Teaching in America
ABSTRACT: The term "teaching" is usually used in the Academy without a clear sense of what is meant, resulting in imprecise and ineffective teaching. The standard lines-that teaching is a matter of applying approved methods, that teaching is mostly a matter of teaching skills-as-means to some career or whatever-are reflective of failure in the Academy, measured in its "defect rate" of around 30 percent. The definition of teaching I sketch-skills adopted from a theoretical foundation, in turn based on a critique-is well founded in the scholarly tradition. Such a definition is, however, challenging to an Academy at the end of an ancien régime.
It has been apparent for a couple decades that something is wrong with the way we teach in this country. Most of the attention is focused on "the grades", but higher education is no longer exempt from criticism. The most alarming reports are quite consistent: Between 27 percent and 35 percent of students entering the college and university system do not complete the program they enter. (1) That so many students should be admitted, then lost along the way, is an unacceptable "defect rate".
There is a vast literary corpus on the subject of what is wrong with the teaching system. It ranges from alarming reports in the popular press to practical and anecdotal accounts, to what passes for scholarly reportage of research backed by significant public and private grants.
The popular press is, per def., popular; it favors the tangible ("readin', writin' 'n' 'rithmetic").
Scholarly reportage is contradictory, e. g.: One report, in a teachers'-union publication, tells us that two-year-college students entering upper-division study are more likely than those directly admitted to baccalaureate studies to complete the baccalaureate regimen in a timely fashion. (2) On the other hand, a review of the ERIC articles database turns up recent reports suggesting that two-year college students are not likely to complete the programs they enter, and are even less likely to enter baccalaureate programs for reasons that are unclear.
The anecdotal accounts are more puzzling. E. g.: A staffer in the thirty-year-old "experimental" college of a selective private university in the New York area reports that, despite higher-than-average SAT scores in its entering classes, students' basic skills, especially writing skills, continue to slide.
The common response to all this confusion has been to develop methods through which new teachers may be guided into paths of righteous and effective teaching of their various disciplines. The ERIC articles database is chock full of reports of this and that method for teaching this or that subject. Quite prestigious universities grant doctoral degrees to people who develop new methods. "How-to-teach" courses are increasingly a feature of graduate programs in otherwise research-oriented regimens.
Presidents and deans make it a point...