One of the things that I have valued most about my graduate education has been the level of attention my programs and instructors have brought to my own teaching. At both my MA institution and at the doctoral level, I’ve been part of programs and departments that take graduate teaching of undergraduates very seriously, and that have invested real resources in teaching graduate students like me to be better teachers ourselves. I can’t speak rigorously about other programs, but the professors and departments I’m familiar with have always treated graduate teaching as matters of great personal and professional responsibility, contrary to the stereotype about uninterested faculty.
Part of this training is participation in mentor groups with other graduate TAs, where we discuss syllabuses and assignments, share successes and failures, and generally support each other in the work of teaching. It’s been a great help to me not only as an instructor but as a researcher, too. Almost all of my peers in these groups have been very enthusiastic and dedicated, and I’ve had the pleasure of observing the classes of other TAs a half dozen times, always coming away impressed. One aspect of this teacher training that always worries me, though, is the common notion among graduate instructors that their pedagogy has to be entertaining. Often, my peers have expressed great anxiety that their students aren’t sufficiently entertained, and have spoken as if a lack of entertainment value is in and of itself reason to change a lesson plan. I get it; it’s hard not to want to entertain people you’re teaching, in any situation, and given that part of the graduate experience is the tacit, mutual understanding that the undergrads you teach have more power in the institution than you do, it’s an understandable desire. But I find it disturbing, because learning is not principally or even majorly a matter of being entertained, and there are many things that you have to understand in life that aren’t fun to learn.
Of course, I would also be disturbed if I thought that my teaching was never entertaining, and I work hard to make my pedagogy engaging and interesting. But those have to be orthogonal to the essential question of whether I think my teaching is effective.
At its worst, the notion that teaching always has to be entertaining is of a piece with the broader sense in which education has become yet another service industry, where students are actually customers, teachers are servants, and the only ultimate goal is to leave the customer satisfied– which is totally contrary to the historical and philosophical purpose of teaching, which is to help others improve themselves, most certainly including in areas they don’t particularly have interest in. You give up that commitment and you should simply stop educating.
This is not a “kids these days” type of argument. To whatever degree they feel entitled to be entertained all the time, it’s a product of economic and cultural forces that are not of their own making. I have far more blame for capitalism, neoliberalism, college administrators, and parents than I do the students. But at the heart of it, there’s the necessary defense of learning as a kind of work, a kind of intellectual work that can and should be entertaining at times but will also involve a lot of thankless grinds and drudgery. That’s life.
I mention this after reading this post by Alan Jacobs, reacting to this unfortunate piece by Robert Talbert on laptops in the classroom. As Alan alludes, the idea that good teaching is always necessarily going to be more entertaining than whatever is on a student’s laptop seems, well, nuts. It would be great if that were true, but the world isn’t laid out that way. Trust me, often when I’m teaching, say, techniques for producing voiced interdental fricatives, I’d rather be shooting zombies on my computer. But there’s necessary work to be done. I’m reminded again of a friend who’s a mathematician who has told me that academic mathematics tends to be taught in a very traditional, analog way, with tons of old-fashioned professor talking at the whiteboard-style pedagogy. Because when it comes to that purest of the pure sciences, there’s a no-bullshit need to grasp the concepts, and the concepts are complex and not easily reducible, and you either sink or swim. Maybe it would be better if it weren’t that way, but it is that way. So that’s how they tend to do it.
This is what I was getting at with my post about difficult reading: not everything necessary or good in life is easy, and though everything in your culture militates against it, you are likely to find yourself a more fulfilled person if you are willing to forgo convenience and entertainment for rigor and work. Sometimes!