Observing College Professors Teach

I came to Stanford University in 1981. After being at Stanford for five years, a new dean asked me to serve as his Associate Dean. Being superintendent for seven years prior to coming to Stanford and tasting the privileged life of a full professor I had no inclination to return to being an administrator whose influence on tenured colleagues, was at best sorely limited and at worst, non-existent. The Dean wanted me bad enough that he and I negotiated a higher salary–I would be working twelve months rather than nine (it is, after all, a private institution where everything is negotiated)–I would only serve two years, I could teach at least one or two courses each year I served, and I would get a sabbatical quarter after completing the second year. OK, I said.

What did I do?

I had to insure that all of my colleagues taught at least four courses over three quarters–some did not and I had to badger them to do so. I handled students’ dissatisfaction with particular professors’ poor teaching or their being habitually inattentive to students’ work. I followed up on doctoral students’ complaints about unavailability of their advisers, and I represented the Dean on occasions he could not attend campus meetings or social events. So with the help of an skillful administrative secretary, the first year went smoothly.

The second year I had an idea. University professors seldom get observed as they teach except by their students. As a superintendent I had observed over a thousand teachers in my district over the years. Even prior to that I was a supervisor of intern history teachers. Observe and discuss observations with teachers, I could do.

I sent out a personal letter (this was before email became standard communication) to each of my 36 colleagues asking them if they wanted me to observe one of their classes and meet afterwards to discuss what I had seen. I made clear that I would make no judgment on their class but describe to them what I saw and have a conversation around what they had intended to happen in the lesson, what they thought had occurred, and what I had observed. Nothing would be written down (except for my notes which I shared with each faculty member). It would be a conversation. I did ask them to supply me with the readings that students were assigned for the session I observed and what the professor wanted to accomplish during the hour or 90-minute session.

Of the 36 who received the letter, 35 agreed (the 36th came to me in the middle of the year and asked me to observe his class). None of them–yes, that is correct–none had ever been observed before by anyone in the School of Education for purposes of having a conversation about their teaching. Two had been observed by me and a former Associate Dean because of student complaints; I had discussed those complaints with the professor and then observed lectures and discussions they had conducted. Both of them invited me to their classes when I wrote my subsequent letter. So for each quarter of the school year, I visited two professors a week. Each scheduled a follow-up conversation with me that we held in their office.

What happened?

I did observe 36 colleagues. For me, it was a fine learning experience. I got to read articles in subject matter I knew a smattering (e.g., economics of education, adolescent psychological development, standardized test development). I heard colleagues lecture, saw them discuss readings from their syllabi, and, for me, I pick edup new knowledge and ways of teaching graduate students I had not tried in my courses.

As for my colleagues, a common response during the conversations we had following the observations was gratitude for an experience they had not had as a professor. Simply talking about the mechanics of a lecture or discussion, what they thought had worked and had not, the surprises that popped up during the lesson–all of that was a new experience for nearly all of the faculty. A few asked me to return again and we negotiated return visits. Overall, I felt–and seemingly most of my colleagues felt similarly–that the experience was worthwhile because I and they wanted to talk about the ins-and-outs of teaching and had lacked opportunities to do so in their career as professors.

Those conversations over the year got me thinking more deeply about why universities like Stanford preach the importance of teaching–the rhetoric is omnipresent. Moreover, professors and graduate students receive annual teaching awards, and there are programs to help professors to improve their teaching. Yet the University had not created the conditions for faculty to share with colleagues the how and what of their teaching through observation and discussion of lectures and seminars.

That year as Associate Dean sitting in on faculty lectures and seminars led me on an intellectual journey plumbing a question that nagged at me as I observed and conversed with colleagues: how come universities say teaching is important yet all of the structures and actual (not symbolic) rewards go to research in tenure, promotion, and salary? To answer that question I did a historical study of teaching and research at Stanford in two departments–history and the School of Medicine. In completing How Scholars Trumped Teachers: Change without Reform in University Curriculum, Teaching, and Research, 1890-1990, I learned how universities like Stanford, have structures and incentives that insure teaching will be subordinate to the primary tasks of researching and publishing.

To my knowledge, no observations of professors and conversations about teaching have occurred in the Graduate School of Education since 1987-1988.






Filed under higher education, how teachers teach

8 responses to “Observing College Professors Teach

  1. Sarah Levine

    I’ve been enjoying your blogs, and thanks especially for this one. We need more discussions of teaching at the university level.

  2. It was always interesting to sit in a School of Ed class about teaching methodology and see the instructor ignore everything they teach. I taught at the college level for ten years. I disliked 9 of those years. Too many instructors felt it was necessary to impress their students with their knowledge. Actually teaching undergrads was beneath them. Most of the School of Ed profs had not been in a K-12 classroom since Dewey. They wrote brilliant research papers but could not teach a duck to float. College professors that are teaching should be evaluated on their teaching by someone with experience teaching (not just lecturing) with the goal of improving their teaching skills.

  3. Diana Sharp

    Vanderbilt’s Center for Teaching offers teaching observations and many other services to faculty. “The mission of the Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching is to promote university teaching that leads to meaningful student learning. Our offerings are available to any members of the Vanderbilt community interested in developing their teaching practices.”

    • larrycuban

      Thanks for the information on Vanderbilt’s Center for Teaching, Diana. Many top universities have such centers which tenure-line faculty often use. I am familiar with the one at Stanford and it is up to the faculty member to decide whether to use the services offered. I believe that is valuable for faculty concerned about improving their teaching. What I described in the post is a very different initiative to examine teaching collaboratively particular to a professional school and department.

  4. mike g

    Do you have any sense of the take-up rate at Stanford’s GSE for the center? My predictions:

    1. Take up rate for a Center where professors get spam-ish “Hey would you like to be observed, we’re here for you!” = <10%

    2. Take up rate for a Center when the leader meets them 1-on-1, in person, and ultimately offers to observe = 50% assuming comes across as really smart, and then is able to say "Professor X really seemed to enjoy our session, why don't you check with her and then let me know if you want my service?"

    3. Take up rate for a "Larry type" – a proven thinker / colleague / intellect who already has their trust / respect = 35/36

    • larrycuban

      No, I don’t have a sense of how many professors use the Teaching Center at Stanford, Mike. Or other centers for that matter. Appreciate the comment.

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