How Professors Teach

Jonathan Zimmerman’s Amateur Hour (a great title) documents how college professors have taught over the past two centuries. It is a worthwhile read for those who have experienced the full range of university teaching from packed lecture halls to wood-paneled seminar rooms. And it got me thinking of my experiences in college and university classrooms over many years. I have forgotten most of my professors’s names as I collected degrees except for a handful who have had a large influence upon me as both a student and human being.

Since I was a high school history teacher for many years before becoming a professor, I prized teaching before scholarship. Sure both are important, but my previous experiences as a graduate student made me very aware of the startling variation in university teaching as I stumbled through a Masters degree and doctorate. Here is one story about professors teaching that I experienced.

I came to Stanford University in 1981. After five years of teaching and writing, 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)–and 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 professors 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 picked up 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. And backing up the rhetoric are annual teaching awards and 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 in tenure, promotion, and salary go to research? 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 built structures and created 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.

8 Comments

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8 responses to “How Professors Teach

  1. Dennis Ashendorf

    So strange. In my 1970s undergraduate experience, what separated Stanford from the Ivys was the very fact that professors had to teach undergraduate courses.

    I had several Nobel Prize winners. Some profs weren’t great teachers, but some students weren’t great either. We reviewed teachers at the end of a term. Grade inflation wasn’t considered a problem either. We used normed systems Top 15% = A, 33-50=B, …

  2. Melchi34

    So glad to read this. When doing my bachelor’s degree there were a number of great teachers, professors, and some who were really horrible.
    One was all the way bad, and I had to sit through many of the most painful lectures a human could be subject to. His course thermodynamics was important could not be failed without consequences, so I had to learn the course on my own. When students rated him, some used the letter f which means fail. Some of them put ‘ff’ to indicate their anger with his terrible delivery of something important.
    The other professor, of advanced calculus, spoke at a high level and a few of us went to him and ask him if he could explain more. He promised to improve but the next lecture was more difficult so again I realized that passing that branch of math would be left to the individual student, me.
    I passed but graduated feeling that the university should pay attention to their professors and how they teach.
    One day I was online and looking at a professor demonstrating turning force and angular momentum. His video was simply beautiful and did a great job of clarifying what he was teaching. Teaching takes time and preparation and some people do not give to it the attention it needs, unfortunately for students.

    • larrycuban

      Thanks for taking the time to reflect on a few of your professors who made a hard subject harder. And your appreciation of how a professor can illuminate a tough concept

  3. Pingback: Funny on Sunday: don’t ask me, I’m a professor – From experience to meaning…

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