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CAUT Bulletin Archives

November 2007

Teaching? What teaching?

Sandy Hershcovis’ commentary "Teaching Must Not be Trumped by Research,” (Bulletin, September 2007), was a compelling reading. But the reality is that teaching was never really in the game at all. And it’s not going to be.

Advocate teaching to an academic and the first reaction is likely to be blank incomprehension because few have the faintest idea what the word means. At best, there might be some notion it has to do with keeping up-to-date lecture notes and checking vigorously for plagiarizers. (Ever notice how many academics will spend far more time in catching people doing something the wrong way than in learning how to teach them to do it the right way?)

Little thought has been given to what the university and its various disciplines have to offer to the average undergraduate, or what that undergraduate needs. The result shows in courses that are largely information based. That puts emphasis on the rote learning aspect of the discipline which is of little use to most students, and so will be forgotten soon after the exam.

How little is learned this way would be easy to demonstrate. Just assemble any representative group that wrote a 101 exam five years after they wrote it. Give them another exam. Those few who had gone on to work in the field of the course would probably do well. But can you imagine the lack of recall of those whose main area was in a different discipline?

Another reaction will be anger. Teaching is beneath the dignity of a professor. It is “spoonfeeding” people who are “not prepared.” Even to mention teaching is to “denigrate research” because we all know (without any need for testing) that “good researchers make good teachers.” All of the academic’s training is in the discipline, and it is the act of research rather than those of teaching and communication which defines intellect. So prestige and self-esteem (and dare one say ego) are caught up in service to the discipline.

Teaching is a threat to the social assumptions of academia. And people who are threatened get angry.

All of this may explain why the obviously silly Maclean’s ratings have not been effectively countered by the universities. On the contrary, the ratings have become a powerful force in setting the pace for university development. The universities can’t fight the ratings because Maclean’s evaluates the universities much as the universities evaluate each other. They can’t fight Maclean’s because they don’t know any more about teaching than the nothing Maclean’s knows. (Nor have university administrators distinguished themselves by picking up the slack.)

But nothing will change. Ego and the myths of academia will make sure of that. And universities, while pooh-poohing ratings when they do badly, will continue to cast envious glances at those who do well, and to boast of any rise in their own ratings with a confidence that can only be founded on profound ignorance.

Graeme Decarie
History (retired)
Concordia University
Baie Verte, NB

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