07 January 2015

A cog in a teaching machine

In the Chronicle of Higher Education, Leonard Cassuto asked:

That phrase – “my own work” – has bugged me for my entire career. It’s always used to distinguish research from teaching, but how does teaching not qualify as “my own work”?

Teaching qualifies less as “my own work” because institutions clearly signal that I am a replaceable cog in their teaching mission.

Take introductory biology, for example. There are a bunch of textbooks out there. They all follow the same topics in the same order: Organic chemistry, macromolecules, cell structure, cellular respiration, photosynthesis, cell division, Mendelian genetics, DNA structure, replication, and protein synthesis.

My job in teaching is not to set the curriculum. Other people have done that. There is a very standardized introductory curriculum across North America, partly homogenized by the efforts of textbook publishers and the efforts of lawmakers. My job is to get up there and talk about the content that other people have decided I should teach.

Further, in my institution, there are multiple sections of introductory biology, each taught by different instructor. Since this is nominally the same class, the sections I teach must be broadly comparable in content, and to some degree delivery.

There are many lab sections, scheduled by a single lab coordinator, with topics selected to align with the expected lectures.

It should be no surprise that I don’t feel like teaching is “my” work, particularly at the introductory levels. I did not have much creative input into the content of the class, and I am very constrained in how I teach it.

If you want more evidence that institutions consider the real life instructor almost superfluous, have a look at this story of a class where one professor, the instructor of record, is acting as a commentator to a series of video recordings. A similar thread runs through all the interest with MOOCs and the Khan Academy: the face-to-face interaction with a human instructor is downplayed.

At higher level courses, things can be a little different. I have greater freedom in deciding what content to teach. But even then, there are few cases where I think that what I have to offer in a class is unique. I teach a neurobiology class where I had complete creative control. That’s great. But at the end of the day, there are neurobiology and neuroscience classes all over the country, and “I took neurobiology at university X with instructor Y” is not that indicative of a unique experience.

But research? There are not other people doing the studies I do. There are not other people writing the papers I write. My research remains hand crafted, not mass produced. Research is entirely my own work in a way that teaching rarely is.

Additional, 8 January 2015: Siobhan O'Dwyer riffs off this post: "Artisanal academia."

External links

Teach while you’re at it
When a flipped-classroom pioneer hands off his video lectures, this is what happens

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