What is the Point of a Teacher?

Last weekend, the New York Times published a piece the author herself described as a "grumpy manifesto" in defense of traditional lecture courses in the humanities. This was not the first (nor likely the last) intentionally provocative NYT piece on higher education published this year, leading many to shrug their shoulders and pen some hilarious satires about the paper of record's tortured relationship with academia.

Yet this particular piece seemed to strike a chord in a way that earlier pieces have not.[1] And judging by the reaction of my humanities-heavy newsfeed and the numerous pieces that have followed this week, the chords were both consonant and dissonant. Many seemed relieved that someone had finally defended the value of what they were doing in their classrooms, others were just generally "moved" by her argument (even if they weren't sure why), and still others found her defense both unconvincing and condescending.

As one of many humanities PhDs relatively well-versed in the scholarship of teaching and learning (SoTL), I have a lot to say about this piece.[2] And insofar as Worthen frames her argument as a response to what she takes to be flawed (or at least irrelevant) research on teaching and learning, my first impulse is to engage her (and our readers) in a detailed conversation about the nature of the evidence.

We might ask, for example, what her evidence is that lecturing is the most effective way to help students learn the no-doubt valuable skills of comprehension, reasoning, attention, or even listening. As Paul Corrigan and Josh Eyler have already pointed out, even if we wanted to teach the skill of listening, it's not clear that simply giving students repeated practice at a single listening task is the most effective way to teach that skill. And at least on our reading of the relevant research, long-term skill development is most likely to occur when we also require meta-cognitive reflection on the skill, scaffolded practice (beginning with short, simple tasks and building to longer, more complex tasks), transfer tasks that shift the nature of the practice in unexpected ways (to help students learn how to adapt their new skills to contexts outside the classroom), and, most importantly, self- and expert- assessment of progress on each of these tasks.[3]

But this is not the line of argument I want to pursue today.

Confident that there is already a small army of humanities PhDs crafting responses that will cover this well-worn (but no less important) ground, I want to turn my attention to what I take to be a broader question lurking beneath the surface of these debates--a question that, if we take it seriously, has the potential to completely reframe debates about the status of "the lecture" in higher education.

And that question is this: what, at the end of the day, is the point of a teacher?

This may seem like a question with an obvious answer. The point of a teacher is to teach. But on reflection, we see that matters are not so simple. And that's because teachers seem not to be the only things that can teach. No doubt most of us can identify an experience or a book that has taught us something meaningful, but we are likely to stop short of identifying those experiences or books as "teachers." And even if we are comfortable using that language in these cases, this only serves to make a refined version of our question more urgent: what, at the end of the day, is the point of having teachers in the narrow sense of that term? If we can learn about the world through experience and books, why do we bother with traditional teachers? What do they add?

In the context of higher education, the question might be this: why would anyone spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to learn from teachers when they could learn the same things from books at the (free) public library? 

Let's call this the Good Will Hunting problem.[4] 

Discussion of this problem, at least in its generalized form, is not new. As others have noted, these conversations make their first appearance in the late 18th century when the fruits of the print revolution seemed to make self-instruction a realistic possibility. What, critics asked, is the point of a teacher (and his lecture) if authoritative texts can now be read by the students on their own time?[5] And if there is anything we might appreciate about the short-lived MOOC craze, it is that it forced many of us to think, yet again, about the value of the teacher in the context of a traditional classroom. 

Of course, one way to respond to the Good Will Hunting problem is to argue that higher education is valuable for many other reasons (for social experiences, professional networking, credentialing, etc.).[6] But if one thing unites Molly Worthen, Damon Linker, and my colleagues in SoTL, it is the view that teachers--whatever we are doing in the classroom--are a central component of what makes the collegiate experience worth more than four years of trips to the public library.

But why? What is it that makes a teacher valuable in a way that books are not?

In what follows, I want to propose that how we answer this question--that is, how we conceptualize the added value of the teacher--is likely to be the best predictor of whether and how we use the lecture within our pedagogical repertoire. Although it is true that most of what happens in college classrooms is the result of inertia (how many of us can honestly say we're doing something radically different from how our teachers taught us?), there are those on both sides of this debate who have put a great deal of thought into their teaching. And I want to argue that for these folks, at least, where they land on the status of the lecture can probably be traced back to how they answer this more fundamental question.

I am, all things considered, a relatively fierce critic of the lecture as a form of pre-scripted continuous exposition by the teacher (though I should add I do not feel the same way about direct instruction that is responsive to students). But after years of debating this issue with friends and colleagues I deeply respect, I've come to realize that this is an issue about which incredibly thoughtful and fair-minded people can disagree. And the more I've tried to make sense of this disagreement, the more I've come to think it is not really a debate about the research.[7] Instead, it is about defending what we take to be the most valuable component of the work we do as teachers. Worthen hints at this when she jokes that those of us who favor alternative pedagogies are participating in the "great American pastime of populist resentment of experts." And those on my side hint at something similar when we joke that "teaching without learning is just talking."[8] Both of these jokes are unfair, but they represent fairly well what I take to be the two views animating debates about the lecture.

To help us fix these views in our mind, I want to describe each in its most extreme form. I'm fully aware that this is something of a false dichotomy, and that the reality is that most of us adopt something of a hybrid view. But it is useful to begin here before moving on to the more nuanced positions.

The Teacher-as-Author

According to this view, the pedagogical value of the teacher extends beyond the value of the library for at least three reasons.[9] First, as an expert producer of knowledge, the university teacher is likely to have access to knowledge that has not yet appeared in print. By attending school, students get privileged access to this new knowledge (on this model, the university functions as something similar to a journal paywall). But due to her status as an expert in her field, the teacher is also able to organize the knowledge her students might discover elsewhere. As Chad Wellmon notes in his fascinating book about the rise of the modern research university, "the solution to Enlightenment information overload [via texts] and anxieties about the authority of knowledge was not a more expansive encyclopedia ... but an institution that organized the objects of knowledge."[10] And on this view, the teacher is valuable insofar as she stands at the center of this organizing project. But because there is no real reason this authoritative organization cannot itself occur via texts (think here of published secondary scholarship and/or textbooks), the value of the professor in the classroom cannot be reduced to this organization alone. So, finally, she is also valuable insofar as she is able to serve as a charismatic and inspiring model of the scholarly production and organization of knowledge within her discipline.[11] The idea is that students gain something of value by experiencing the teacher's production and organization of knowledge because it helps them to "[imagine] themselves part of the scholarly community as a whole."[12] 

Put simply, the point of the teacher is to provide access to knowledge, as well as the experience of its production. And what this access means for the student is ultimately up to the student. If he has no interest in engaging this knowledge or reflecting on his experience in the classroom, that does not make the work of the teacher any less valuable (just as it would not make the work of an author any less valuable if one of her readers chose not to sufficiently engage her text). This view does not deny that students will get more out of their experiences in the classroom if they have been taught to make the most of them; it simply denies that this teaching task should be the focus of a teacher's energies. It is, we might say, not the point of the teacher to help students acquire those skills. As such, the standards of success have less to do with student outcomes than with the extent to which the professor's production and organization of knowledge is charismatic, authoritative, and sound.[13]

The Teacher-as-Tutor

According to this view, the teacher is more valuable than the public library because--unlike inanimate texts--teachers can actively attend to their students and their development. And this attending manifests itself in a variety ways. In the first place, students are understood to be both the subject and object of teaching. The teacher's attention is primarily directed toward the students--who they are when they enter the classroom, how they are changing throughout the semester, and where they end up when they leave. And the ultimate goal of the teaching is to ensure students experience growth in the knowledge, skills, or dispositions teachers (or perhaps even the students themselves) designate as goals in advance.

Teachers also attend to their students by being actively responsive to them and their unique pedagogical needs. If teachers assign readings, demonstrate a skill, or engage in direct instruction, it is always as a response to a specifically demonstrated need. Bill Deresiewicz captures this aspect of attending well when he notes the following: "[we] do not talk to [our] students; [we] listen to them. [We] do not tell them what to do; [we] help them hear what they themselves are saying."[14] 

Finally, teachers attend to their students by treating their teaching (and student learning) as a scholarly enterprise. And by this I mean they work to become experts on teaching and learning within the unique contexts of their specific classrooms. They not only study the literature, but also their students. And over time they discover the most common mistakes their students are likely to make, as well as the most helpful pedagogical moves to help them overcome those mistakes.[15]

As my name for it suggests, this model of the teacher is much closer to the tutorial system that prevailed for many years in the college systems of Oxford and Cambridge than the pedagogical model handed down to us from the German research university. In the classic version of this system, the tutor meets with groups of two to three students once a week, helping them to work through their responses to the texts they read the previous week. Although the tutor has ultimate control of the curriculum, the texts are often chosen in collaboration with the students. And according to the Oxford Institute for the Advancement of University Learning, "The tutor is not a teacher in the sense that it is her or his role to impart information. Rather, the tutor’s role is to encourage her students creatively to engage with the knowledge they have encountered, constructing and re-constructing their own understanding. By demonstrating in this way the methods of the scholar, the best tutors enable their students to achieve their own scholarly independence."[16]

As I noted at the outset, these two models present something of a false dichotomy. The reality is that most of us believe teachers are valuable for all of these reasons. Or, at the very least, that the approach we favor is at its best when it incorporates elements of the other model, as well. And this hybridity is not simply a feature of the contemporary "multiversity" that tries to combine the British College with the German University.[17] When one looks at the earliest descriptions of each model, hints of the alternative are already present. The tutorial was never meant to replace the direct instruction of the authoritative scholar, and both Fichte and Schleiermacher (two major proponents of the modern research university) argued that direct instruction must be supplemented by "additional forms of interaction and community between professors and students ... small groups, individual conversations, testing, and sessions in which students share their work."[18]

So what this means for my purposes is that I am NOT trying to argue that debates about the lecture are about defending our allegiance to one of these two starkly drawn views. The reality is that those of us who endorse active pedagogies take disciplinary expertise quite seriously. It is hard to imagine how we might successfully develop our students without the expert ability to organize knowledge and model scholarly argument. Likewise, I know that many of those who endorse the lecture recognize the value of responsive assignments, feedback, and even small group discussions for student learning (as I noted in my third footnote, we should recognize that Worthen was defending a model that includes weekly discussion sections).

So what are we arguing about if not the efficacy of the lecture? I want to suggest that in our debates about the lecture, we are ultimately arguing about how these various aspects of our identities should be prioritized.

And if you think you value each aspect of your teaching identity equally, just ask yourself this: in the context of the contemporary university, where professorial time is scarce, which parts of your job would you be most willing to outsource? Would you feel most anxious having someone else organize knowledge for your students or having someone else attend to their individualized development (leading discussions, organizing and grading assignments, providing feedback in office hours, etc.)? And if you think you aren't doing either of these things, ask yourself this: do you assign secondary sources or videos as forms of direct instruction? Do you leave discussion sections and grading to your graduate students?

Alternatively, you could ask yourself the following: when it comes to training future teachers, which kinds of expertise should we be developing? Should we be focusing our energies on developing their abilities to organize and produce knowledge? Or should we be developing their understanding of the typical struggles students will have acquiring knowledge in their discipline, and the best strategies for responding to those struggles? Which do you think PhDs are smart enough to "pick up along the way"? Are you more troubled by the thought of a newly minted PhD with no teaching experience (or training) teaching a class in his or her subject area, or by the thought of an expert teacher, with years of experience teaching undergraduates, teaching a course far outside the field in which she received a PhD?

If you're anything like me, these questions are likely to produce some fairly strong reactions. And it seems to me these reactions are at the root of why our conversations about the lecture have such an edge. When someone suggests that, given the time constraints of the modern university, it is OK to abandon or outsource the thing we take to be the core of our teaching identities, it's understandable that we get grumpy. This also explains why so much of the rhetoric on both sides of this debate is about teachers "not doing their jobs" when they adopt one or the other approach. And it's entirely understandable we get even more grumpy when we're told the thing we value most about our jobs is tantamount to not doing them at all.

So where does that leave us? I don't imagine that framing the debate in this way is going to change anyone's mind about the value of the teacher or the value of the lecture. We are likely to be arguing about this long after I'm gone. My hope, however, is that reframing the debate in this way will help us have the right kind of argument. Instead of trying to defend our practices in terms of the research literature (a literature that presupposes student outcomes as the standard of success), we should be having a normative debate about what we think we should be providing our students, and why.

And while we're at it, we should be including our students in these conversations. They do, after all, have much more at stake in these debates than we do. I have no reason to doubt my friends who tell me their students (or their past selves) consider the lectures of world-renowned experts to be what they signed up for. But because I have seen, along with Deresiewicz, that many of our students are starved "for validation, for connection--for (let's not be shy of saying it) parental figures other than their parents," I'm certain they are just as likely to see value in teachers who attend to them and their development, as well.[19]

And what better way to attend to our students--that is, to teach them--than by urging them to join us in this conversation?

[1] One exception might be Mark Bauerlein's "What is the Point of a Professor?" (a piece to which I nod in my title).

[2] Contrary to Worthen's narrative about the hegemony of STEM within the scholarship on teaching and learning, it turns out that most of those working within the broad field of teaching and learning are trained as humanists. The reason there have been so many studies on STEM education published recently has more to do with how our federal government funds the work we do in our respective fields. The reality is that the NEH will never be able to compete with the amount of money the NSF has devoted to these projects.

[3] Perhaps Worthen knows of research that refutes these findings. Or perhaps she is defending a version of a "lecture course" that includes these pedagogies. We cannot know for certain by reading her op-ed, which provides very little non-anecdotal evidence (apart from a study that finds that one type of note-taking during lecture is better than another kind of note-taking during lecture). And though she does hint that she thinks other pedagogies might be necessary (when she describes the "traditional model" as a large lecture with small discussion sections, or when she notes that her exemplars "teach" attention and note-taking by assigning readings and engaging in discussion of those readings), the central thesis of this piece is very clearly that *the lecture itself* teaches these skills.

[4] As you may or may not recall, Will--an entirely self-educated "genius" from South Boston--attempts to undermine a Harvard graduate student at a bar by point out that he (the student) "dropped 150 grand on a fuckin' education you could have got for a dollar fifty in late charges at the public library!"

[5]  Wellmon, Chad. Organizing Enlightenment: Information Overload and the Invention of the Modern Research University. 2015: Johns Hopkins University Press, 164. See also chapter seven for an overview of the most important responses that laid the groundwork for the modern research university.

[6] And this is precisely what happens in the film, when the Harvard student responds, "Yeah, but I will have a degree. And you'll be servin' my kids fries at a drive-thru on our way to a skiing trip."

[7] I say this because, after getting up to speed on the research literature over the last few years, it's hard to deny that it speaks with one voice on a number of these issues. As Josh Eyler pointed out in his response to Worthen, the study she cites was a rigorous meta-analysis of 225 different studies. And this is only one of thousands of meta-analyses that exist on determinants of learning. But because all of these studies begin with the assumption that effective teaching is synonymous with student learning (an assumption that is not shared by everyone in this debate), they are in some sense stacked against those who might successfully defend the lecture from the start. To try to defend the value of the lecture in terms of its effects on student learning (in the aggregate) seems a lost cause; but arguing that the lecture is a valuable function of a university teacher is still be possible if one reframes the standards for judging a lecture "effective" and/or "successful."

[8] As far as I can tell, the first time this joke appeared was in the first chapter of the otherwise exceptional Classroom Assessment Techniques: A Handbook for College Teachers by Thomas Angelo and Patricia Cross (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1993).

[9] It would be fair to ask whether I'm really describing three distinct views of the teacher here. In some ways I am. But given how often these views show up together, and how they tend to influence views about the lecture in the same way, it makes sense to combine them for the purposes of the argument I'm making.

[10] Wellmon, 153.

[11] For a fascinating account of the development of professorial charisma in the modern research university, see Clark, William. Academic Charisma and the Origins of the Research University. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006.

[12] Sean Franzel, as quoted by Wellmon, Organizing Enlightenment, 199.

[13] I know that this idea of successful teaching is going to get some folks who work in SoTL fired up, but this is a place where the analogy with publication is helpful. We don't normally stipulate, in advance, the precise "learning outcomes" we'd like our readers to display after reading our work. We no doubt have a vague sense of what we'd like them to believe when they're finished, but we won't feel our work is a failure if more than a few of them decide to stop reading mid-way through. The point of our writing is to provide access to our ideas, not to ensure that our readers respond to them in particular ways.

[14] Deresiewicz, William. Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life. New York, NY: Free Press, 2014.

[15] See Ernest Boyer, "Scholarship Reconsidered," for more on this idea.

[16] "Tutorial Teaching." Oxford: Institute for the Advancement of University Learning, Paper 6.

[17] Kerr, Clark. The Uses of the University. Harvard University Press, 2001.

[18] Wellmon, 199.

[19] Deresiewicz, 177.