The Craft of University Teaching
What does university teaching – as a craft – look like? What changes does a craft perspective suggest for higher education? The Craft of University Teaching addresses these questions in both a general sense – What does the act of teaching become when treated as a craft? What changes to a professor’s educational philosophy does it require? – and with respect to the practical, everyday tasks of university professors, such as the use and misuse of technology, the handling of academic dishonesty, the assignment of course reading, and the instilling of enthusiasm for learning.
Intended for professors of all academic disciplines who either enjoy teaching or wish to enjoy it more, The Craft of University Teaching is a provocative and accessible book containing practical advice gleaned from the academic literature on pedagogy.
In an era of increased bureaucratic oversight, rapidly diminishing budgets, and waves of technological distraction, The Craft of University Teaching provokes reflection on matters of pedagogy that are too often taken as settled. In so doing, it seeks to reclaim teaching as the intellectually vibrant and intrinsically rewarding endeavor that it is.
- World Rights
- Page Count: 200 pages
- Dimensions: 5.9in x 0.6in x 8.9in
"Peter Lindsay makes it clear that teaching is more than a set of techniques. The Craft of University Teaching is funny and at the same time instructive. Lindsay takes his subject seriously but gives of himself generously, making both the book and teaching itself deeply human."
Carol Rodgers, associate professor of Education, the University at Albany, State University of New York
"An extraordinarily frank, funny, and generous meditation on what it means to teach as a craft. Lindsay explores an intensely personal and universal experience: a portrait of a teaching life—in good moments and bad—that will speak to anyone who has ever taught or learned. The book is a perfect antidote to the transactional view of education so prevalent today, providing us with a rare account of relational teaching while suggesting useful, practical strategies for how to build meaningful connections with our students."
Mary Deane Sorcinelli, professor emeritus and founding director, Center for Teaching and Faculty Development, University of Massachusetts Amherst
"Peter Lindsay has produced an energetic study of the craft of teaching. His lively treatment will resonate with anyone who has stood in front of a classroom. He rescues the topic from both formula-seekers and those who think good teaching can’t be taught. The result is a stimulating practicum delivered by a bona fide maestro."
Peter T. Struck, professor and chair of the Department of Classical Studies, University of Pennsylvania. Director, Benjamin Franklin Scholars program, and founder of its Integrated Studies curriculum.
Author InformationPeter Lindsay is Professor of Political Science and Philosophy and the former director of the Center for Teaching and Learning at Georgia State University.
Table of contents
What is Teaching?
Words that Teach
Slow Teaching: Technology, the Senses and Learning
Why you should ignore cheating
Read An Excerpt
Introduction: The Moments
Teaching Moment 1. Several years ago I received a rather unusual essay from a student in my classical political philosophy class. The essay was written as part of an in-class test, and it was in response to the following set of questions: "What is Aristotle’s critique of Plato’s ideal state? Who, in your mind, is making more sense here, Plato or Aristotle? Has Aristotle interpreted Plato correctly?" The essay, in its entirety, read as follows:
Both Aristotle and Plato seem to enjoy using the "ideal state" as tools to guide the reader and instruct about complex subjects. Plato’s ideal state is one of perfect harmony and balance that finds us wondering about its origins. It reminds me of a song by a man named Kenny Rogers, who coincidently just filmed a music video at my building. For some reason he was on the roof in his black trench coat singing about god knows what. You’ve got to know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em, know when to walk away, know when to run. The current state of country music is so poor that there aren’t even any Kenny Rogers-esce singers anymore. For Christ sake, Buck Owens just died and that guy altered country music forever. To me the ideal state would have this moral support. The ideal state would have bingo and old people and cars that fly. And it damn well would have Kenny Rogers. Not Kenny Loggins though, god knows that if that guy gets a career again we’ll all have to hope lightning strikes our aunt Jessie’s favorite adult contemporary station. Doesn’t that stuff make you sick? It’s like riding in the teacups as Disneyland after a 3 day bender.
If you are like me, you might at this point need to be reminded of something you’ve probably forgotten: the basic question at issue was, "What is Aristotle’s critique of Plato’s ideal state?" When I first read this essay, I didn’t know really what to do with it. The essay had some obvious shortcomings, not the least of which was a singular lack ofany knowledge of the subject matter. But I confess that what struck me more about it were its virtues. It was, for instance, one of the best written essays I got, although part of that virtue was no doubt due to the fact that the author was not weighed down with the burden of having to express difficult philosophical ideas – or, for that matter, any philosophical ideas.
But it wasn’t just well written, it was creative; it was amusing; it was engaging – it was a joy to read. I’ve probably read this essay twenty times, which means I’ve given it nineteen more reads than most other essays I’ve graded (twenty more than some). I also liked that the author made an attempt to do more than simply regurgitate ideas; he tried to relate the subject matter to contemporary life (although I admit the connections are tenuous at best). What I liked most about the essay, however, was the sheer honesty of it. This kid could have pulled off a D or C with the usual pabulum one gets in the know-nothing essay, and yet he chose not to go down that road. Here, for instance, is how another essay from the same class began: "Plato and Aristotle were two of the greatest men to come out of Greek civilization – one of the greatest civilizations to ever exist. They are the founders of the all modern philosophic paradigms –the giants upon whose shoulders all philosophers have since stood." The essay went on like this for paragraphs, or at least I think it did – I gave up after the author surpassed my superlative quota.
But the thing is, this strategy – just start talking and hope for the best, a strategy we now call the Sarah Palin Technique – sort of works. The guy fumbled his way through a few pages, but because he managed, by sheer coincidence, to say a couple of correct things, I couldn’t bring myself to give him a zero.1 Instead he wound up with a D, a grade that, while bad, would not make it numerically impossible to salvage a decent grade in the course. (I did in my comments, however, write, "If Plato and Aristotle were so great, heck, why not buy one of their books?" In retrospect, this might have been a bit harsh.) The bottom line is that, if one reads enough of this second type of essay – essays that really waste your time and to which you somehow give a passing grade – one comes to appreciate the rare student with the courage to say, "Sorry, I didn’t prepare. I have no clue what the hell I’m talking about. Here, however, are some thoughts on country music."
So those were the positives: well written, creative, honest. But still, on the negative side there was that pesky fact that he hadn’t said much – okay, nothing – about Plato or Aristotle. So, what to do? Complicating the matter was that two-thirds of the course remained. If I gave him a zero – which would reflect his knowledge of the subject matter – what would happen? Would he give up altogether, realizing that the best he could do in the course was a D? On the other hand, if I didn’t give him a zero, would he reward me in future essays with more disquisitions on country music?
I went back and forth a lot here, and in the process of doing so eventually came to ask myself, perhaps for the first time in my teaching, career, What am I trying to do with the grades I hand out? Are grades meant to be just a straight measure of the student’s grasp of some body of knowledge? Is it true, to quote from a handbook for teachers, that "the purpose of grades is to communicate the extent to which students have learned the course materials"? And if they are simply a measure of performance, can that measurement be made with respect to the other students, or does it have to be with respect to some objective benchmark? In an altogether different vein, is it possible to look at grades more broadly and holistically, as a means not just to measure learning, but to encourage it as well? And with that question in mind, might we use grades to reward improvement? Lots of questions, all in some way pointing to the one whose answering I was seeking: is there a philosophy of grading that could guide me in deciding what to do with this Aristotle-Kenny Rogers analysis?
Teaching Moment 2. When my son was about seven years old, we got a call from his teacher. She was upset with him. She reported that he had told a rather disturbing joke in class. The joke, she said, went like this: "Why did the dead baby cross the road?" Answer: "It was stapled to the chicken." Immediately I felt very uncomfortable, all the more so when she asked, "Where on earth would a seven-year-old learn a joke like that?"
Embarrassingly I had to admit to her that I had in fact told him the joke myself. She seemed quite horrified at this prospect. Horror, at least, was the tone in her voice when she asked, "And do you think that’s funny?!" I somewhat sheepishly replied that … well … he had certainly gotten a big kick out of it. She didn’t sound impressed, so I moved into academic mode and tried to deconstruct the joke for her. I explained how it works on shock value – not only is the baby unpleasantly dead, it also has the misfortune of being stapled to a chicken. And even worse, it’s also trying to get across a street, which is dangerous in any case (although, granted, it’s dead). "And," I concluded, "all this is kind of funny in the context of the general banality of chickens-crossing-roads jokes. The joke works because these jokes are supposed to be cute, not sick and depraved."
There was silence at the other end of the line. I’m sure she was deliberating over her ethical responsibilities. Or perhaps she’d skipped that relatively short endeavor and was now looking up the number for child protective services. In the end she rather vaguely suggested that I keep age-appropriateness in mind when telling jokes to my children. (My first thought was that I had – who, after all, would enjoy this joke more than a seven-year-old? I kept this thought to myself, however.)
After hanging up, I found myself feeling grateful that I was not a second grade teacher; that, as a professor, I wasn’t burdened with the sorts of ethical responsibilities that primary school teachers have, responsibilities that mandate telephone calls to parents, and – in extreme cases – to the nearest law enforcement. And then it dawned on me that that’s not entirely so, that while perhaps I don’t have to make painful phone calls to parents – in fact the law prevents me from doing so – I am hardly off the proverbial moral hook. As a university instructor, I don’t face the same ethical issues and responsibilities as do primary and secondary instructors, but I clearly do face them. An obvious example quickly came to mind: what is the ethical thing to do when confronted with a student who seems emotionally or psychologically disturbed, a student who might be a danger to him- or herself or – worse – to others? For a primary or secondary school teacher, such a situation clearly imposes ethical responsibilities. But of course – as the tragedies at Concordia University and Virginia Tech illustrate all too vividly – it does for me as well.
The unstable student is simply at the extreme of a much larger ethical issue: when are we in any way ethically obligated to get involved in the private lives of our students? The answer is different for professors than it is for second grade teachers, but the question is no less ours. And the fact that our students are older actually adds ethical issues that aren’t as apparent at earlier stages. What, for instance, are the limits of the relationship that we can have with our students? Is having a coffee okay? A beer? Many beers? (How many?) Can we ask them to babysit? And does our answer change with our different roles? After all, at this level, we’re not just the students’ teachers, we’re also their mentors, their co-authors, their lab supervisors.
The more one thinks about life as a professor, the more apparent it becomes that our primary difficulty is not in trying to resolve the dilemmas we face; it’s in trying recognize when we’re in them. Here’s the rule of thumb I’ve come to accept: if I think I have a moral dilemma on my hands, then I do. If I don’t think I have a moral dilemma on my hands, then I really do. If that sounds like an exaggeration, just consider how easy it is to come up with other examples. Can you offer a student a makeup exam if you haven’t made that offer to her classmates? How many sides of an academic debate do you need to present? At what point does a laissez-faire thesis supervisor become a negligent one? How up-to-date on your subject matter do you need to be to teach it? How up-to-date on instructional methods do you need to be to teach at all?
To complicate matters, with each of these questions comes the issue of whom we have ethical responsibilities to. Consider the ubiquitous issue of academic dishonesty. Before we can figure out what our responsibilities are, we need to consider to whom we owe them. Do we owe them to the student who violated academic norms? Do we owe them to his or her classmates who did not? Do we owe them to our colleagues – to whom we might pass this student in the event we don’t take action? Do we owe them to the institutions that employ us? To our academic discipline? To society at large? To ourselves?
Think about the medical professor who turns a blind eye to an academic infraction, thereby sending into the world an ethically and perhaps intellectually challenged doctor. Whose trust has the professor violated? It would be karma of the highest sort if, years later, that professor were wheeled into the operating room only to look up and see her former student. Admittedly the stakes are not usually this high – not all disciplines train their graduates for such vital services. The point, however, remains: it is awfully easy not to take formal action in cases of dishonesty. But then the question becomes: do you yourself – by your inaction – violate academia’s code of ethics?
Subjects and Courses