The Lost Prong of Professorship: Why Isn’t Teaching Peer-Reviewed?

In recent months I’ve joined four Facebook groups for academics each with varying themes (e.g., education, women, professors of color, etc) and have noticed a common trend across the groups (many of which share members): conversations are dominated by discourse on research and mentorship.

I can’t say I am surprised as research is the ticket to tenure and mentorship is vital to success for communities of color in the Academy. As an education professor who considers herself a teacher-scholar equally as much as a scholar-teacher I am always on the lookout for an opportunity to discuss pedagogy. I would like to learn new teaching techniques, see what other people assign for readings in an intro education course, exchange ideas for teaching difficult topics such as class and race to students who’ve never thought critically about social issues. I want opportunities to get feedback on my syllabi, my instructional methods, my assessments, my classroom persona.  I want to feel like the effort I put into teaching hundreds of students a year is as valued as time spent writing a literature review read only by other academics in my field.

I’ve suggested as much at faculty meetings and have been met with warm reception. My colleagues agree that teaching is important—it is the most important thing we do (admittedly we work at a liberal arts college so this sampling of professors is biased). Professors whom I’ve met through social media or at conferences endorse teaching less strongly, but still consider it a primary bullet point in their job description. Yet when pushed, very few of them can explain how they approach writing course objectives, choosing readings or designing assessments. They can easily explain their grading scale and rubric, but have a harder time measuring student learning beyond summative assessments. Most update their syllabi every couple of years while some haven’t changed course texts in over a decade. Words and phrases I consider endemic to teaching (e.g., pedagogy, formative assessment, curriculum) are foreign to many, even those with over 20 years in the classroom.  While these veteran professors are full of wisdom and well tested teaching strategies, I am left thinking: how can we expect our courses to be purposeful when our teaching is incidental?

Most graduate programs provide little if any training to be a teacher. I’ve heard of some programs that require PhD candidates to take a semester long course on teaching which is better than what I received: nothing. Some professors manage to leave graduate school having never been a TA. This is especially true if you are at a Research I institution and/or in a field heavily reliant on external grants. I find it fascinating that we graduate PhDs with the intention of filling tenure track faculty roles (though this is becoming less common in our current economic condition), yet we provide them with no preparation.

Teaching is one of the three prongs of evaluation in tenure and promotion but there is little guidance not only on how to teach, but also on how to improve your teaching. Teaching, like research, requires critical examination of clearly identified variables situated within a theoretical framework. When I say as much to fellow academics, I am met with silence and sometimes scorn. How dare you co-opt research terminology and apply it to the common sense act of teaching!

The silence surrounding this conversation is troublesome to me both as an educator and as an education scholar. What we do in higher education—the research we produce—informs the development and revision of policies across disciplines. The trickle down effect, especially in education, is a powerful weapon we are not wielding well. We’ve seen this with the introduction of online learning; with the prevalence of for-profit institutions; with the replacement of qualified instructors with easy-to-get cheap labor; with the downgrade of professorship as a full-time profession to an ad-hoc side job to help make ends meet. We are not setting a good example for other social institutions and certainly not for our students.

If we as the knowledgeable party in the classroom, the person of political and cognitive authority, do not take seriously our teaching, why should students take seriously their learning? Education is a dialogical process dependent upon equal contribution from teachers and learners. When you don’t know how students learn, what on Earth can you possibly contribute to the learning process?