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Thursday, September 12, 2019

Dorf on the irrepressible myth of the great scholar/bad teacher

My experience, as a student and faculty member, lines up with Mike's: I have had, as teachers and colleagues, many excellent scholars who also were also excellent teachers. And I would add another category: Great scholars who are not great teachers, but want to be  and, even well into their careers, think a lot about teaching and how to improve. The archetype of the "prof who can't be bothered with teaching" is not a thing--or no more of a thing than the insurance salesman who can't be bothered. There are always people who are not good at their jobs.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on September 12, 2019 at 04:48 PM in Howard Wasserman, Teaching Law | Permalink

Comments

I understand Mike's point not to be that there aren't prolific scholars who are weak teachers (these do exist), but that being a great scholar doesn't mean or require that one is incapable of being a good teacher or to dislike teaching. This cultural myth is both unnecessary and destructive: it undercuts the value (and rewards) of teaching on some faculties (in ways that might make it hard for the not-great-but-wanting-to-be-better professors to learn from their colleagues), and it justifies the "security blanket" approach previously mentioned in which underperforming faculty can justify (to themselves and others) their unwillingness to take the risk of writing.

I'd like to frame this from the perspective of a junior prof: as a new academic aspiring to be a good scholar, I also care deeply about teaching. On the entry-level job market, however, one is given the advice *not* to talk about teaching (or at least not to talk about it *too* much) with faculties of certain schools because it could signal a lack of interest in scholarship. That is absurd! The two are not mutually exclusive (and I'm grateful to have ended up at a school where the senior faculty are openly enthusiastic both about their scholarship and about their teaching). But this is a self-perpetuating myth, and the best way to combat it is for professors who love both writing and teaching (and I expect that's a healthy majority of the law profs out there) to talk openly and warmly about both pursuits, especially with students and aspiring professors.

Posted by: Maggie Gardner | Sep 18, 2019 10:46:45 AM

Howard,

I think if you want to see them, venture out of the law school and start looking at the dregs of the undergraduate faculty ranks. It's not great scholar/bad teacher, but rather non-scholar/bad teacher. And I don't mean it as a dig at those professors (I'm one of them) -- this is by the universities' own design. None of those faculty members want it.

Obviously a lot of YMMV here, but I've heard enough stories from elsewhere to think my experience isn't exactly an oddity. Roughly a third of all faculty now are adjuncts, and they're not all the semi-retired venerable giants of industry coming to the university as a sort of public service to share their knowledge. There's a bunch of freshly minted PhDs working at 3 universities at a time because it's the only way to get a toe hold in academia. ...Until they drop 1-2 universities because bar tending pays more and doesn't have any papers to grade.

I don't think it really matters how much potential you have as a teacher or how dedicated you are to your students if you're teaching 7 courses a semester; you simply do not have the time or mental capacity to be a great teacher.

My university administration, with a straight face, says that a 3-credit course takes an adjunct 7 hours per week (in and out of class). That's the lie they have to tell to make the math work so they don't have to pay out any benefits, but if we only did that much work the whole damn university would implode. Our "professional development fund" comes out to less than $25 per adjunct per year, and is only big enough that 23 (out of over 600) of us can actually get the full amount. Why? Because professional development, scholarly research and all of that isn't considered part of our job. Our job is to show up to class, hold office hours, grade papers, go home, and if we want to develop as scholars, that's something we do on our own time as if it were just a hobby utterly unrelated to our teaching.

I do agree that the great scholar/bad teacher thing doesn't make a whole lot of sense. The skills and knowledge that go into being a great scholar have a lot of overlap with being a great teacher. But, the whole point might be moot in a generation if universities continue their trend of hiring people for non-scholar positions and then not even giving them the support they need to be great teachers.

Posted by: Derek Tokaz | Sep 15, 2019 8:02:32 AM

Mileage may vary. But Michael's point was he has not seen that person. Neither have I. He probably exists. But not in the numbers people believe.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Sep 14, 2019 12:05:15 PM

I agree with Sept 12 grinch about the "security blanket," but, there are far too many "I'm a great scholar" faculty under that blanket too. Their rationale goes - because I'm such a great scholar (a legend in their own mind), this teaching is insignificant and beneath me. So, they do it but focus the other 99% on research. Such a mind (that clearly exceeds "the others") might consider seeking refuge in a Think Tank! But remember, you chose a law SCHOOL! If you're unwilling to get good at teaching ... or unable ... a SCHOOL is an inappropriate place to occupy.

Posted by: Anon | Sep 14, 2019 11:59:08 AM

Classroom instruction is only part of what being a good teacher entails. It may be the availability of the good scholar for student questions and mentoring, their willingness to assign work that requires feedback, or the sincerity of their interest in their students’ wellbeing that students/others observe. Of course a non scholar could be a bad teacher in all of these same respects, but they are recognized by students/others as just the “bad plumber” who can’t do most of their job competently. But when someone is a good scholar their excellence as a scholar is presumed to be some evidence that they could also be a better teacher (both inside and outside the classroom).

Posted by: Thom | Sep 14, 2019 8:41:17 AM

Anon: Interesting. In reading the Inside piece, I thought it had limited application to law school because there is such a historic folkway for the Socratic Method and against lecturing. Even a professor struggling to be liked will not reduce to cold lecture because the law-school folkway is too strong.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Sep 13, 2019 10:22:51 PM

I agree with my fellow Grinch. My sense is that to be a great teacher, you have to love teaching (or at least want to get to a place where you can love it).

Many of my colleagues do not seem to like teaching at all. Teaching makes them anxious and angry, and they blame the students as opposed to looking inward and considering whether they are in the right profession. That said, I agree that teacher/scholar is a false dichotomy, because most of the bad teachers are not good scholars, either. There's a lot of dead weight in the academy.

Posted by: Atticus Grinch | Sep 13, 2019 3:37:03 PM

One challenge is how we define and measure great teachers. You may have seen the recent study (summary here: https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2019/09/09/study-how-smooth-talking-professors-can-lull-students-thinking-theyve-learned-more) showing that student perceptions of the quality of their learning don't always match assessments of what they have learned. We are evaluated by students every semester in ways that many of us recognize as imperfect, but I don't think most institutions are trying to rigorously assess student learning outcomes as a way to evaluate teaching, so the student evals end up being our only measure of teaching quality. Does that skew our incentives as teachers looking to improve our technique--prioritizing entertainment and fluency over deep and challenging thinking because that's what the students want rather than what they need?

Posted by: anon | Sep 13, 2019 11:03:14 AM

A few months ago, I wrote about an article in The Atlantic about the age at which work productivity declines. The author said that creativity stops around 20 years into a career (around 50-ish), but that the thinking and processing that enables good teaching continues well into the career and into old age. Which suggests that, yes, teaching does improve over time--if a person enjoys teaching and wants to improve.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Sep 13, 2019 10:06:23 AM

I think the more interesting question is whether it's easier to improve as a law teacher or as a scholar. I suspect the answer depends almost entirely on the aptitudes, interests, and priorities one has before entering the academy. But I'm not sure how much weight that "almost" carries.

Posted by: Enrique Armijo | Sep 13, 2019 9:57:10 AM

Myres McDougal was my jurisprudence prof. He opened the class by telling us not to take notes, not to worry about the test, but just listen. we wouldn't understand what he was talking about at the time, but eventually, if we paid attention, we would understand it, even though it would likely be years later.

He was right. Sometimes, students aren't ready for a good teacher at the time they take the class, but eventually they gain the experience that allows them to appreciate the lesson.

Posted by: shg | Sep 13, 2019 8:47:43 AM

It's a security blanket concept for faculty who are unwilling or unable to produce research. They feel because they're not doing a 1/2 of their job (research), that somehow people who are delivering on the research piece must be under-performing at 1/2 of their job, too. It's also a way of generically demonizing professors by portraying them as lazy and unsympathetic. Lots of people in politics banging the anti-intellectual drum these days. Can't expect them to be fact-based in their arguments, though, given their skepticism about reason.

In my experience, good scholars are good teachers, or try very, very hard to be even if they don't get the best results. Exactly as Howard said. And, more darkly, I see professors who do not perform well in the classroom AND do not produce research. Normally, the worst teacher in any given department produces little or no research.

Posted by: grinch | Sep 12, 2019 8:10:53 PM

It's a security blanket concept for faculty who are unwilling or unable to produce research. They feel because they're not doing a 1/2 of their job (research), that somehow people who are delivering on the research piece must be under-performing at 1/2 of their job, too. It's also a way of generically demonizing professors by portraying them as lazy and unsympathetic. Lots of people in politics banging the anti-intellectual drum these days. Can't expect them to be fact-based in their arguments, though, given their skepticism about reason.

In my experience, good scholars are good teachers, or try very, very hard to be even if they don't get the best results. Exactly as Howard said. And, more darkly, I see professors who do not perform well in the classroom AND do not produce research. Normally, the worst teacher in any given department produces little or no research.

Posted by: grinch | Sep 12, 2019 8:10:53 PM

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