Why are some college faculty members such terrible teachers?
The real question is: How is it that some are so good!??
Faculty hold the only positions that I know of in the U.S. where the stated job qualifications don’t match the job performance requirements. Faculty are appointed for their scholarship and, then, once in the job, there’s a bait and switch. Now, they are expected to write memos, teach undergraduates and graduate students, run strategic and academic planning committees and divisional meetings, master departmental and school budgets, use technology in pedagogically effective ways, and lead change in the fraught and complicated higher education landscape. But they have never had the opportunity to learn to do any of that. They have been encouraged to research, write, present, and publish. Not learn to teach, manage, and lead!
Faculty members are appointed because they have done great research and written in ways that are acceptable within their field. They have published some, can give an engaging “job talk” to their future departmental colleagues, and seem to be garnering the esteem of others in their field of inquiry. They are hired on the basis of their scholarship, their ability to think, write, test hypotheses, and advance the progress of human thought. Never in a hiring conversation with a faculty member will you hear “committee work” or “teaching” or “budget management” discussed. And if you tried, you would be scorned by your colleagues.
Yet, year after year, new faculty members join departments and are expected to do all of these things that weren’t part of the conversation during the hiring process. How the heck are they supposed to lead and manage people, committee, and budgets if they have had to focus all of the noble pursuit of advancing human erudition?
In the meantime, millions of high school students have decided to say YES to a particular college because of the strength of the academic departments. They have high hopes. And, of course, they are paying high fees. And yet no one who is going to teach those students has ever been given the chance to learn to teach. Of course, there are a couple of “born teachers,” but they are few and far between.
So, if you have a great teacher for your Economics, Spanish, Politics, Religion, Computer Science, or Geography class, count yourself lucky. That faculty member has taken it upon him- or herself to research pedagogy, to practice, and to become good at engaging students. It’s not a requirement of the job, and yet they have made the time to do it. Thank them. Let them know how much you appreciate them.
Oh, and by the way, good teaching is not going to help the tenure-track faculty member get tenure. The advice they receive time and time again is not to focus on teaching, but to get that next book or paper out. So, they are endeavoring to become a good teacher out of a sense of ethical responsibility. To you. The student.
When you really think about it, this is a ridiculous state of affairs. Isn’t it time we address this systemically? Shouldn’t faculty be given the time and reasonable chance to learn to teach students, manage budgets and committees, and lead change in the higher education landscape? The future of higher education depends on it.