Anthropology, academia, and teaching

Thu, 3 Mar 1994 14:10:10 EST

academic setting. I found the recent comments regarding graduate students
teaching courses to be extremely interesting, considering I am a graduate
student assigned my own course. Many of you will recogize these following
statements from your own experiences.
As an undergraduate I had a number of different instructors which included
these types: 1) the untrained, unprepared graduate student, 2) the competent
enthusiastic overworked graduate student, 3) the bored graduate student who
never wanted to teach again, 4) the incompetent junior faculty, 5) the
competent junior faculty headed for a breakdown because they have to publish
and teach, 6) the junior faculty who never wanted to teach to begin with,
7) the senior faculty who loved to teach but grieved over lost pay and prestige
because they felt their first responsibilty was to their students rather than
their publication record, 8) the senior faculty who viewed teaching as a
necessary burden when they couldn't get out of it, 9) the senior faculty who
attempted to balance both research and teaching but often at the cost to their
family or health, and lastly, 10) the returning administrator who could'nt
understand how things had gotten this bad and so left after two years. I'm
sure that many of you recognize these and could add others to this list. The
point I'm attempting to make here is that good and bad instructors come at all
levels and it is based just as much on desire as years spent in the field.
I am not advocating that we should put everyone in front of a classroom who
wants to teach. What I am suggesting is that we need to assess academics on
three criteria before turning them loose on a classroom of undergraduates:
1) knowledge of the subject matter, 2) desire to teach, 3) and ability to
impart their knowledge in a stimulating fashion. I work with a number of
graduate students and faculty whose ONLY qualifications for teaching are the
degrees they have received in their area. I cannot think of a single one of
these who have received any formal training in teaching skills. Many of them
are exceptional in front of the classroom despite this but obviously some have
no business in academics TEACHING. This is not to say that they aren't good
researchers, but they couldn't teach a stone to "stay" if their life depended
on it.
We exist in a publish or perish environment that does not reward faculty
adequately for their teaching skills. I have a very close friend (#7 above)
who is responsible for my continuing education. He fired my imagination and
desire to learn, his skills in front of the classroom, regardless of size, were
a wonder, and he excited students with his knowledge. He took students under
his wing who were interested in an academic career and trained them to teach.
His methods were simple, prepare a lecture, give it to him and he would
critique it until it showed knowledge of the subject matter that was understand
able to the average student. Then and only then you were allowed to deliver it
to a class and he attended the class. Afterwards he went over your performance
with you in private suggesting ways to improve delivery. He didn't stop there
however, he also made you write exams which he critiqued. Of course all this
time spent on students and teaching resulted in his publications being as the
department chair put it "weak and not the number we expect from our faculty".
He was quietly given tenure with a small office at the end of the hall. He was
routinely given the larger intro courses and consistently looked over for
promotion and raises. This was despite the fact that his teaching skills were
superb and that low number of publications were well written and received in
academic circles.
Enter the fresh faced enthusiastic graduate student. At U of Kentucky we are
given a one week orientation on teaching by the College of Arts and Sciences
(our department didn't even have a complimentary program until myself and a
few other graduate students organiezed one last year), and are then told we are
ready to teach. Thankfully, in our department you first work as a discussion
group leader prior to teaching a course solo. You would think that the primary
instructor would take you under their wing as outlined above but I have seldom
seen this happen. Instead you see graduate students assigned to areas far out-
side of their own and given no or little guidance by the primary instructor.
In this setting we discover resentful students many of which cannot write a
sentence let alone an essay. Regardless of whose fault this is WE are the ones
who have to deal with them. My first semester as a TA I found myself spending
15 hours a week with students outside of class just teaching them to write.
My reward for this endeavor was to be told that I was focusing to much on
If you are lucky/unlucky enough to reach that level in your graduate career
where you are judged competent enough to have your own class a whole new realm
of terror awaits you. First you are given the same money as TA who only have
to grade papers or lead discussion groups. That I can live with, what I find
amazing is that not a single faculty member at this University ever sat through
one of my discussion groups to judge my ability to teach prior to assigning me
my own class. I had my MA there for I was competent to teach an Intro level
course. At the sake of sounding immodest I would like to think that I'm
a good teacher and my evaluations indicate this. This is not the point though.
The people we place in front of classroom need to be teachers not just
individuals with higher level degrees. There needs to be a system for training
graduate students to teach if they wish to pursue an academic career. There
has to be rewards for excellence in teaching as well as in research and
publication. I truly hope that this is possible because I feel that we need to
do this to improve our public image problem.

I apologize for the length of this discussion and hope that at least a few of
you made it this far.

Those who can teach, those who can't shouldn't.