Education, Teaching, Universities

Doing and Teaching

Tuesday, 28th August 2018
What makes a good teacher, from a student’s point of view? The author here makes some fairly broad generalizations about researchers and teachers. He feels a bit like he cherry-picks examples to prove his point. Are new people always better teachers than older researchers? Are experts worse than non-experts? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. I’ve seen both. But that’s not the real issue, I think.
 
The fundamental problem in the article is that it separates doing from teaching. I can understand why it does this – there’s a 2500 year old tension between philosophy and rhetoric that more or less maps on to doing and teaching. Philosophy is about finding truth and rhetoric is about expressing it. And so the tension is, which comes first, which is more important? That discussion has gone on in different forms for a long time, and exists today.
 
The problem with it is that I’m not sure the world sorts out so well into these two things. The examples used in the article are in science – there’s doing science and there’s talking about it. Seems like an obvious distinction. And yet, the talking extends to all of it. The problem is in not being able to shift communities and audiences. Scientists still communicate in doing science – with colleagues, with grad students in their labs, with their wider community. It’s just that there is a shared body of knowledge, with its shortcut and summarizing terminology, that everyone is enculturated into, that accelerates communication in that area.
 
Students, especially new ones, don’t have that. They aren’t in the in group, and they have to get there. So, they have to find a way in. A good teacher is one who knows how to unpack the specialist vocabulary, assumptions, etc., but who also knows how to express the driving and motivating questions in an area without using that specialist vocabulary. And this, I think, doesn’t necessarily map onto whether you’re a newly minted PhD or have been at it a long time.
 
Things become even more fuzzy in areas where it’s not clear what the difference between doing and teaching is. The model of teaching in this article is something like the classroom lecture. That is an older view of what actually happens in teaching today. There are so many models of teaching that don’t primarily depend on the person who knows explaining things to the people who don’t know.
 
It’s not just that the model of teaching is wrong, it’s that the epistemology is wrong. In other words, it assumes that knowledge is a thing transferred from one person to another, and installed in their minds. What if it isn’t like that? What if the knowledge comes from others in the room as well? What if it’s more like helping students to ask a good question, one which not only sheds light on some phenomenon but which catches them up, stays with them and goes on to inform their way of understanding the world? None of this means that there aren’t facts to be learned about any area, but that might not be where good teaching lies at all.
 
In class sometimes, I tell students about my “rubber meets road” question – who cares? Who cares about the stuff I’m talking about. It usually gets a wry chuckle, not quite a laugh, but students recognize that it is, after all, their real question about most of what they’re hearing in most classes. It’s especially strange for a philosopher to ask – shouldn’t we revel in the arcane minutiae of the world, the stuff that no one could possibly care about? Isn’t our knowledge by definition esoteric and, to the vast majority, useless? Nope. That’s the view someone might hold who wasn’t ever in a really good philosophy class.
 
My answer to the “who cares” question takes a couple of forms, depending on what we’re talking about. One answer is, “well, these people, living at this time or place, cared, and here’s why. Here’s their world, here’s their way of putting things together and seeing why they cared about some particular thing gives you a window on a world unlike ours in many ways.” That answer is one I use a lot in both history of philosophy and in cultural philosophy, because both stand at a distance from most students. It’s the first half of the old anthropological goal, which is to make the unfamiliar into the familiar, and the familiar into the unfamiliar.
 
Another answer is the second half. We start from something that students think they know, and we make it foreign. This is Socrates’ move. That concept you think you know? Well, it’s way more complicated than you think. You’re taking a lot for granted. It has multiple meanings and senses, especially to different groups of people, and you’re just thinking of one use. Once you realize all that, we can begin. The familiar becomes the unfamiliar.
 
Now, neither of these are about transferring information from one person to another. And, neither of these are something that can exist only in a particular group of people. Highly skilled and successful researchers can do this. Grad students can do this. Students can do this for each other in learning teams in class.
The article is, I know, supposed to be advice for students. How should you pick your professors? And yet, I wonder if it is very useful advice. The author is trying to map teaching on to things like research success, age, and other things. I’m almost surprised he didn’t stray into the territory of “avoid the professor with the funny foreign accent”. None of these really correlate to good teaching, and so aren’t likely to be much of a guide for students. What might be a good guide? Well, other students, but by that I don’t mean something like Rate My Professors. Sites like that only attract people with a strong feeling about something. It’s even less useful than voluntary student evaluations of a class – only the ones with something on the tips of their tongues are going to respond.
No, the students I have in mind are the ones who have done well in an area. The author of the article gets this right – the people who had to actually learn something, rather than the people who are “naturals” at it. It might be hard to tell the difference at first glance, but here’s a tip: those who are actually excited about an area, who talk about it, who explore it on their own and connect it to other things, even in other classes, those who do more than the minimum, are probably the ones who recently were turned on to an area, and who were well taught. That’s who I’d ask.
 

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