How Do Professors Teach: Observing University Classes

I came to Stanford University in 1981 to teach in the Graduate School of Education and do research into the history of school reform. 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 a university 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 seven 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 Graduate 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 to four 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–yet had not created and institutionalized ways for faculty to share with colleagues the how and what of their teaching. Many universities have established centers for the improvement of teaching where professors and graduate students receive help. These are, of course, voluntary. And, yes, most universities have annual teaching awards and programs to help professors improve their teaching, including Stanford University. .

As Associate Dean in 1986-1987, I sat in on faculty lectures and seminars for months. That experience 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 of promotion, tenure, and salary go to professors who produce articles and books in peer-reviewed journals?

I tried answering that question in a historical study of teaching and research at Stanford in two departments–history and the School of Medicine. In researching and writing How Scholars Trumped Teachers: Change without Reform in University Curriculum, Teaching, and Research, 1890-1990 (1999), I figured out why and how universities like Stanford have structures and incentives that insure teaching will be subordinate to professors’ primary tasks of researching and publishing.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “How Do Professors Teach: Observing University Classes

  1. wjshan

    I forwarded the blog to my colleagues just now. We, including other folks are not accustomed to be observed by colleagues. I mean in Taiwan. But, at the same time, we frequently observe our student-teachers. What a contradiction!
    Best wishes! W. J. Shan

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