "academic writing" among students at the business school. I suggested that one simple way to frame the problem in each disicpline (or teaching program) is to look at the sort of writing that the researchers do (especially the journal articles they read and write) and then to present writing assignments as gestures at precisely that kind of writing. When writing a journal article one has to master a range of skills, including style and grammar, theory and method, epistemological reflection, sourcing and referencing. One also has to have an eye for "relevance", i.e., one has to develop a sense of an "interesting" problem. To teach someone to write "academically" is essentially to give them the skills they need to write a publishable scientific paper, and these skills will vary in specific ways from field to field. A discipline is defined by the problems, styles, methods, theories, and even referencing conventions that are deemed acceptable within it.

I was suprised at the reaction to my suggestion. Wasn't I just proposing to teach students how to be researchers? Our job is not to turn students into researchers, I was told; it is to give them relevant job skills. Most of them won't go into research, so the craft of writing a research paper is largely irrelevant to them. We should be training them in much more general competencies, like "reflexivity", rather than teaching them (in a common caricature of what I am saying) to put chapter titles in quotation marks and book titles in italics. Once they get their degrees, most of them will never have to write a research paper again. So, the argument goes, there's no serious need to teach them how to write one in school. Anyway, it will only bore them.

This is not an either/or argument, of course. No one suggests that we shouldn't teach students how to write a research paper at all. They just say it shouldn't be a priority, and that we should spend more time on much more relevant, much more "applicable", skills. On the face of it, this seems like a sensible suggestion. But there is a very simple and very serious problem with it.

University teachers don't have those allegedly "relevant" skills. They have something very different, namely, knowledge—and, "worse" still, it's academic knowledge. They know how to distinguish between the importance of what is said in a book written in 1973 and what is said in a journal article written in 2008. They know how to apply particular methods in the context of certain theories. They do know, but only "in a sense", how the world works; they don't know how to win a political campaign, design a webpage, or run a business. They don't know these things (not very well) because they don't do these things. What they do is study the world methodically, supported by theoretical frameworks, and they write about it in academic papers, which are read by their peers.

That's what they know how to do. Their impartial (and only therefore impractical) knowledge used to be valued in society "for its own sake". The demand for "relevance" is tantamount to demanding that they teach students something they don't know. Worse, it is asking them to teach in an idiom they are unfamiliar with—a foreign language. When we ask teachers, whose authority is grounded in their theories and methods, to be "relevant", we are shifting the ground of authority to the realm of practice and what we might call "mandate". Professional practitioners have a mandate to say certain things in certain ways; it's part of their job; it's what they are paid to do. Professorial theorists, by contrast, have methods to support what they say. Both are "authorities" in their way, but you meet one of them "on the job" and the other "in school". What Sutton and Pfeffer call "the knowing-doing gap" was traditionally (and effectively) traversed by the students as they graduated, i.e., stopped being students, and found work. Today, the teacher is expected to bridge it in the classroom, a site that, it will be noticed, is technically on one side of the gap.

We try to fill this gap (which is quickly becoming a gaping chasm) between theory and practice with pedagogy. But that just produces a new domain of expertise, a new gap. Researchers were never expert practitioners. So, since they are being asked to teach subjects of "practical relevance", they've not surprisingly lost their immediate, natural authority in the classroom. We then tell them that there's a whole science of teaching; but they don't master this science either. Teaching used to be a craft skill that was simply part of the theoretical and methodological Bildung they went through as students. Now there's a new language they need to learn: pedagogese.

Even our students have fallen for this new jargon. They seem more concerned about how "good" or "engaging" their teachers are than how smart or knowledgeable they are. They don't presume that what their teachers know (precisely that which qualifies them to teach the subject) is relevant to their educational needs. They are ready to evaluate the "teaching methods"** used in the course but not to think critically about the subject matter they are being taught. They presume to be able themselves to judge whether today's lesson was too "abstract" or too "trivial", and whether they are "learning something". (As their classes increasingly see trained theorists try to impart "practical" knowledge the are ever more rarely satisfied, of course.) They are too easily (because too eagerly) confused by the differences of opinion they are exposed to, and forget to form an opinion of their own, except, of course, an opinion about the course and its teacher.

This complaint about students is, of course, almost a ritual exercise. When we make it, we must always keep in mind that we are actually complaining about the conditions that the students are asked to learn under. They share these conditions with their teachers, and that's what I want to emphasize. We are asking teachers to teach not what they know but what the students want to know. And that, like I say, is an impossible demand. The students presumably (and hopefully) have an inexhaustible curiosity about the world, just as the greed and ambition of their future employers is immeasurable, and sometimes outright imponderable. So demand for knowledge is infinitely large and infinitely divisible. We can't satisfy it.

A good education comes from being in contact with what your teachers know. That very intuitive, very simple idea, seems to be lost on those who are reforming the modern university. If, however, students were asked only to "learn the subject", and teachers were asked only to teach it—if, that is, we remained focused on knowledge—a great deal could be accomplished by imperfect human beings working with limited means. But today we have shifted the problem to the sphere of power. (What else is this demand that an education be "relevant"?) Academics were never good at that game and it hurts me to watch us try to play it.*


*The last few sentences have been rewritten since I first posted. I've done some light editing throughout the rest of the text as well.

**A tempting hyperbole: they are more interested in teaching methods than research methods. The frightening thing is that this priortization may be rationally justified. They get higher grades for demonstrating that they "get" what the teacher is trying to do pedagogically than for showing that they master the core methods in their chosen field. This relates to the shift of focus on the other side of lectern: the teachers are increasingly evaluated by looking at student satisfaction (including demand for the teacher's courses) rather than the measurable competences their students acquire.


Dolly Jørgensen said...

I think that you and those who replied negatively to your suggestion are actually not thinking that differently. You suggested giving assignments that build competence in journal writing because you see that as a relevant part of a career; your colleagues would rather see other kinds of writing assignments because they see those as more relevant.

I would say that you are both right - in particular contexts. In a PhD course where students are actually training to be researchers, the journal article assignments make sense. In fact, I had a PhD course in history designed exactly that way: we had assignments to write book reviews, write a conference paper, and deliver the paper orally - all things a good historian should be able to do but skills rarely taught. In an MBA course, however, the writing assignments should be things like how to write an executive summary for a report or an effective client letter, appropriately integrating graphs/illustrations in reports, making clear powerpoint presentations, etc. These are all skills necessary in the business world, but again, rarely taught directly. These assignments would also teach clarity of thought and language, just as the journal writing assignments would.

P.S. I'm a regular reader of your blog, but first time poster. I too feel very strongly about teaching students critical writing/researching/thinking skills.

Thomas said...

Hi Dolly. Thanks for your thoughts. I think it's important to keep in mind that "relevance" has a more specific meaning in discussions about curriculum design, at least at my business school. Its meaning is essentially tied to the "practice" context. So even in our PhD courses, when we talk about the "relevance" of our research, we mean "what can practioners use it for". The broader meaning of relevance that you propose doesn't really have much carry. If something is "relevant" only to a career in research, it is, on the usual definition, "irrelevant".

That said, your point is of course well-taken. The important thing to keep in mind about the MBA context is that practitioners are very often invited to teach them. That means that the students get access to knowledge in the sence that I propose when "things like how to write an executive summary for a report or an effective client letter, appropriately integrating graphs/illustrations in reports, making clear powerpoint presentations, etc." I very much agree that these skills are necessary.

I think someone that learns how to write a scientific paper learns something generalizable (beyond the skill of writing a journal acticle) that has to do with making claims and supporting them. The sense of "support" here is quite different than we find in pratical business applications.

Recall my posts on Burke's "judicious obscurity" and "well-managed darkness". Clarity, he said, is the enemy of enthusiasm, and managers are therefore entitled to (or at least dependent on) some measure of "sublimity" when communicating in practice.

But while in school they should learn the "authority of right reason", i.e., of getting the facts straight and building a solid argument around them. It will help them to think, even if it is true that they won't always be able to speak their minds.