So I've been thinking about teaching and academia, partly in response to a whole variety of posts in the last week or so, here, here, here, and here. (I think the discussion originally sprang up over at Dr. Crazy's but I can't remember in response to which post now.) At first I thought was I thinking was a comment, but really I think it's a slightly different take on the question, that actually may connect more with the work/life blog conference over at 11D.
I think a recurring issue in the first set of discussons has been couched in terms of what value academics place on teaching, when in fact it's not really about whether academics value teaching, but how they define what good teaching is. I have to confess that I have played the cynic here (like one of those senior grad students you encounter when you first start grad school, the ones who seem to say, "Yeah, that's right, be excited, love your subject, aim for greatness.... YOU'LL SOON LEARN."), and have emphasized in some of my comments that academia doesn't always value teaching (I would argue that in PhD-granting institutions, teaching is never going to garner you the praise and reward that research will. In fact, I would argue that in the profession as a whole, teaching is never going to garner you the praise and reward that research will. No one awards endowed chairs or MacArthur "genius" grants for teaching). While I stand behind that comment about academia as an institution, at the same time I'm firmly convinced that 93% of academics I've met are strongly dedicated to their teaching, consider it important, and seek nothing but to help students learn.
And yet, my modest proposal is to ask the good teachers out there, the ones who care, who bust their balls, to please, be maybe not so good. Slack off just a little. Or at least be very very careful when you assign those challenging papers, incorporate peer review and rewrites, institute new pegagodical techniques.
Before y'all stone me for a heretic, let me explain further.
Maybe one of the comments that triggered this came also from Dr. Crazy:
Well, I should be grading (and no, I will not be done with the mountains of grading until approximately mid-december and yes, it is my own fault for assigning all of this shit and actually caring that I teach my students instead of accepting the fact that I'm killing myself at this pace and should just stop worrying about whether they learn...)
She has another comment along these lines:
Three hours of conferences. Three hours (ok, only 2 hours and 45 minutes) of teaching. My brain is fried, and I've got to be back at school at 9 AM for three more hours of conferences. I know that this is good for my freshmen (I will only go to these lengths for them), but it is... draining. I hate it when sound pedagogy translates into self-flagellation. It just sucks.
These are just isolated comments, but they made me think of the dangers of uber-dedication to teaching. I have two dear dear friends who have both left teaching after some years (one taught high school, granted, but one taught at the college level). Both of them were described by students as the best teacher they'd ever had. Students cited their classes as life-changing. The dedication and devotion that they inspired in their students was remarkable to see, and was a reflection not of any kind of pandering or coddling but followed in the wake of rigorous, demanding, and - yes - incredibly FUN classes. The college level friend is the best teacher that I have ever known.
And now neither of them are teaching.
They got burnt out; they couldn't separate teaching from the rest of their life. And teaching is an incredible mindsuck and timesuck that will take up every tiny speck of time and energy that you have, if you let it.
Over the years I repeatedly expressed amazement at the kind of work they put in to teaching - for instance, assigning 7 short papers and 7 essay tests in a class of 85 students (on top of another class of 70 students with a very similar assignments) at the same time as completely rewriting each day's lecture even though they'd taught the class before, because they need to be "fresh." Never mind meeting with 5-10 students a day, every day, for at least half an hour at a time, and each student feeling like they'd finally encountered the one person on campus who really cared about them and listened to them and would work to help them be the best that they could be. I asked if there weren't ways to give students a valid educational experience that didn't require so much effort on the part of the instructor. I know at least one of them tried to revamp their assignments/workload, but just found different ways to overwork themselves.
Both friends, when they left teaching, said that they couldn't continue doing what they did, but they couldn't do it any other way.
And you know, that makes me MAD. It makes me angry because here are two people who really made a big difference in many students' lives, and now they're not doing it at all.
Wouldn't it be better for them to "slack" a little, and continue to be able to help students? Wouldn't helping students at, say, 75% of the level that you feel is "true" teaching, help more students than being unable actually to maintain that insane level of work required to produce such truly exceptional teaching?
And there's another friend, who is still teaching (college), who devotes herself to her students to the extent that she rarely spends time with her partner, eats right, gets sleep, etc. Many of us who know her are convinced she's going to have a heart attack by age 50. And then what good will that do anyone?
And what does this have to do with any of the previous blog posts I referred to above, again? Well, maybe not a lot, directly. The comments just got me thinking about the different ways that we - academics, academia - talk about teaching, and how easy it is to get sucked into that black hole of teaching, and to find justification for that in a wide variety of discourses about teaching. I think it's actually often harder to pull back and advocate moderation without looking like you're a slacker teacher.
Research doesn't seem to me to have quite the same effect, but then, I'm not in a field with labs or anything like that, which would probably be quite different. Research is one of those things that you have to do (and which I love, don't get me wrong) but which doesn't present the same constant drain on energy and resources that teaching does (when you have deadlines looming certainly research sucks you in, but on most days, nothings going to go immediately wrong if I don't get my research prepped for 10 am the next morning, whereas it will if I don't get the teaching prepped). Although this may just betray my own biases.
So in the end this connects back to Laura's life/work blog over at 11D, which was all about how to balance work and life. And my modest proposal is a call for moderation. Don't buy into some of the discourses about what is or isn't appropriate performance, especially in terms of teaching.
Buy into survival instead.