Briefly Noted: An Outrageous Idea for Universities & Seminaries

Just asking. If an institution of higher education were to offer Ph.D. programs (which prepare future professors), do you think it would include some readings and seat time addressing the topic of, ahem, how to be a good teacher? This is the question Derek Bok asks in his fine little article, “We Must Prepare Ph.D. Students for the Complicated Art of Teaching,” in a recent edition of The Chronicle of Higher Education.[1]

Bok, the former president of Harvard University, answers in the affirmative: Ph.D. students must be taught how to teach—rather than merely being taught how to research and write—during the course of their PhD studies. He notes that although American universities are internationally renowned for producing top scholars, researchers, and entrepreneurs, they are not producing good pedagogues. “The most glaring defect of our graduate programs,” he writes, “is how little they do to prepare their students to teach.” And despite a few recent improvements––like centers that help students learn how to be teaching assistants––little motivation exists among the guild for changing this trend.

Bok observes that faculty and administrators have been unwilling to make changes. Many of them think that teaching is an un-teachable skill, “an art that one acquires naturally and improves through practice over time.” For Bok this goes against the grain of both common sense and recent scientific research. “Much has now been discovered about cognition, motivation, and the relative effectiveness of different methods of instruction.” Recent work has also shown that college students “are not making as much progress as most people have assumed in mastering skills such as writing and critical thinking.” Bok argues that all professors, especially new ones, will need to make use of this body of knowledge to become more effective in teaching.

Further accentuating the need for pedagogical training is the growth of online course offerings. MOOCs, hybrids, chats, and so on have impacted the way students seek to learn. Bok rightly notes that graduate students need to be trained in the rights and wrongs, uses and abuses, of these delivery models. He states, “Technology changes the nature of teaching in several ways. Developing an online course is a collaborative venture in which instructors work with technicians and media experts. Teaching, then, becomes less intuitive and more of a collective, deliberative activity.” All this growth and change has made “pedagogy . . . a much more complicated process . . . requiring formal preparation.”

Three lines of argumentation inform the remainder of Bok’s article. First, he notes that most Ph.D. graduates (about three-quarters of all Ph.D.’s) do not get jobs in research universities. This means most Ph.D. graduates who work in academia are required to do so at smaller, teaching-based institutions. Many of these institutions enroll students who may or may not be prepared to learn at the undergraduate level. Thus, future Ph.D. graduates will be required to teach, and teach well, students who require more teaching. Second, Bok claims students increasingly “multi-task” by tweeting, posting to Facebook, texting, and playing games whilst sitting in their classes. Future Ph.D. graduates must know how to engage such students in the learning process. Third, because of the lack of training professors themselves have in teaching instruction, “provosts and deans will have to take the initiative.”

Bok recognizes the conundrums that arise from these factors. “It is not entirely obvious just when and where the necessary instruction should take place.” Existing graduate program curricula do not make a good place, Bok claims. New curricula must be created: “ . . . to prepare their professors properly, colleges may need to give them a course that includes material dealing not only with pedagogy but also with ethical problems in teaching and research, the history of higher education, the principal schools of thought on the undergraduate curriculum, and the organization, financing, and governance of universities.” This sort of change will help current and future professors meet the needs presented by this generation of students.

I am entirely in agreement with Bok’s article. PhD programs tend to focus exclusively on research and writing and do so for multiple reasons: contentment with maintaining the received traditional PhD curriculum, personal preference for scholarship over classroom instruction, and personal pedagogical deficiencies stemming from having never studied pedagogy in their own PhD programs. We owe it to our PhD students to give them a toolbox which is not bereft of the pedagogical tools necessary for their future vocations as classroom instructors.

[1] Derek Bok, “We Must Prepare Ph.D. Students for the Complicated Art of Teaching,” in The Chronicle of Higher Education (Nov 15, 2013): A36–37.

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  1. Bekah Stoneking   •  

    Yes yes yes. A thousand times yes!

    I would also assert that, at least for our seminary, we need to be intentional about training our grad students to be good educators as well. After all, pastors and missionaries ARE teachers! So in addition to hermeneutics and theology and evangelism training, they also need the appropriate toolbox to know their audience (and the different abilities, levels of understanding, presuppositions, etc. present in that audience), to enhance their communication skills, and to have the ability to both formally and informally assess learning and understanding.

    Knowing a bunch of stuff doesn’t mean anything if you cannot effectively communicate it to others.

  2. Alvin reid   •  

    Agreed. In my PhD studies one of the most helpful assignments I had was to produce a syllabus and outline for teaching a course at the seminary level. And, one of the best articles I read was by Lewis Drummond, then at SBTS, on teaching evangelism in seminary (published in one of the collections from a Billy Graham Amsterdam meeting). That early assignment and the information by Drummond helped me to think through some issues pedagogically before I walked into my first classroom. We who seek to teach students to think well should also teach them to teach well!

  3. John   •  

    A discussion has begun in academia about the benefits of a two-track system in Ph.D. work: One track for those interested solely in research, and those interested solely in teaching. Unfortunately, most higher education institutions have resorted to hiring adjuncts for teaching duties and then paying them less than poverty wages. I find it paradoxical that the adjuncts often possess better teaching skills than tenured faculty interested primarily in research.

    As for me, the Ph.D. sounds enticing (and most people around here think I’ll earn one some day), but only if I knew I could earn a tenured teaching position. I’ve decided a Ph.D. won’t help me at this point. I already teach two courses each semester (one in religion at our community college where I also work in IT, and one in history at our university). In today’s academic job market, the reduced likelihood I would earn a tenured teaching position doesn’t justify the cost.

    In short, I pastor a church, work in academia, and teach on the college level, all with my M.Div. I have friends who earned doctorates and then found they can’t get either a professorial job or a pastorate.

  4. Bruce Ashford   •     Author

    Bekah, great point. Learning to be an effective teacher is just as necessary at the MDiv level as it is at the Ph.D. level…

  5. Bruce Ashford   •     Author

    Alvin, thanks! I do something similar in some classes by requiring students to prepare a teaching outline instead of a research paper or critical review…

  6. Bruce Ashford   •     Author

    John, hey bro. Thanks for checking in at BtT. I’ve heard about the ‘two track’ approach. I don’t really like it because the students who are most interested in research need to learn to teach, and the students who aim to teach will find their teaching invigorated if they continue to be lifelong researchers/learners.

  7. Nathan Saunders   •  

    Deep budget cuts here in South Carolina have necessitated the expansion of the undergraduate student body. The faculty senate proposed, and the proposal was accepted, that it be possible to receive tenure after demonstrating excellence in teaching and competence in scholarship, or competence in teaching and excellence in scholarship. If the school was going to expect professors to teach more students, then they wanted to incentivize doing it well. Professors must demonstrate excellence in both areas in order to be promoted to a full professor. This seems like a helpful modification to the “2 track” proposal.

  8. Bruce Ashford   •     Author

    Nathan, yes, that is a good idea and also one which we do here at SEBTS. Some faculty members a better researchers and writers than classroom instructors, and vice-versa. For this reason, promotions can be gained even though a professor might not be a premiere reseacher/writer. However, I don’t like the “2-track” proposal for PhD programs if it in fact implies that PhD students ought not gain competence or proficiency in both skill-sets.

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