In which Historiann throws her yellowed index cards from 1967 in the air in indignation


Is it just me, or is anyone else a little bewildered by this post at Inside Higher Ed called “Homework for Profs:  Perfect the Art of Teaching?”  In it, Kim Mooney says that:

  1.  Liberal Arts educators “need to talk more about what and how we teach college students” so that we can “engag[e] 21st century college students in the kind of learning that will lead to success in life, work and citizenship.”
  2. “[E]veryone’s teaching needs regular rejuvenation and context.”  (Ed. note:  “context?”)  Mooney explains:  “context means understanding how you can use your course to help students develop in ways that will serve them well in their lives.”  (Not sure that that really clears things up, but wev–she’s the Liberal Arts teaching expert!)

Mooney goes on to explain that at her liberal arts university, “our experience is that the best time to think about teaching is right after commencement, before faculty go abroad with students or start teaching summer courses. May College, as it is called, has been held for several years during the week after graduation.”  Yeah–isn’t that what you all want to do with what’s left of May after getting your final grades in?  (Do they serve Dirty Martinis and Pisco Sours in quart-sized mason jars at May College?)

I write this not as a skeptic of the value of thinking about pedagogy and of improving one’s teaching–but, and level with me, dear readers–isn’t that what we do all of the time, throughout the year, without going to workshops or special “colleges?”  Isn’t this what we do, when we assign all or mostly new books to our classes each term, so that we can keep up with the current literature in our fields (and not incidentally, avoid boring ourselves with the same old readings)?  Isn’t this what we do when reviewing previous drafts of lecture notes to see what’s outdated or less useful, and to add new material based on your current readings and research, or to speak to the specific themes we;re emphasizing in this or that semester?  Aren’t we always adding new visual images, new ideas, and new slides to our PowerPoint lectures?  Do any of us set out intentionally to bore our students to death?  Do we enjoy being out-of-date and out-to-lunch in public?

I remember hearing about that legendary college professor who worked from yellowed note cards, or off of lecture notes on legal paper from the 1930s that hadn’t been revised since they were first drafted.  Remember him?  Me neither.  I never met that guy or took his class–it was always someone’s brother’s roommate, or someone’s girlfriend’s sister who was in that class, and usually at another college or university.  That professor is largely an urban legend, but “Centers for Teaching and Learning” are set up and funded to guard against him in universities across the country.  (Do they also sponsor a “Center for Defense Against Unicorn Attack?”)

Historiann’s college experience is lost in the mists of time, back in the late twentieth century, but I don’t think that things have changed all that much in the 21st century, and especially not with liberal arts education.  Unless I’m grievously mistaken, reading books, grappling with ideas, and writing essays and research papers are still central to liberal arts education.  As I wrote some time ago, we all know what works–we don’t need clickers or Blackboard or even PowerPoint, although if you’ve figured out how to make those technologies work for you, that’s great.  The question is, do even small liberal arts colleges (let along large universities) give us the resources we need to make liberal arts education effective?  In sum, why are there so many workshops urging faculty to learn to teach better, and so few workshops urging universities to hire more regular faculty and dramatically improve the faculty-to-student ratio? 

Whose interests are really being served here, in advancing the notion that liberal arts professors need to be taught how to teach?

After all, liberal arts colleges should be broadcasting the good news that liberal arts faculty are cheaper than business, engineering, and science professors–universities can get so much more for their money if they’d hire some more regular liberal arts faculty, instead of sponsoring these numberless workshops that imply that liberal arts faculty don’t know what the hell they’re doing, and need to be “rejuvenated” to cope with the twenty-first century. 

UPDATED 8/7/08:  Since many commenters here, and Paul Harvey over at Religion in American history, have introduced “assessment” into the discussion (which is different but clearly related to CTLs), I thought many of you might enjoy this discussion of assessment at Inside Higher Ed today called “Do We Assess Learning?  Pull up a Chair…” by Bernard Fryshman.  He very patiently explains the difficulty in assessing learning in any easily quantifiable way, and pays admirable attention to the effort students put into learning, too.

0 thoughts on “In which Historiann throws her yellowed index cards from 1967 in the air in indignation

  1. GayProf–you’re too cynical! I think there’s great value in a LibArts education, if only institutions would let the faculty do it right. (And without these made-up Centers for Teaching and Learning!) I thought that colleges and universities were, you know, in themselves centers for teaching and learning!


  2. I worked at a university where we spent a lot of time talking about — and for us jr. profs, showing that we cared about — teaching. Seminars, lectures, and even extra research money for teaching innovations. Good intention, but after a while all the talk about teaching took up valuable prep time.

    As far as the old notes…one of my history profs at the liberal arts college where I earned my undergrad degree taught from old, yellowing notes. But what he had to say was interesting!!


  3. This is the Assessment mob, coming to a campus near you. Metrics-and-measurement, methodology, the “scholarship of pedagogy” (talk about an urban legend), the whole package of crap. Anything to not have to get into an archive.

    That last-century stuff you’re talking about, Historiann, is now called “content,” and while its obviously somewhat important, it’s kind of like what air freight companies deliver inside the packages. The valued associates at the A-F company don’t have to know much about what’s inside the boxes, just the metrics and measurement of getting it there on-time–yesterday even. Something like that anyway. These zombies fly each other in to each others’ campuses to pass out the donuts, do the powerpoints, and pick up the honorariums. Next year you get to “do” my campus. Whole curriculums are falling to this stuff–mine for example; “getting in touch with your inner Normal School” it might be called. When you need a break from Assessing you get to help the Librarians (now rebranded as information technologists) decide which journals to cancel. (My department put _Signs_ at the top of the “to kill” list a few years back and when I squalked about it, they said “what is _Signs_?!?) College is not your grandpa’s bricks-and-mortar, that’s for sure.

    On the yellow notes part, I got a piece of sage advice years ago: write your lectures on yellow legal paper.
    They will only turn whiter over the years, rather than the other way around! Thanks for this post; I’ve been wanting to primal-scream on this subject for years!


  4. Yeah–I agree, Rad. I guess I’m just a discipline-bound, narrow specialist, but call me crazy: reading in my own field (and in other allied fields in history, cultural studies, literature, etc.) makes me smarter and gives me ideas about teaching as well as about my own research interests. And, no teaching “expert” can prescribe the curriculum in my field that will inspire me.

    Good story about the yellowed notes guy. Maybe some have yellowed notes because they worked, and continue to work? And, aren’t universities supposed to serve as a storehouse for learning as well as generate new knowledge? (But on principle, I still think the guy is largely a chimera.)


  5. Mooney explains: “context means understanding how you can use your course to help students develop in ways that will serve them well in their lives.”

    Uh, yeah…last class I taught, I did just that. I got more than a few comments in the post-semester course evaluations that the kiddies didn’t like paying to hear me pontificate about their lives.

    It’s all about job training, yo!

    Sadly, this was a writing class [that stressed argumentation] required for the major [apparently the head faculty didn’t trust the Freshman Comp people to teach them the basics], so I kept trying to get the students on-board by explaining how this is useful not just for the major, or their career, but also in everyday life. But using evidence [not snagged from Wikipedia] is too hard! About half the students would have failed the course if I hadn’t graded, shall we say, creatively… [zeroes for plagiarism instead of auto-F’s, readjusting rubrics for points, that sort of thing].

    P.S. The comments over on the IHE article speak volumes. Rah @ assessment!


  6. So many things to say, so little time.

    I did have one of those profs who lectured from notes-his were actually laminated and in a three ring binder. But the man understood 8 languages, 6 of them dead. He had written 5 books by then. A dying breed, I think.

    I fear that the workshop is intended for the adjunct. The person who is teaching so many classes (many of them intro level) that they need the tools provided by textbook publishers (someone must use those test banks, or they wouldn’t make them) and well minded administrators who realize they are being exploitative so offer workshops to ease their guilt.

    My theory is that the investment in one’s teaching is directly proportional to the number of hours one spends teaching, and its an inverse relationship! Contrary to what “teaching institutions” like to claim, the profs I’ve met who spend the most time thinking about their teaching are those who are at research universities, and teach the least comparatively.

    Makes sense to me.


  7. o.k., I clicked on the link and read the thing. The standard firey-eyed New Light swill, heavy on the latest talking points from the hot tubs of Asheville. The hillarious thing about these programatics that stem from the “pressure on universities to be more accountable” is that said pressure doesn’t really exist. There IS such pressure, mind you, it just doesn’t exist where it’s attributed to be, out there among the outraged American populace. If some big foundation put up a million dollar “Templeton-type” prize for locating it, no one in the country could go within a one mile radius of hir door and find anyone who, unprompted, would identify “the need for universities to be more accountable about the outcomes of their teaching” as being among the top hundred American problems. The “pressure” comes from intermediate levels of the Consultant-Industrial Complex whose practitioners are standing by–at the drop of a big check–to fly in and workshop and breakout-group the “problem” to death at your institution’s T & L Center. [Honorary degree to follow]


  8. I was a t.a. for that yellowed-note professor!

    I take serious exception to anyone who suggests that teachers as a professional class have little interest in the actual practice of their profession. Who says these things, and for what reason? Do they know any teachers? Are they creating strawmen?

    The real issue has to do with us being able to be informed of the current research in whatever we are teaching, and then being able to ascertain if our students are truly understanding that information, however they receive it. All of the teaching and learning workshops, PowerPoint presentation, and Blackboard supplements (all of which, incidently, I personally enjoy) are not going to do a damn thing if instructors are so overworked that they can neither read the latest scholarship nor devote sufficient time to comment on their students’ work. Like you say, Historiann, more teachers and smaller classes are the best path to improved teaching.

    There seems to be some systemic breakdown between us here in the trenches and those who make policy and funding decisions. I have a sneaking suspicion that this is all somehow connected — at least in history — to this creeping layman desire to make the subject all about “the facts.” How can “the facts” change in such a way that we instructors would need to keep reading? Why should “the facts” be tested in any other way than multiple choice?

    (And ej: ouch! That hurts! I teach a 5/5 load with at least 3 preps and 30 students to each class at a “Learning centered” institution. I can’t NOT think about teaching. Given the number of hours in a day, it’s a mathematical impossibility!)


  9. Wow–I guess you’re all a bunch of fogies, young and old! Heh.

    Clio B.: I think what ej is saying is that very frequently, hours in the classroom and grading compete with one’s desire to want to be creative and try new things in teaching. At least, that’s how it worked with me: I went from teaching a 3-3 to a 2-2 load, and I’m pretty sure I spend about the same time each week on teaching–I just have time now to go to the library to track down that obscure fact or primary source, and I had time to teach myself PowerPoint and develop some lectures illustrated by many interesting images and material objects to help my students visualize the Americas before 1800. And since I teach fewer classes, I can add more new books to the syllabus each term than before.

    Your classes look small enough that you can have class discussions, supervised small-group work, etc., and experiment with a variety of ways of presenting and talking about information and ideas. ej’s teaching load is 3-3, but most of her classes are capped at 60, so you can see why she feels trapped and crushed by her workload in ways that maybe you and I don’t. And yes, she teaches at a “teaching institution,” which as far as I can tell doesn’t really mean that they care about the quality of teaching, but rather put the focus on the quantity.


  10. Tuition-paying parents are the lifeblood of the educational consulting industry. If Junior bombs out, it’s the teacher’s fault. Since it’s the teacher’s fault, the university’s reputation must suffer. (Cue the great & mighty ed. consultant for immediate relief!)

    What a crock! This crap is just an updated version of “WAAAH! The teacher doesn’t like me!”

    I was one of the lucky ones. I taught French I & II at the university level. If Junior doesn’t learn the words, he can’t freakin’ pass. Period. “Assessment modeling” crap can only be used to intimidate profs in courses where grades are based on subjective criteria. Plus, it’s the only way that administrators (non-academics) can bully faculty.

    Teachers at any academic level are the perfect target for bullies. “The Fifth Discipline” by Senge was all the rage back in the 90’s, and I’ll bet today’s ed. consultants are still stealing material from those pages (“Systems thinking” & “Learning organizations” are key points in the book). As long as Junior’s entry-level salary and biz advancement are used to assess the merits of higher ed. institutions, we’re all screwed.


  11. Hi Delilah–interesting points. I hadn’t considered that some of the “consumers” might be driving assessment. You’re right: perhaps one thing that Liberal Arts professors need to remind others of is that a failure to learn rests primarily with the student. We assign books, schedule lectures and discussions, and set deadlines for student essays. If students aren’t reading and writing, how can they learn? One of the things I like best about the Liberal Arts is that learning is relatively self-directed, compared to trade school and technical fields. That should be our first line of defense against questions or complaints about our teaching.


  12. EJ, my comments were meant in good humor — really! Although I do confess that my hackles tend to go up when people criticize teachers at non-reasearch institutions. I apologize if that came off nasty, mosr so no that I see that you come from the same — if not a worse — place as I do. 60 students in a class? That’s not education, that’s an assembly line. I can see your frustration at “teaching institutions.” My complaints about class size go double for you since you have double the number of students. Who thinks that’s a good idea? That is, who outside of the marketing department? Also, who can change this?

    I have this image of teaching: you lead a horse (or a mule, a very stubborn mule) to water, but you flat out cannot make it drink.


  13. Theoretically one could respectably hold the opinion that assessment is a legitimate thing; I just don’t buy it from an epistemological perspective. But at the departmental level it’s a matter of practice (or praxis as the SSED folks say). It came to my department thusly: an about to retire SSED coordinator smuggled it in laterally to the last department meeting of the year, off-agenda, and lobbed the grenade onto the table, fibbing here and there about the details. That summer a dutiful colleague hammered together a boilerplate assessment “matrix” to be affixed to the end of a syllabus. It migrated virally through the department, being affixed with minor titular variations from course to course. If you were smart or dumb enough to bail at this point you were out of the fray, but most people dutifully affixed it. These got “mapped” into a u-wide system. To this point, and thereafter until now, there was NEVER a single word of discussion in the department about how (or whether) to do this! At grading time those “mapped” got e-prompted to provide assessment signifiers as well as old-paradigm grades. Since this was another b.s. requirement standing between people and the winter break, and since none of this stuff would ever appear on an actual transcript, pretty much everybody just winged it, or worse, tossing in numbers or signifiers, perhaps approximately correlating with the grade curve. These books then got cooked by (somebody), and the resulting aggregate “data” got sent to the “Electronic Evidence Room” (you can’t make this stuff up!!), accessible only to various external accreditors, especially the always-dreaded “Middle States” swat squads. Thus did one (sub)unit respond to systemic demands for “accountability” for the effectiveness of its teaching. The credibility of our PhD’s in the general public esteem as indicators of expertise is what gets mortgaged as the coerced guarantors in this third-hand “data” creation scheme. So my question is: how does this differ from a group of rogue experimental clinicians painting 43% of the frog (or mouse) bellies black and 57% of them white, photographing the experimental “results,” and thereby salvaging the twenty author paper published in _Science_ or _Nature_ that will get “retracted” ten years later? Moral: Praxis leads to retraxis, mark my words!


  14. When they say you need to learn how to teach they mean you need to find a way to get the student good grades without having them make any effort or having any of their convictions challenged.


  15. I thick Clio Bluestocking is right. Mooney should have asked “How do we make liberal arts education relevant and interesting to students who don’t want to be in the classroom but need a degree?.” In my experiance, as college graduation becomes increasing standard, state schools have become increasing crowded with students whose mentalitiy is “Cs get degrees.” And this creates a large discrepency between students that actually want to learn something and students who want to get out as quickly as possible. And for those students who want to be challenged, a liberal arts degree is incredibly rewarding, while those others leave thinking they wasted 4 years of their life.


  16. Mary, don’t you think the question should instead be addressed to students: “Why the hell are you (the not-Marys of the world) pursuing a Liberal Arts degree, if you don’t enjoy reading and writing and don’t see the value in what you’re doing?” Get the college degree you need in a field you enjoy and are interested in.

    That strikes me as the barest minimum of student responsiblity. No one at my university is rounding up people at gunpoint and forcing them to major in History, English, Art, or Anthropology, etc. If that’s not what you want to do, just don’t do it! (Duh!)


  17. CB, no offense taken. And actually, its not quite that bad. Only one of my three classes caps at 60, the other two come in around 30.

    And I should have chosen my words more carefully. I didn’t mean to suggest that those with smaller loads are better teachers, or even enjoy it more. They just seem to resent it less than those of us who teach more and have less time for research.


  18. I think that it is a question that should absolutely be addressed to students. However, I think as Delilah pointed out, a lot of the times it isn’t the students who are the really the “consumers” of a university eduation but the parents—so people like Mooney step in and tell Professors they need to revamp their methods.


  19. Historiann, with regard to your response to Mary:

    Undergrads still have to take core requirements and electives. That’s the liberal arts stuff that needs them to do the reading and writing and even arithmetic-ing they seem so reluctant to engage in. Some undergrads really do feel like they were rounded up at gunpoint and forced to take these oppressive liberal arts courses.

    Lots of them just don’t want to accept that as part of the package they signed up for. As you say, it’s “the barest minimum of student responsiblity,” but so many undergrads really are just too irresponsible to be in college.

    Do you know how often I wanted to say, “Yes, buttercup, you still need to write well even though this isn’t an English class”? And I taught in Communication! Not exactly the department of Rocket Surgery. And I bet everyone posting here has the same experience. “This is History class! You can’t grade me on grammar!”

    The alternative for some of these people is some sort of trade school [which will still have those requirements, just less of them]. And that violates the whole You_Must_Go_To_College myth that has been drilled into them by the culture at large. They don’t understand what college is supposed to be about.

    I’m depressed now. I need a cookie.


  20. I’d like to mount a (small) defense of the teaching and learning center–they and the programs they offer aren’t entirely bollocks. The one at my university, for example, runs a seminar on responding to student writing in ways that are clear, efficient, and helpful (to the student, that is). It was incredibly useful to me in my first year as a graduate student TA. Concrete, well-defined programs like these can play an important role in training graduate students as teachers, not just researchers (especially in departments where the culture does not prioritize good teaching and critical, open discussion of what makes for good teaching).

    By the way, thanks for a great blog–I’ve been reading for a while, and have only now stepped in to comment.


  21. Beth–thanks for stopping by to comment. I’m glad that you found your university’s CTLC useful–I’m sure that many are good resources for teachers. I just objected to the notion (in the linked article) that all liberal arts professors need to go to a “May college” workshop to learn how to teach “21st century students.” But, just as I righteously complained about painting all lib arts profs with a broad brush, I shouldn’t have suggested that all CTLCs were useless.

    But, whether CTLCs are useless or entirely useful or something in-between, I was hoping to raise the all-important meta question: who wins and who loses when liberal arts professors are portrayed as being bad or clueless teachers who need constant retraining and monitoring? This frame, like other frames, seems to me to be a means for shaking public confidence in higher education, and thus a means for weakening public support for higher ed.


  22. And can I say I am rather heartened that a few posters commented that sometimes those “old” lectures their profs used were often good ones. [At least that’s the impression I got.]

    One of my fave profs had essentially taught the same course for like 25 years when I became her TA. Over the years, she sometimes added a lecture, replaced a lecture, shifted lectures around. But, in the end, the same class had been taught the same way for decades. She had multiple copies of her lecture notes in a drawer in her desk she’d frantically scramble to pull out to practice before class. I always joked she should be able to wing-it since she gave the same lectures about 6 times a year.

    And it was an awesome class! She would sometimes bring up new examples, or mention new research, but, in general, those same brilliant lectures she gave 15 years ago will be just as good now [in terms of content] since certain historical phenomena [like the development of ideas] don’t change [much].

    But then, as a historian, I hope that’s not some heretical statement I just made on your blog! hehe

    I just resent that whole mentality of new=better. Sometimes what worked for years still works now. Innovation can be good, but what does one do if the innovation is broken? Use the tried-and-true perhaps?

    It’s like the pettiness I sometimes read about “deadwood faculty,” as if some of them haven’t earned a little rest before retirement. Old =/= obsolete.


  23. Paul–great rant!

    The_Myth, I’m kind of surprised that so many commenters knew a prof like that, except that (as you point out in the example you cite) the notes served as a solid base that was rehearsed and then riffed on/added to. Some may have been embellished more and more regularly than others, but if your old prof was expected to deliver that series of lectures 6 times a year (implying that she at at minimum a 3-3 course load), what can anyone expect?

    As many have pointed out here, and as Paul discusses over at his blog, CTLC workshops and clickers do not equal “good teaching for the 21st century” (and still less “assessment. Didn’t we used to call that “grades” back in the old days? Why the bureaucratic demands for more numbers moved around in different ways?) Lower teaching loads spread across more regular faculty is the way to go. Do they have CTLCs at Amherst, Haverford, Wellesley, Bryn Mawr, and Middlebury? My bet is that they offer high-quality education because of their low student-to-teacher ratios, and their fame precedes them (and they charge accordingly.) But, I’d love to know. (I don’t know if anyone at those places reads this blog–if you’re out there, please comment.)


  24. I had an anthropology prof my freshman year who was awkward, mumbled, lost his place, looked gray and haggard, had an awful iron-burn on a white shirt that you could practically read the manufacturer’s name on, and it wasn’t just a one-day disaster. He wore it every week! It was truly uncomfortable to be there. But he said at least two things–one on physical anthropology, the other cultural–that I can recall to this day, and days of processing the points and whether or not I agreed with them. The same term I had a psychology instructor who was cooler than Carnaby Street (Beatlesque ref), still a grad student at Ohio State called in to replace the sick regular. We raved about his class, in fact it WAS a rave, though we didn’t have that terminology then. He wrote incredibly flattering things on a paper I did, almost suggested that I publish it. But I can’t recall anything that he actually said in class. If we’d had evaluations then, it’s easy to see who would have been buried and who praised, but fortunately we didn’t. Where’s the method and where the madness, then, in teaching? (BTW, I just checked my transcript, and the anthro guy gave me a C, while the psych-godhead issued an A, but I’m staying with the above, um, assessment!)


  25. Historiann–certainly, I agree with you on the importance of the meta-question, and potential perniciousness of the meta-answer. I also think teaching and learning centers are in part a product of the economics of higher education in the last ~30 years–something has to be done with all those excess Ph.D.s, and teaching and learning centers (and admin in general, I guess) are one place to put them. I sometimes wonder–in agreement with your post of 6.05 am–if we wouldn’t all be better off if universities were structured such that the people staffing teaching centers (who have, presumably, a strong interest in teaching well) were able to get jobs as professors in the disciplines in which they trained.


  26. The_Myth: I’ve actually gotten that exact evaluation–“This is history class…”–a number of times, and I’ve only been teaching for a few years.

    As for the old weathered notes, I agree with the main arguments in this post, but I did have that terrible professor who just pulled out notes and read them aloud so to me it isn’t a myth. It was all lecture, every day (a 4-day a week class) and there was absolutely no discussion. It was the worst class I took in undergrad, and it honestly turned me off to being a U.S. history professor (although I “saw the light” and did in fact go back to my first love). So, sadly, that person does exist. And he still teaches at my undergrad institution.


  27. Well, I’m sorry that you were stuck in a class like that, HE. I suppose every professor we’ve had was an instructive example for those of us who went into higher ed: some offered examples worthy of emulation, while others were case studies in how not to run a classroom.

    I wonder if we can get a cable show like “What Not to Wear,” called “How Not to Teach,” with expert teachers swooping in to offer assistance for the pedagogically challenged (as well as tips for sprucing up the classroom wardrobe)?


  28. Pingback: Assess this : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present

  29. Pingback: Modern graduate studies and the value of historiography : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present

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