Regular readers will know that I have been searching for (continuous) employment as a teacher. Most colleges and universities ask applicants to supply “a statement of teaching philosophy”, while a few larger entities ask for equivalent words about research. It is telling that major institutions do not often ask about teaching.
My research statement begins by admitting that the best discoveries originate in a classroom: having to explain the complex simply sharpens the mind. Page Smith, from his Killing the Spirit: Higher Education in America, says
It is my contention that the best research and the only research that should be expected of university professors is wide and informed reading in their fields and in related fields. The best teachers are almost invariably the most widely informed, those with the greatest range of interests and the most cultivated minds. That is real research, and that, and that alone, enhances teaching.
A professor with interests outside narrowly prescribed precincts can be viewed with suspicion because of the concern that his research will suffer (meaning his output of scarcely or never-read papers will drop), and if his paper count drops, the chance of his grants being funded decreases, and if his grants aren’t funded, well, I suppose he’d have to rely for his salary on student tuition, an increasingly foreign concept.
There is the feeling that in the rush towards research, the primary purpose of the college professor—to profess—has been forgotten. That isn’t true. Teaching is always proclaimed to be important. But careful observers notice that praise of teaching is in inverse proportion to the honor in which it is held. Jacques Barzun said that teaching was not a lost art but that “the regard for it is a lost tradition.”
You should hear the joy in a professor’s voice when he describes how he reduced his teaching “load.” The number of courses one must endure is always a competitive topic of conversation whenever two or more professors meet. The winner is he who teaches least.
What, then, to teach? Narrowness in instruction is sometimes to be desired. If the student has signed up for “Rebuilding the Small-Block Mopar”1, he expects and should receive specific and detailed recipe-like lessons in hot-tanking intake manifolds and the use of dial bore gages, lectures which should not include (say) discursions on how the automobile changed the South African economy under apartheid. Conversely, students in Statistics 101 should not be surprised to hear about the consequences of biased measurements of cylinder bore tapers and how this influences the joys of driving a ’64 Barracuda.
Yet many modern students and their parents will find themselves in agreement with Locke:
Can there be anything more ridiculous than that a father should waste his own money, and his son’s time, in setting him to learn the Roman language, when at the same time he designs him for a trade, wherein he, having no use of Latin, fails not to forget that little which he brought from school, and which ’tis ten to one he abhors for the ill-usage it procured him?
The dangers of treating the university as a jobs training center are illustrated by Richard Feynman and his tour of a Brazilian physics department. The students had memorized the technical details of light polarization but hadn’t the ingenuity to recognize polarized light when they saw it. About an obscure fact the students were able to regurgitate, Feynman said, “Even now, I have to think about it; they knew it cold! They even knew the tangent of the angle equals the index!” The “students had memorized everything, but they didn’t know what anything meant.”
Cardinal Newman reminded us that a university is “not a factory, or a mint, or a treadmill.” Instead, it should be a place
by which the intellect, instead of being formed or sacrificed to some particular or accidental purpose, some specific trade of profession, or study of science, is disciplined for its own sake, for the perception of its own proper object, and for its own highest culture.
John Amos Comenius (1592-1670) beat Newman to it when he said the three aims of education are, “Erudition which aims at man’s reason, moral education which aims at man’s character and independence, and piety which aims at his understanding of God”
So much for the general. As to specific methods, Aldous Huxley (I learnt this from Kenneth Minogue) railed, even a century ago, that lectures “are as much an anachronism as bad drains or tallow candles” and that it was “high time they were got rid of.” Minogue agrees that “as a device for transmitting information” they are “absurdly inefficient.”
Page Smith quotes Patricia Nelson Limerick’s observation that “lecturing is an unnatural act, an act for which providence did not design humans.” Smith continues:
The strange, almost incomprehensible fact is that many professors, just as they feel obliged to write dully, believe that they should lecture dully. To show enthusiasm is to risk appearing unscientific, unobjective; it is to appeal to the students’ emotions rather than their intellect.
Lectures cannot be avoided entirely, but they should be minimized. Lectures should be fluid: the destination is key but the exact path to it should be varied to suit the time and place. The Socratic method, an earnest, exploring, back-and-forth between professor and students is often ideal.
This is particularly so in statistics. Textbook lessons never “stick.” Memorizing formula and endless pedantic exercises are a positive menace and a bar to clear understanding and are the reason students hate statistics.
To counter this, I have students provide their own examples. Explaining uncertainty (the raison d’être of statistics) can only be done when the student knows enough about a subject to know where and how over-confidence arises. Canned examples fail at this because they appear as neat little packages, which when opened reveal pretty little results. Nothing ever goes wrong in textbooks, while in real life it always does.
1I recommend highly the seminal work on this subject by Don Taylor and Larry Hofer.