What Is Good Teaching?

When we walk out of a class, how do we know it was a good one?

David Williams
Azusa Pacific University

That question opened my friend David Williams’ talk at our “Pietist Idea of a Christian College” workshop last week. In the end, he concluded that it had little to do with content and everything to do with passion: there’s something regenerative (Pietist Idea, remember) about a teacher’s love for his subject and the joy he so clearly gets from the act of teaching. However much or little instrumental value the class had, however well or poorly the teaching matched up with any objectively verifiable standard for “good pedagogy,” it succeeded if it invited the student into a similar love and joy.

In part because it seems like such a counter-cultural claim to make in a time when (a) we’re told over and over that outcomes need to be assessable, and (b) the liberal arts are supposedly in decline because they’re failing to demonstrate their instrumental value…

But mostly because it aligns so closely with my own experience… I think David was 100% right.

Still, it’s a hard idea to get a handle on, even if you’ve done lots of teaching yourself. And simply asserting my own experience isn’t going to be all that helpful. So let me try to sketch some connections between David’s talk and a couple of other recent blog posts about college teaching…

I don’t know if philosophers like David read the New York Times‘ philosophy blog, The Stone, but his talk reminded this non-philosopher of a recent post from Gary Gutting. Wondering what he had accomplished over the past year, Gutting first discarded what most would assume to be the primary benefit of higher education:

Gary Gutting
University of Notre Dame

The standard view is that teaching imparts knowledge, either knowing how (skills) or knowing that (information).  Tests seem important because they measure the knowledge students have gained from a course.  But how well would most of us do on the tests we aced even just a few years ago?…

Overall, college education seems a matter of mastering a complex body of knowledge for a very short time only to rather soon forget everything except a few disjointed elements.

Instead, Gutting proposed that the value was to be found in intellectual exercises that “make students vividly aware of new possibilities for intellectual and aesthetic fulfillment—pleasure, to give its proper name.” And so,

We should judge teaching not by the amount of knowledge it passes on, but by the enduring excitement it generates. Knowledge, when it comes, is a later arrival, flaring up, when the time is right, from the sparks good teachers have implanted in their students’ souls.

Now Gutting focused on his experience of leading a first-year reading seminar, but I want to propose that measuring the value of education with words like passion, joy, love, pleasure, and excitement should actually cause us to rethink the value of that medieval citadel not yet overwhelmed by the forces of modernization and postmodernization: the lecture.

(I know: I’ve already posted on this once in 2013, but that was way back in year two of this blog. It’s a brand new year, baby!)

John Merriman
Yale University

Consider how The Atlantic‘s Ta-Nehisi Coates described the experience of watching lectures by gifted teachers like French historian John Merriman, whose popular survey of Europe after the Peace of Westphalia Coates encountered in the OpenYale series:

…listening to these guys have [sic] helped me get a hold on what makes for a great lecture.

Merriman is a kind of a freestyle rapper. He is riffing off the material and doesn’t really do “In this year this happened, and in that year that happened.” Instead he just gives you anecdotes, quotes and observations about the periods. Merriman has this weird ability to inhabit the history–he’ll do these really exaggerated accents or capture the tragicomedy of World War I by noting the obvious threat of the Germans “in Ostend eating moules frites.

Taste for yourself: here’s John on one of his favorite topics, anarchism and other radical movements of the 19th century.

(Disclaimer: Though I somehow failed to take or teach a class with him, John was one of my professors in graduate school, gently leading a would-be diplomatic historian through a minor field on modern France, with a focus on the history of education. His book about French anarchist Émile Henry is still one of my favorites to teach.)

Coates’ most important observation about John’s teaching style is this: “Last week I was talking about how much of teaching is performance, and Merriman gives a show. This is not demeaning. So much of getting people to care about a subject is conveying your own passion.”

And that should bring us full circle to David Williams’ proposal, which accords with the notion that teaching is performance.

While it’s entertaining when done well, a lecture is more than an entertainment. It tells truth: not like a geometric proof does, or a scholarly monograph does, but like a Shakespearean monologue or a Chopin piano recital does — inviting a response from the audience that goes deeper than cognition.

Not surprisingly, then, the lecture is fundamentally misunderstood…

Bored students at a lecture
From NASA (seriously)

As a tedious bore. Only true if it’s delivered poorly (a Hamlet soliloquy is death in the wrong hands, right?) and that actually underscoring the unique value of a lecture: we expect it to be gripping, in a way we wouldn’t expect of a biology lab or a methods course in accounting, and are disappointed when the lecturer falls short and merely delivers information in a dry, well-organized fashion.

As an information-delivery device. Because while some might view the lecture (especially in MOOC format) as an incredibly cost-efficient way of passing along the commodity of knowledge to a large number of paying consumers, its success — if David Williams and Gary Gutting are right (they are) — is not primarily about how much information is or isn’t recorded by the audience.

As a power trip by professors who don’t see their students as partners in learning. I wrestle more with this misunderstanding than the others. Especially in the largest classroom I use, where I’m teaching first-year students from a stage that towers over the first few rows of a hall where, if you catch the echo right, you can get a nice “voice of God” effect. But I don’t think it’s really about power: students, after all, can (consciously or not) ignore everything being said, find a lot of it on Wikipedia, and still get a passing grade. Or they can shop for a different class or (gulp) another tuition-dependent, financially shaky college.

Indeed, far from feeling powerful, I never feel more vulnerable than when I’m lecturing — stripped of the privacy and solitude my introvert’s soul prefers, exposing the extensive limitations of my knowledge and abilities (wondering if it wouldn’t be safer to facilitate discussion, and redirect attention away from my own uncertainties: “What do you think?”), and (if I’m doing it right) putting some of my deepest loves and joys (and sorrows) on full display for an audience that seems as likely to respond with laughter, derision, or  apathy as with enthusiasm.

But that risk is worth it if some uncertain number of students find something winsome about the sight of a grown man showing boyish enthusiasm for the study of the past. If something is sparked in their soul and a love is kindled.

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