The bad teaching I suffered through as a student and have seen in other teachers – and in my own case – tends to emerge when the teacher forgets the students. A simple enough concept, but the causes are more complex than they may appear.
Of course, there are the more obvious causes of bad teaching – the teacher who can’t be bothered to put in the time required for competent, let alone excellent, teaching, because he or she is too consumed with writing the next article or chasing the next grant. This doesn’t happen as often as rumored, but it does happen. Then there are faculty who have just checked out as both scholars and teachers.
But the problem is less “bad teachers,” a concept which tends to misrepresent the problem and unhelpfully stigmatize professors, than “bad teaching.” Many teachers put in long hours, but effective teaching, like effective learning, is not a direct effect of time put in. The problem is that in preparing – and I’ve certainly been guilty of this – they forget that students are neither buckets to be filled nor versions of us.
Effective teaching typically requires reverse engineering, working backwards from where you want students to go and keeping in mind where they are starting from. Like all metaphors, “reverse engineering” has its limits since the start and finish are often complex and vary somewhat with the individual student, and some attention must be paid to where they want to go.
This pedagogical progress, however, is less likely to emerge if teachers in their good-faith preparation do not provide air pockets, to switch metaphors. This is to say we teachers are prone to forget that to gauge whether students are really getting the concepts at hand, they need time to talk, to ask questions, to think through things, aloud and in writing.
Being a teacher comes with many temptations, not least of which is the siren song of one’s own voice – again, I’m guilty. And some students, even good ones, can be fooled into thinking they are learning when they witness a powerful performance of this type. But while engaging lectures certainly have their place, lecturing is only one string in a good teacher’s bow. Overused, it makes students passive; and this is a predictable effect of not making students visible in the first place, of keeping them in mind, of keeping them in the center of things – which is where they must be.
Steve Newman is the editor of the Faculty Herald, as well as a professor of English at Temple University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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