3 Things I've Learned in 20 Years of Teaching
Reflections on the first half of a career in higher ed
When I get up in front of our largest lecture hall at 9:00 this morning to introduce students to our first-year gen ed staple, Christianity and Western Culture, I’ll officially begin my twentieth year teaching courses at Bethel University.
There’s nothing magic about that number,1 but since it does feel something like a halfway point in my career, I thought I’d use the occasion to sum up some of what I’ve learned over two decades as a college teacher.
1. There’s no single way to be an effective teacher
If you really want to test my temper, make me sit through a workshop that insists that there’s “a right way” to teach college students, or that reduces that method to a few bullet points’ worth of “best practices.”
Maybe I’d feel differently if I were an education professor who strongly believed in one educational philosophy over against its many competitors… or if I taught at a larger institution where I’d have much less opportunity to get to know my students well. But as a history professor who generally teaches 15-25 students at a time… I’m convinced that teaching is much more art or craft than science, and that it ought to vary to meet the needs of distinct individuals.
In fact, it’s a rare day in class when I use just one teaching mode. If you watched me do my thing for 50-70 minutes in most classes, you’d see some lecture, some discussion (in varying sizes and configurations of groups), some moments where students are engaged in individual writing, and maybe some simulation activities or review games. (Not to mention the guitar playing I alluded to last week while introducing my course on the Cold War.)
But as importantly, I’ve come to learn that students don’t learn from an archetype, an abstract ideal, but from teachers who are themselves distinct individuals. The very worst thing you can do as a teacher is to try to cram yourself into the prefabricated mold of what you’ve been told is “a good teacher.”
Instead, I never fail to think back to the advice I got my first semester from another member of our CWC teaching team. At the end of class one day, political scientist Stacey Hunter Hecht told me that my lecture that morning had worked because it “magnified my personality.” To fill a classroom that large and keep the attention of that many students, I need to be a bigger, louder version of myself, but one still recognizable to family, friends, colleagues, and students who know me from smaller settings.2
2. The lecture is an effective way of teaching
And yes, I do lecture. In fact, I love to lecture, knowing that my students learn a lot from my lecturing.
At this point in the history of higher education, such a statement is bound to make me sound like some kind of hide-bound curmudgeon, a relic who would rather hold onto his authority and power than realize the limitations of the “sage on the stage” model of instruction.
And I’ll grant you, there’s little worse in education than having to sit through a bad lecture. But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to give a good lecture, or that such a model of pedagogy centers the needs of the teacher over those of the learner.
Here’s what I’ve come to realize about the enduring power of the lecture, when done well:
It does far more than deliver information. If lecturing were just a mechanism to hand down data points that students could as easily retrieve from their iPhone, it would be a waste of time. In a history classroom, at least, the lecture does remain a good way to help students master vocabulary and chronology, often more effective than videos or textbooks, but that’s because it roots such information within stories populated by compelling characters inhabiting complicated settings.
The lecture models learning. In addition to telling a story, a good history lecture helps students understand how to ask a good question, how to find connections between disparate experiences, and, maybe most of all, what virtues underpin learning. If I’m right that the primary vocation of every college student is to be a student, then they need to see that calling lived out — especially early in their careers, having too rarely seen it in evidence elsewhere in their young lives. There’s something unexpectedly compelling, sometimes even moving, about watching and listening to someone who’s passionate about what they study, who has been shaped by what they’ve learned, and who is vulnerable enough to admit the limits of their understanding.
The lecture promotes active learning. “Yeah, but they’re just watching and listening,” someone just grumbled. Sure, and only someone culturally captive to the 21st century West would assume that silent observation, attention, and thought aren’t meaningful kinds of activity. Consider how much is happening beneath the quiet surface of a student paying attention to a lecture: they’re overcoming other learned instincts to concentrate on something other than themselves; they’re practicing skills of comprehension and communication to summarize what they’ve seen and heard in notes that will jog their memory later; they’re asking their own questions or starting to frame arguments in response to those they’ve heard.
In the process, a good lecture primes the pump for so much else: the discussion we’ll have a few days later in CWC; the essay that a student will write or the presentation several students will deliver; and, most crucially, all the learning that we don’t see as professors.
3. Most learning happens beyond my sight and out of my control
The main problem with most of the supposed “best practices” in pedagogy that I’ve heard is that they claim to be “student-centered,” but are almost entirely concerned with what happens in the classroom, while the professor is there. But what mostly sets college learning apart from what happens in high school is that so little of it actually happens within sight of the teacher, let alone under her control.
Sure, we get 3-4 contact hours a week, but my syllabus advises that students ought to spend at least two or three times that many hours working on that class outside of its classroom. To some extent, we see the fruits of that labor in the results that we assess, but even that tells us only a bit about student learning. How well a student does on a quiz, and even how convincingly they make an argument in an essay, is just a partial reflection of their progress. It’s why — as I’ll tell my youngest students today — my grading policies are buried in the middle of my syllabus, while the learning objectives are always on page one.
From verbal and nonverbal cues in class and on the basis of their written and other work, I try to gauge my students’ progress and adjust my teaching in accordance. But I’ve long since recognized that I need to trust that my students are learning in ways that I can’t always design or control, or even observe and evaluate.3
And I don’t mean just the information they’re acquiring or the skills they’re honing. How they choose to learn is itself forming in them virtues (and vices) and values. I model, nudge, and encourage that kind of learning, but I can only see it in part.
Finally, my share of it is only part of that formation. Every student who comes to my class has already been shaped by other experiences of other environments, and every student who finishes my class will continue to learn for months and years later.4 So one benefit of having a two-decade perspective is that I find it easier to trust that teaching is mostly about tilling soil and planting seeds, with only occasional glimpses of germination and growth and no promise that I’ll ever see the harvest.
Thanks for reading The Pietist Schoolman! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
Technically, it’s my 21st year teaching college. Even if you leave out my grad student experiences as a teaching fellow… I spent part of the year before coming to Bethel as an adjunct instructor, teaching courses similar to CWC at two very different universities: one a diocesan Catholic university in the wealthiest county in Connecticut; the other a local state university in New Haven. I did learn a lot from the contrasting experiences, but they were part-time gigs that did less to shape my identity as a teacher than my first month at Bethel.
To readers, too, I’ve come to learn. Hopefully, Pietist Schoolman subscribers and Lindbergh biography purchasers feel like they know what it’s like to be in my classroom.
I’m trying to keep this post from sprawling too long, but here I’ll tuck in a lesson 3a: If you recognize that you need to trust college students with much of their own learning, you should be willing to give them grace. Early on, I was more of a stickler: I didn’t set many policies, but those in the syllabus needed to be honored. But I’ve loosened up considerably, as I’ve realized how little control students have over the stresses that make their lives far harder than mine was at their age. Nowadays, I’d rather set a few clear expectations, then encourage students to communicate honestly when things get in the way of their meeting those expectations. (Here too, it helps to realize how relatively unimportant the grade is as a measure of learning.)
Oh, and 3b: You teach as part of a faculty, in classes that are part of a curriculum. Effective teachers don’t just help students for that hour in that semester, but as part of a larger, interconnected whole. And especially in a liberal arts model, we’re consciously preparing them to continue to learn after graduation.