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Sunday, June 1, 2008

Where is the demand for better teachers?

Following up on my previous post, of course I realize that there is virtually zero chance that graduate schools will suddenly decide that they should expend resources on training their students to be better teachers. This is because, while I doubt there is a college administrator in the world who will ever say that undergraduate education isn’t their top priority, there simply isn’t sufficient demand for training grad students to teach well. Yes, there are many, many institutions that want good teachers; there are also just as many who really don’t care (or at least, it isn’t part of the hiring criteria). In economics, the latter group hires more Ph.D. students. I think there are also enough students who self-select into teaching to fill most of the positions with the former group. I was one of those students - I knew before I even got to grad school that I wanted to go teach at a small liberal arts college like my alma mater. So I volunteered to teach classes and I worked hard to figure out how to be a decent teacher. If enough people seem inclined to do the work on their own anyway, why should any University expend resources on providing training to grad students?

So then maybe the real question is why isn’t there stronger demand for good teaching? Why don’t students demand it? And what does it take to shift a university culture that doesn’t seem to value teaching on par with research?


  1. One significant change that might occur if grad. programs spent more time on training students to teach (not that this will become sufficient motivation) is that the probationary period for new assistant professors would be less traumatic.

    Greater focus on teaching in grad. programs that produced better teachers - and that would be followed ideally by sustained conversation on teaching at the assistant professor's new institution - would lead to less remediation in teaching during the probationary period. Fewer rough semesters with bad evaluations and reviews that end in ultimatums about what must be changed in order to make progress toward tenure (i. e. to keep one's job).

    Of course, this is all predicated on some idealistic solidarity among institutions that were all interested in good teaching and willing to help new faculty become more confident instructors.

  2. This is a topic that, by the end of this post, I will likely feel that I have left out quite a bit. I can not begin to say how many times myself and other students have complained that a large percentage of our teachers are more so "lecturers", or "instructors", than teachers. From reading your other 2 posts, I think the reason I have retained any information in my education is 1)because I am interested in it, or 2)I find it relevant to my current surroundings, and want to learn more about it, which brings me back to my first reason.

    I also think that bad teachers make better ones, because a new generation of teachers will know first hand how NOT to teach. I personally believe that some teachers feel no need to change their teaching style at all after the word "tenure" hits their title.

    There is the possibility that the process of actually teaching teachers is expensive, and even deters some from getting into the field. I'll leave the argument of throwing more money at education for another day.

  3. @dispersemos - absolutely! But how do we encourage our institutions to do more for grad students and new faculty?
    @matt - it's good to hear the student perspective! One of the interesting things about tenure is that it can work both ways: a bad teacher may have no incentive to improve but a dedicated teacher has more freedom to devote time to his or her classes (for example, I am currently spending way more time re-designing a class for next fall than I could have done before tenure). Either way, it's still more about the preferences of the teacher than the institutional incentives.


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