Taking Teaching Seriously - S. Chodorow

Talk About Teaching


Taking Teaching Seriously


   Usually, when someone with a title like mine says that we ought to 

take teaching seriously, he means that faculty should devote more of 

their attention, more of their energy, and more of their time to their 

courses.  The teaching in these pious speeches usually means 

undergraduate teaching.  And cynics call the performance bombast, or at 

best hot air, and wonder whether the person making the remarks will 

alter the reward system to "encourage" faculty to devote more of all 

those things-attention, energy, and time-to teaching.

   I am as good a target for such wonderings as anyone, but I would 

like to defend my oratorical excesses by assuring you that I am moving 

to make the record of teaching a greater part of the academic personnel 

process than it has been in the past.  I am also, however, fully 

faithful to the tautology that in a research university faculty must do 

research and the teaching they do must include graduate as well as 

undergraduate teaching.  This provost, at least, does not wish to remake 

the research university as an undergraduate college and wants the 

students who come here to recognize that they are not in such a college.  

As I told the freshman in my convocation speech, they must be deeply 

implicated in their education.  The faculty will help them in the 

effort, and the research program of the faculty and graduate students 

greatly enriches the environment in which undergraduates become 

educated, both by enlivening the intellectual culture of the University 

and by engaging a faculty worthy of the students we admit.  If we seek 

to give our students creativity, enthusiasm, and drive, we must teach 

what we do, not just what we know.

   So if I am not merely urging you to set aside your research to 

devote more attention, energy, and time to teaching, what do I mean by 

"taking teaching seriously"?  I mean that we should take our work as 

teachers as seriously as we do all other aspects of our work.  We hold 

ourselves and our colleagues to the highest possible standards of 

research and intellectual achievement.  We demand perfection from our 

leadership, while we tend to think of them as fallen men and women.  Let 

us treat our teaching in the same manner.

   First, let us create courses that are demanding and that meet 

the same intellectual standards as our scholarly and scientific work.  

Let us apply our highest ideals of thoughtfulness and craft to our 

courses-graduate and undergraduate.

   Second, let us ask our students to do creative work that stretches 

them to the far edge of their ability and that prepares them for a world 

in which success in every endeavor requires the full application of 

one's highest gifts.

   Third, let us hold our students to the highest standard of which 

they are capable.  Taking teaching seriously is, more than anything 

else, taking our students seriously, and that requires taking their work 

seriously.  Respond to their work and do not shirk the responsibility of 

giving a fair and true assessment of its quality.  Academic judgment is 

thine.  Use it.

   Fourth, let us treat our students not merely as learners but as 

people. As in every other relationship, we will get from our students a 

reflection of what we give them.  In my view, a serious relationship 

with students requires a certain formality. To take students seriously 

is to treat them at arm's length. Some students become friends, but 

friendship is not the model of the teacher-student relationship. We have 

a formal responsibility to our students and we are helping them meet a 

formal responsibility to themselves.  We are not in loco parentis or in 

loco amici to our students. When they disappoint us, as some inevitably 

will, it is not the visceral disappointment we (also inevitably) earn 

from our own children or friends.

   Fifth, let us recognize that some students will appear to be 

unworthy-because they are unappreciative-of our best efforts.  But 

teaching is an act of faith as much as it is a transaction, and faith 

always defies the harsh realities of life. Moreover, our relationship 

with students is no less dynamic than our relationships with others.  

Our efforts in their behalf have their effect over time and have an 

afterlife.  That statement is one of the tenets of the faith.

   It may follow from these principles that we should devote more 

attention, energy, and time to our teaching, but that is not the point.  

Our work is professional work.  Some of us find our tasks easy and can 

do them quickly; others of us thrash about some. Our work is not judged 

by the time or effort it takes, only by its quality. Teaching is one of 

the central elements of our professional work. Like every other element 

of that work, teaching well is essential to our stature and self-esteem 

as professionals.

   Yet, the meaning of "taking teaching seriously" is not focused 

only on the behavior and attitudes of individual faculty.  No faculty 

member can be fully serious as a teacher or scholar in a community that 

itself does not take these functions seriously.  Taking teaching 

seriously requires that the faculty as a body take collective 

responsibility for the education of its students.  This may be a truism, 

but it has implications that we have not fully embraced.

   First, it implies that the faculty as a whole-usually acting 

through its subunits, such as schools and departments-must take 

responsibility for designing the programs of the University.  It is the 

faculty that must say what it means to be an educated person-what it 

means to be an educated chemist, historian, sociologist, and so on.  For 

many years in the University, we have tended to emphasize the freedom of 

choice of students.  It is time to balance the students' power of choice 

with that of the faculty, acting collectively to determine the course of 

education for students.

   Second and consequently, it implies that the teaching of each 

individual faculty member is part of a whole.  I am not sympathetic to 

the view that the academic program of the University should be the sum 

of the decisions of individual faculty members about what they will 

teach and how.  Even in our current condition, our teaching leans on 

that of our colleagues, but our ethos ignores that fact.  Taking 

teaching seriously requires us to take cognizance of one another's 

teaching and to rebalance the weight of our academic freedom against the 

equally important weight of our collective and mutual responsibilities 

as educators.

   Third, it implies that in a community of teachers in which freedom 

and responsibility are properly balanced we should be talking to one 

another about what and how we are teaching.  At one end of the scale is 

the required course, taught by one or more individual faculty members on 

behalf of the whole unit or community.  The community should discuss the 

content and style of such courses, for the community takes 

responsibility for them by requiring them. At the other end of the scale 

are highly specialized graduate courses in which the individual vision 

and interests of faculty members have their maximum play.  These courses 

too, however, should be the subject of discussion among the members of 

the community, for they are contributions to the community's academic 

program.  If we take teaching seriously, we should engage one another as 

teachers and should be willing to share our teaching, as we share our 

scholarship, with one another.

   Taking teaching seriously is one part of taking ourselves 

seriously, individually and collectively.  It requires us to balance our 

individual freedom-which we've earned by the arduous process of 

attaining tenure-with a commitment to the collective enterprise.  

Academic freedom is freedom, rather than license, precisely because it 

confronts its limits in our communal responsibilities.  The balance 

between freedom and responsibility requires us to join the issues with 

our colleagues and results, most of the time, in a consensus.  When the 

balancing does not lead to consensus-when one group wins and one loses 

the debate-our commitment to the community and its purposes preserves 

the enterprise.  For this to be so, we must respect one another's point 

of view.  Taking teaching seriously, as a collective and individual 

activity, requires this mutual respect.  We are professionals and 

adults, so we can sustain that foundation of our work.  Now you know 

that I am a man of faith.

- Stanley Chodorow, Provost


 This piece opens a new Almanac series developed by the Lindback Society 

and the College of Arts and Sciences. The Provost's remarks are from 

last week's conference on "Helping Students Learn." 


Volume 41, Number 7
October 11, 1994

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