Image of an emtpy classroom

How Teaching Should Matter

by Steven M. Cahn

Like other academics, philosophers pay lip service to the importance of teaching, but as a recent report published in Teaching Philosophy demonstrates, practice does not always accord with principle (Concepcion, Messineo, Wieten, and Homan, 2016). If teaching is to receive its due, graduate departments need to change how they prepare candidates for faculty positions, while departments seeking new members need to alter criteria for making appointments as well as strategies for encouraging strong performance.

First, graduate departments should require all aspiring faculty members to take a course in methods of teaching. Such courses should involve  discussing and practicing all phases of the teaching process, including preparing syllabi, motivating students, clarifying ideas, organizing materials, guiding discussions, constructing examinations, and grading papers. Emphasis should also be placed on the importance and multifaceted nature of a teacher’s ethical obligations.

For many years I taught such a course at the City University of New York Graduate Center, and the results were dramatic. (Cahn, 2004) As the semester progressed, students began to speak more slowly and clearly, to motivate the audience, and to lead listeners to understand and appreciate issues.  The key to this course was that the students did not only talk about teaching; they actually taught in brief segments, then received feedback from others in the class. I should add, however, that when my colleagues sought to enhance the program’s national ranking, they replaced comprehensive examinations with papers, eliminating required core courses, and abandoning the course in teaching philosophy. Such steps were thought by the majority to render our department more professionally acceptable.

Many letters of reference, of course, typically contain a sentence praising a candidate’s pedagogical skills, yet without evidence for such assessment. Here’s a typical comment: “Although I have never seen Smith teach, knowing her as I do, I am sure she will be highly successful in the classroom.” Without personal observation, such remarks should be discounted.

The importance of teaching is likely to be appreciated by graduate programs only if departments making appointments stress quality of teaching in their judgment of candidates. As a start, these departments should state that those candidates who have taken a course in teaching philosophy will be preferred. Once graduate programs receive that message, they will be motivated to include such a course in the curriculum. Publishing in a professional journal is viewed as an asset in obtaining a faculty position, so graduate programs emphasize the importance of publishing. If taking a course in teaching philosophy were viewed likewise, graduate programs would stress its importance and encourage students to enroll.

In addition, first-round interviews should concentrate not only on a candidate’s doctoral dissertation but also ask such questions as:  (1) If you were to teach introductory philosophy, what texts would you use, which issues would you cover, and how would you evaluate students? (2) How about the same information regarding basic courses in areas in which you claim competence? (3) What do you think of the practice of grading students, and how would you plan to approach this task? The answers would indicate how seriously a candidate regards teaching.

Furthermore, when candidates are invited for campus interviews, they should be expected to present both a research paper and a talk on an elementary topic, organized and presented as if for introductory students. Only those candidates whose performance is proficient should be considered seriously. As anyone who has attended such a talk knows, a candidate’s pedagogical ability becomes obvious after only a few minutes. Some individuals display the requite skills, whereas others mumble and fumble. Just as those who cannot ably defend their research are passed over, the same fate should befall those who cannot ably teach.

Years ago when I chaired the Department of Philosophy at the University of Vermont, the head of the philosophy department at a large state university asked me whether at my school, like his, enrollment in philosophy courses had been shrinking. I told him that, on the contrary, it had been growing. Amazed, he wondered how I accounted for this phenomenon.

“Excellent teaching,” I said. “We try to make sure that everyone we appoint offers both outstanding scholarship and outstanding teaching. What do you look for?”

“Good scholars,” he replied. “We never appoint anyone who hasn’t delivered a scholarly paper.”

“Why not test their teaching, too?” I inquired.

“Never thought of it,” he muttered.

If a baseball team hires strong hitters who are inadequate fielders, the result will be many hits and many errors. Likewise, if a department appoints strong researchers who are inadequate teachers, the result will be more papers published and fewer students enrolled.

Furthermore, just as new faculty members should be given permission to observe the classes of senior members of the department, so new faculty members should occasionally be observed, not to be formally evaluated but to be offered suggestions where appropriate. Professors provide one another assistance in their writing; why shouldn’t they provide help in their teaching as well?

We would view with suspicion a surgeon who barred all other surgeons from an operation. We should view with equal skepticism any professors who wish to lock classroom doors against knowledgeable observers.

Regarding decisions for promotion and tenure, departments currently care enough about research to undertake an elaborate review of scholarship. Similarly, departments ought to be equally concerned about teaching to undertake an equally elaborate review of a professor’s work in the classroom. Such a review should involve input from departmental colleagues who visit the professor’s classes and examine syllabi, examinations, and test papers to assess teaching performance.

Some suppose that students should have the strongest voice in evaluating teachers, and admittedly some instructors who receive unflattering student evaluations deserve them. Other instructors, however, can be victims of their own unyielding commitments to tough course requirements, demanding examinations, rigorous grading practices, or unfashionable intellectual positions. Because these factors and others requiring expertise in the subject may not be appreciated in student evaluations, heavy dependence on them menaces academic standards.

While some educational researchers agree that students can provide useful information, hundreds of studies confirm that student evaluations need to be considered in the context of peer evaluations. Otherwise, as one study concluded, departments are “flying blind.”[1]

One final point. Just as an outstanding researcher may be awarded tenure even with a weak performance in the classroom, so tenure should also be available to an outstanding teacher with weak research. Granted, the ideal candidate excels as researcher and teacher, but if an occasional exception is made so as not to lose a researcher of national stature, so an occasional exception should also be made to prevent losing a teacher of extraordinary accomplishment. Few teachers can attain such a level of excellence, but to lose one who does is shortsighted.

Doing so will also be unjust, for generations of students pay expensive bills for the privilege of attending classes. Any department that cares deeply about education will take all necessary steps to ensure that generations of students receive the first-rate instruction to which they are entitled.

[1] Charles B. Schultz, “Some Limits to the Validity and Usefulness of Student Rating of Teachers: An Argument for Caution,” Educational Research Quarterly 3 (1978): 12-27.

Steven M. Cahn is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at the City University of New York Graduate Center. Recent books he authored are Saints and Scamps: Ethics in Academia, 25th Anniversary Edition; Happiness and Goodness: Philosophical Reflections on Living Well (with Christine Vitrano); and Religion Within Reason


A version of this piece will appear in an upcoming issue of the Newsletter on Teaching Philosophy.

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