Is Teaching a Meaningful Job?

Thanks to a colleague’s recent social media post, I found John Danaher’s blog post “The Trouble with Teaching: Is Teaching a Meaningful Job?”. It presents several well-reasoned arguments for thinking that teaching in higher education isn’t the kind of meaningful occupation that many of us who teach in higher ed maybe once thought it was when we began in (or aspired to join) the profession. The upshot of the first three arguments he presents is that the goal or purpose of teaching some specific content or skills doesn’t seem terribly valuable, and even if is, teachers don’t often achieve that purpose, and teachers’ failures often aren’t even clear or instructive because the feedback teachers receive often bears no resemblance to how well teachers have actually achieved their goals. I’m sympathetic to this final argument in particular, based as it is on recent research on student evaluations, though I’d be curious to see the argument expanded to cover feedback on teaching from sources other than students; personally, I found the feedback I received on my teaching from the University of Michigan’s Center for Research on Learning and Teaching really helpful back when I was a graduate student.

Though Danaher floats a few potential lines of response to these arguments at the end of his post, I think he omits some of the most promising responses. So in what follows, I want to provide a couple half-baked reasons to think that, despite the force of these arguments, they miss something crucial about what makes teaching meaningful.

Education can still be valuable, even if we don’t understand how it’s valuable. Certain occupations that most of us would agree are valuable wear their purposes on their sleeve – the purpose of farming is to feed people; the purpose of construction is to create a safe, secure shelter; etc. And, I think, in certain contexts, the purpose of education seems fairly clear as well, e.g. in an authoritarian state that mandates all citizens be indoctrinated to embrace the ideology needed to perpetuate that state. But I think the purpose of education (in contemporary American higher ed, at least) is much harder to pinpoint, and it may even vary from department to department within a particular institution.

For example, one of the key purposes of the kind of educational enterprise I take myself to be engaged in is helping students develop their autonomy. If improving student autonomy is a teacher’s goal, they need to teach some of the skills Danaher mentions like critical thinking, but autonomy also requires a degree of introspection and reflection that he doesn’t address in his piece that should be central to the educator’s project. I know, from conversations with colleagues, that other teachers prize other goals like developing civic virtues, developing interests in a particular academic field or subfield, or even stoking concern for what’s going on in the wider world among their students, which are also purposes of higher education that Danaher’s arguments don’t consider as part of the purpose of education.

I was an undergraduate physics major, and one of the capstones for my junior-year quantum mechanics seminar was to solve the Schrödinger equation for the hydrogen atom. Could I do that right now if asked? No. But I could figure out how to solve it again in less than the 9 weeks we needed that semester to work up to it. Similarly, while I don’t think I retained absolutely all of the content we covered in any of the courses I took as an undergraduate, I do think that I could regain that content much more quickly than if I were trying to tackle a new topic I didn’t learn back in college. So even if Danaher is right and knowledge atrophies quickly (sometimes even before a course is completed), that may be okay since the more important goal is for students to be able to recover that atrophied knowledge quickly in the future when it’s needed. It’s still an open question (as far as I know) how well students are able to quickly recover information they once learned in different courses, but the broader point I’m making here is that Danaher’s arguments make substantive assumptions about what the goals of education are, and tweaking these goals even slightly (e.g. shifting from students knowing content to students being able to quickly recover content) might defuse the threat these arguments pose.

I don’t think any of the purposes I’ve just mentioned alone is the right one for all higher educational endeavors to shoot for, but I think the fact that, within an educational context, different instructors are able to strive for so many distinct purposes is a feature of education as an occupation, not a bug. Education, as a profession, is like writing: different writers write for different purposes, but we all agree that the act of writing itself is valuable in that it is able to help us achieve some good that we think worthy of pursuit. Part of what makes education a meaningful profession is that we have to construct its meaning ourselves.

In education, students are our co-workers. The goals of education that Danaher lists (whether it’s students learning some particular content or gaining some skill) aren’t like the goals of farming or construction. A farmer doesn’t worry about whether or not their corn is really interested in growing or is just doing so in order to satisfy gen ed requirements. There are some ways that we can treat seeds and concrete that we can’t permissibly treat other human beings in order to reach the goals of our occupation. And if we teach the humanities, oftentimes our educational goal isn’t just some particular skillset or list of facts but a kind of person that we’ve helped our students grow into over the course of a semester (or several semesters).

This means that we need the cooperation of our students if we are to pursue any educational goal like our students’ autonomy – we need their help and support if they’re going to meet that goal. I can construct a syllabus with the best readings in the world, spend class time on the best active learning strategies, and provide the most meaningful and valuable assessments and projects for my students, but I won’t achieve a single one of my educational goals if my students don’t do the readings or show up to class. It’s a bit like being a gym owner whose goal is the health of their members: I can keep generous hours with the best equipment and spotless, convenient facilities, but if my members decide to sleep in instead of working out, I won’t meet my goal. There are simply limits to the power of any gym operator, or educator.

Danaher resists the analogy between education and parenting, but thinking through the way in which pursuing any educational good requires a cooperative effort between teacher and student reminds me a little bit of the view of parenting that emerges from Bryan Warnick’s “right to invite“. Very roughly, on Warnick’s view, parents have a right to present or expose their children those elements of a life the parent deems valuable, including educational goods. But parents lack the right to force their children into a particular way of life, even though they may have a right to invite their child to share in that way of life with them. If we’re looking at educational goals, I think the situation is analogous – teachers must offer their students learning opportunities such that, if the students follow their instructor’s lead, these students and their teacher together will accomplish their educational goals. But a teacher has no power or right to decide whether or not their student’s takes advantage of the opportunities they present, which means that there will be cases where educational goals aren’t met, not because the teacher has failed to offer the student something valuable, but because the student has refused the teacher’s offer.

Reconceptualizing educational goals as not just the teacher’s but the student’s AND the teacher’s together may help explain why, as Danaher points out, it’s often so hard for teachers to meet their educational goals. Collaborative enterprises like teaching require, for instance, a degree of trust between teacher and student that is often lacking in the contemporary classroom (I enjoyed a recent Ethics and Education podcast on this topic). Problems also arise when students and teachers have radically different goals from one another. I’ve noticed a shift, over the past decade I’ve taught in higher ed, in the way that students view me as their instructor. I used to feel like my work in the classroom was a good, a product – students were getting what they paid for when they came to my classroom and actively engaged in whatever we discussed that day. But recently, students more frequently take the view that what they’ve paid for is their diploma and that I, as their instructor, am just an obstacle standing between them and the product they’ve paid for because I require them to do work for my class (I’ve had a few students failing my class tell me as much). If an instructor is working hard to teach a student some content or skillset while the student’s primary goal is to put in as little time and effort as possible to pass the class, it’s unlikely that their collaboration will meet the educator’s goal.

If this ramble has been at all coherent, I do think that Donaher’s arguments and my responses do at least suggest some ways in which teaching, as a profession, can be made more meaningful for instructors, regardless of whether or not we accept Danaher’s arguments’ conclusion that teaching isn’t meaningful.

  • Accept pluralism about educational goals. We need to take a broad view of what the purpose of teaching is, and we need to provide teachers with the opportunity to think through, both personally and collectively, what educational goals they want to pursue. I think the most effective way to provide these opportunities would be to change the culture around university teaching so that instructors are interested in conversations with their colleagues about their educational goals, and I’d guess that funding events where instructors engage in these conversations together would help facilitate this cultural shift.
  • Understand that excellent teaching that achieves these goals may be difficult to measure. Above, I listed educational goals like autonomy and civic engagement that don’t lend themselves to easy assessment, especially if we’re looking at long-term impact. I don’t think this means that we shouldn’t try to measure them, but it does mean that we may have to be willing to devote more resources to measuring them if we genuinely care about assessing a teacher’s impact. And, on the flip side, we shouldn’t think less of hard-to-measure goals like autonomy simply because they’re hard to measure and instead fall back on easier things to measure like short-term content retention.
  • Rethink teacher assessment. If we wouldn’t assess a gym’s quality on the fitness of its members alone, we shouldn’t assess a teacher’s quality on the outcomes their students achieve alone. Instead of focusing on student outcomes, we should instead focus on what teachers are offering students: what resources do teachers make available to their students? How do they make them available? Are the teacher’s offerings ones that are likely to promote learning among engaged students? How does this teacher try to engage students who enter the course with less interest in the material? Student outcomes may play some role here in assessing teacher effectiveness, but they shouldn’t be where teacher evaluation begins and ends.
  • Rethink student feedback. Danaher’s right that student evaluations are often unhelpful and don’t correlate with whether or not a teacher has met their educational goals. I think there are two ways to rethink student feedback that would be helpful. The first is to better prepare students to deliver their feedback by encouraging more meaningful student reflection on their teacher’s expressed goals. I’m not sure how this would work practically speaking, and the tentative proposals I’ve brainstormed aren’t worth sharing until further developed, but this seems like an interesting empirical project for those working in education to undertake. Second, we need to make sure that student feedback is supplemented by feedback from others (colleagues, experts in teaching, etc.) who can put student feedback in perspective and ensure a more well-rounded evaluative picture of a teacher’s work than student evaluations alone provide.
  • Improve student/teacher relations. Danaher rightly points out that it’s ridiculous to think that he could form valuable relationships with all of the 500 students he teaches a semester. But this is one of the benefits of the small liberal arts college: smaller class sizes that allow faculty to develop meaningful relationships with a greater number of students. I’m a product of a small liberal arts college, and I teach at one, but I’ve taught at larger schools with larger class sizes. One benefit I’ve noticed to those smaller institutions is that they are intentional about creating opportunities for one-on-one engagement between students and faculty, whether by encouraging office hours visits or through faculty involvement in student clubs. These opportunities outside the classroom and low student/teacher ratios in the classroom don’t guarantee a more collegial relationship between students and faculty, but, in my experience, they do help. It’s my impression that education researchers are currently working to better understand student/teacher relationships, so hopefully we’ll soon have some high-quality empirical work to provide further guidance on the best ways to improve these working relationships.

So does teaching fail to be a meaningful profession in the way Danaher worries it is? I don’t think so. But I think the issues he raises are serious, and thinking them through suggests ways to make education more meaningful for teachers and more valuable to students. These improvements are, I think, labor- and resource-intensive, so while I’m not optimistic that all of the improvements I’ve just suggested will be implemented (especially soon), I do hope to be proven wrong.

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