Teaching at Emory
Commotion or conversation?

By Walter Reed, Professor of English and Former Chair, University Advisory Council on Teaching


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Six years ago, I became involved in the “commotion on teaching,” as we came to call it, at Emory. In the fall of 1995, I was asked (for reasons that remain mysterious to me) to serve as director of a newly conceived Center for Teaching and Curriculum (CTC) in the College. That same semester, I volunteered for the President’s Commission on Teaching and wound up as co-chair of that hard-working group. Finally, when Provost Rebecca Chopp appointed the University Advisory Council on Teaching (UACT), in lieu of the “super-center” for teaching that the commission had recommended, I was drafted to chair that committee. Last year, as the end of my involvement in this intensive and extensive discussion came into view, thanks to a sabbatical, I began to reflect on what it was all about. Five issues or problems seem worth noting as our discussion of “the balance between teaching and research at Emory,” as the issue was identified, continues.

The first issue is precisely those terms we use to distinguish teaching from the rest of the things we do. As I came to see, the distinction between “teaching” and “research” is a false dichotomy. No one can teach effectively at a respectable college or university without engaging in significant research of some kind: continuous reading, gathering of data, experimentation, testing and expanding one’s own understanding of the field against the published scholarship of others, committing to precise and publishable formulation the more general and improvised explanations one gives to students in lectures and seminars. Research is the foundation of all academic endeavor, I would insist. It expresses itself in teaching as well as in publication. Research may express itself at first in teaching, or teaching may follow in the path of published work, but to use the general term to refer only to articles in learned journals or books from academic presses is to misrepresent the nature of academic work and intellectual labor. It is to confuse particular products with a general process.

The second issue is the way the enterprise of teaching serves two masters: a subject and its students. It tries to be faithful to a discipline but also to disciples. Can we comprehend the radically dialogic character of teaching without artificially separating these allegiances? As teachers we are responsible for—responsible to—the truth embodied in our disciplines, even as new truths drive out old ones and as new data become relevant facts to be accounted for. But as teachers we are also responsible for—and to—our students, for their grasp of these truths, to their capacities for understanding these facts in some form of knowledge. Can we measure effectiveness in one direction without slighting the other? Can we do so not just as teachers in our own right, but as colleagues trying to help one another come to a deeper understanding of just what it is we are doing with so much of our time and energy? Use of student evaluations of teaching has been widespread in recent decades, and peer observation and evaluation have gained a foothold in the promotion and tenure process more recently. But the two sets of results often seem like the waves and particles of light in Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle.

A third puzzle or paradox is that teaching is highly specific to a discipline yet most effectively grasped in interdisciplinary discussion. Recent reports from the American Association of Higher Education and the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching argue convincingly that teaching practices are deeply rooted in a particular discipline or subject, that discussions of teaching in general lead to vague generalizations about “goals” and “objectives” on the one hand and superficial concerns with “technique” on the other. But the forum within which these claims were formulated as well as the most fruitful exchanges on teaching we have had at Emory over the last six years were all notably interdisciplinary. For some reason, it has been in discussions about teaching with physicists, law faculty, professors of management, and instructors of philosophy that I have had the freshest insights into the roots and branches (sometimes parched and withered) of my own pedagogy.

The most vexed and unresolved issue to come out of the commotion on teaching is the lack of any real evidence that these para-pedagogic discussions and activities have a tangible impact on our teaching itself. It has sometimes occurred to me in my more skeptical or cynical moments that we have simply added another kind of scholarly endeavor to the academic repertoire. To the forms of scholarship known as “publication” (see issue 1) and “teaching,” we may simply be adding “talk about teaching” or “talk about teaching teaching.” I have noticed for those of us who show up for lunch discussions on teaching, summer seminars, and the teaching retreats, the only evidence that these activities make a real difference in our effectiveness in the classroom is our own reports, which are more about immediate excitement and good intentions than outcomes in the long run.

Should a faculty member’s attendance at a CTC event be taken as a sign of teaching excellence by senior colleagues, promotion and tenure committees, and the administration higher up? One way we have addressed these nagging doubts is with the device of the teaching portfolio, a form of self assessment and development that can also be presented, more selectively, for the rituals of promotion and tenure, even for one’s claim to annual salary increases. The teaching portfolio movement, led by faculty like Peter Seldin of Pace University, has become rather widespread in American higher education in recent decades and has been brought to Emory by the UACT systematically over the last three years. Workshops such as those led by Seldin and his associates at least offer a way of addressing the ambiguities of measurement I have mentioned.

At issue in all these issues and problems is the character of the university itself, the nature of the institution within which teaching takes place. This is my final observation. It is becoming increasingly clear that there is a tension, leading to recurrent conflict, between the collegial university—the assumptive world of most tenured and tenure-seeking faculty—and the managerial university—the assumptive culture of university presidents, provosts, vice-presidents, and deans. The points of conflict are familiar: faculty autonomy versus institution-building activity; individual work versus collaborative endeavor; a culture of professional tradition and trust versus a culture of evidence and managerial scrutiny; peer review versus executive assessment; discretionary use of time versus organizationally mandated work hours; and last but not least, the authority of the faculty enshrined in tenure versus the power of students understood as consumers.

Teaching is, or can be, a common ground between these two organizational cultures. It is, or can be, valuable as a justification for the authority and autonomy of the professoriate, a setting where the higher knowledge of the faculty member traditionally defined is most evident, but valuable also as the primary generator of tuition, a vital source of funds for the institution. Teaching is, or can be, a middle ground where neither culture is defensively entrenched. If the relatively recent commotion on teaching at Emory can become a more sustained and normal conversation on teaching in the years ahead, there is at least the possibility that the university as a whole can reclaim a still more traditional mission of higher education in this country—education itself.