Teaching Disrespect

What really needs to be done to increase learning at Harvard

You get a first sense of the amount of attention paid to teaching at the College by the fact that Harvard felt the need to launch a “Teaching and Learning Initiative.” You don’t hear about the Red Sox launching a “Winning the World Series Initiative” or Charlie Sheen launching a slightly simpler “Winning Initiative”—winning is a core part of their identities, not something they have to initiate.

You get a second sense by the fact that this initiative was actually launched four years ago and has languished incognito until now. At a poorly attended faculty meeting in March 2007, the few faculty members in attendance received the “Compact on Teaching and Learning” with disdain. An applauded remark by Latin Professor Katherine M. Coleman lay the blame, as always, at the feet of distracted and disinterested students: “Some students don’t come to class, or they come late, or they surf the Web during lectures or even sections, I’ve noticed.” Obviously, if someone fails to appreciate the wisdom and clarity of your remarks, the fault must surely be theirs.

But props for noticing!

You get a third sense by observing that the College picked up this initiative during a period of budget crisis, precisely at the moment when there are few resources to devote to it. I should give credit where credit is due, however, and point out that in a single year they did manage to organize three—count them—colloquia to discuss this important subject.

But if you want to follow this disinterest to the source, go to graduate school. Graduate school is where future academics learn their disrespect for teaching.

Graduate students are taught that teaching is easy. One half-day course at the Bok Center—all my department required—and you’re ready to teach section as a teaching fellow. Teach section for one class in a six-year Ph.D. program—all my department required—and you’re ready to teach undergraduates as a junior faculty member. As a result, most future academics (including myself) enter their first academic position not knowing how to design a class, write a full set of lectures, or balance our time between research and instruction.

Graduate students are taught that teaching is not important. The reason graduate students aren’t required to teach more is that faculty want them in the lab or the library doing research. Research is what earns you a job, tenure, and worldwide renown; teaching is a distraction. Graduate students with an interest in teaching hear warning after warning that this is not the right thing to do. “You’ve taught enough.” “You need more papers on your resume, not another class.” “Why are you so interested in teaching? Is your research going OK?”

Departments even establish incentives to discourage graduate students from teaching. I was required to teach one semester, and when I chose to keep teaching, I was not paid for my labors. Instead, the money I would have received was routed to my adviser to pay him for my “lost” research productivity. Of course, the research papers still had to get written, and at the end of the day, I was working harder than I would have been doing research alone and being paid the same amount.

Finally, graduate students are taught that teaching is unrewarding. Researched-obsessed faculty members consistently define impact in ways that bring them either extra attention, money, or—ideally—both. Few seem excited by the chance to inspire young minds or driven to direct their considerable creative and analytical powers towards transforming the learning process. My former department has senior faculty who have contributed in many ways to the broader Harvard community, but none of them stepped forward to transform CS50.

In reality, teaching isn’t what graduate students are taught. Teaching is challenging, and only becoming more so as technology changes the educational landscape. Change has always meant that teacher and student learn somewhat differently, but today, the pace of technological advance has widened this gap substantially. Yet even computer scientists are still delivering lectures as if there were no YouTube, giving PowerPoint presentations as if there were no iPad, and designing assignments as if there were no Wikipedia.

Teaching is important, and although that alone may sound somewhat obvious, teaching is also important at research universities. If we don’t find a way to rebalance the incentives to ensure that Harvard faculty are creative and accomplished both as teachers and as researchers, then at some point prospective students and their families are going to see through the myth that mere hobnobbing with a rock star faculty constitutes a good education.

So. Do these mythical creatures exist—the researcher who can teach, and the teacher who can research? You might as well ask, are there baseball players that can both hit and play defense?I Or, even better, is Charlie Sheen really capable of winning both here and there? Teaching, like winning, is challenging, important, and fundamentally rewarding. But if we want to develop a new generation of dynamic college educators, we have to start by changing what they are taught in school.

Geoffrey Challen ’02–’03 is a Resident Tutor at Eliot House. The views expressed are his and do not reflect official Harvard College policy.