Right after I gave my opening lecture on Oedipus the King to the
30 employees of Los Angeless criminal justice system, I handed out a
few pages of notes I would have taken if I were sitting in their
seats listening to the likes of me.
They were taking my course, Introduction to Humanities, as part a
special program leading to a college degree, and I knew from a
survey I gave them that many hadnt been in a classroom in a long
time and some didnt get such great educations when they were. So we
spent the last half hour of the class comparing my notes with the
ones they had just taken, talking about the way I signaled that
something was important, how they could separate out a big idea from
specific facts, how to ask a question without looking like a dummy.
I taught that humanities course more than 30 years ago, but I was
thinking about it as I read the new report from the National
Commission on Higher Education Attainment, College Completion Must
Be Our Priority. The report is a call to leaders in higher
education to increase graduation rates by scheduling courses and
services to accommodate working adults, developing more on-line
learning, easing the ability of students to transfer, and
implementing a host of other sensible solutions to the many barriers
that are contributing to Americas stagnating college graduation
But if we want more students to succeed in college, then colleges
have to turn full attention to teaching.
To their credit, the authors of the college completion report
call for better professional development for college faculty;
however, most reports of this type have little to say about
teaching, focusing instead on structural and administrative reforms
outside the classroom. It is a glaring omission.
Perhaps the authors of these reports believe that teaching is
such an individual activity that not much can be done to affect it.
Another reason has to do with the way college teaching gets
defined in practice. Faculty become experts in a field, and then
they pass on their knowledge to others through college courses. Some
teachers get very good at this delivery compelling lectures,
creative demonstrations, engaging discussions, and useful
assignments. But professors dont usually think beyond their subjects
to the general intellectual development of the undergraduates before
them, to enhancing the way they learn and make sense of the world.
Finally, I dont see much evidence at the policy level of a deep
understanding of college-level teaching or a respect for its craft.
The problem starts in the graduate programs where college
instructors are minted. Students learn a great deal about, lets say,
astrophysics or political science, but not how to teach it. They
might assist in courses and pay attention to how their professors
teach, but none of this is systematic or a focus of study or
And there is rarely a place in the curriculum to consider the
difficulties students might have as they learn how to think like an
astrophysicist or political scientist. And then there are the
reading and writing difficulties that can emerge when encountering a
discipline for the first time. …