Paul L. Caron

Thursday, October 3, 2019

Dorf: The Myth Of The Professor Uninterested In Teaching

Michael C. Dorf (Cornell), The Myth of the College or University Professor Uninterested in Teaching:

From time to time I hear from former students. Whether they are reporting on their successes (or much less frequently, their challenges), seeking a reference for a job, or asking for my advice on a case on which they're working, I'm almost always glad to hear from them—although my policy with respect to advice on cases is to help only with matters that they are handling pro bono and then only if they've cleared my involvement with the client and/or the lead attorney. Occasionally, a student will write a simple note of thanks, which is invariably gratifying. Sometimes the note of thanks is a backhanded compliment, as in "I'm surprised that something I learned in your class turns out to be useful in practice."

Very occasionally I receive a note like the one I was incredibly gratified and humbled to receive last week, from a recent graduate just generally thanking me for my guidance. When that sort of thing happens, I usually feel some regret at not having done the same for the teachers and mentors who were instrumental in my own intellectual and professional development. ...

My own experience as a student turns out to be fairly typical. I had great teachers who were also great scholars. I had not-so-great teachers who were great scholars. I had great teachers who were not-so-great scholars or not scholars at all. And I had not-so-great teachers who were not scholars or not-so-great scholars. There was for me, as in general, no correlation between teaching and scholarly acumen.

And yet, a widely believed view holds that, at least in research universities like the ones I attended and have taught at for my entire career, top scholars are at best indifferent to teaching. I want to push back on that view, at least a little. Before doing so, however, I should acknowledge the more-than-a-kernel of truth that underwrites the view: Research universities appoint, tenure, and otherwise reward people based chiefly on their scholarship, paying substantially less attention to teaching and other duties of the job (such as service via committee work), thereby creating incentives for faculty to prioritize their research over their teaching.

I fully acknowledge both the priority scheme of universities and its incentive effects. Nonetheless, in my long-ago experience as a student and in my many years of experience as a faculty member, I have been consistently impressed by the fact that the vast majority of my colleagues care a great deal about their teaching--even the ones who are not-so-great teachers. Assuming my observation is correct, one might ask what explains the phenomenon.

The short answer is psychological: People--including faculty at research universities--want to be thought to be doing a good job. That's true generally but especially true in teaching, where one gets constant informal feedback in the form of student looks of either boredom or engagement and either bewilderment or enlightenment. End-of-class student evaluations are another arena in which faculty want to be seen by the students in a positive light. ...

Research universities prioritize scholarship over teaching, but they do not denigrate teaching. To do so could be counterproductive in any event. I cannot speak for everyone, but in my experience my scholarship informs my teaching and vice-versa. That's not a necessary condition for good teaching. As I've acknowledged, there is no correlation between scholarly prominence and teaching, and one can be an excellent teacher without being a scholar at all. But teachers who are also scholars will often find that the two enterprises support one another.

I'm sure there are university teachers out there who don't care about or enjoy teaching. They're a small minority. The rest of us should disavow their attitude.

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I'm trying to think of a law professor I had who evinced even a modicum of interest in his or her classes or students. Thinking... thinking... Nope. There was no one.

Posted by: Unemployed Northeastern | Oct 3, 2019 8:14:53 AM