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.

Briefly Noted: To Examine or Not to Examine, That is the Question

I am left uncompelled. In a recent article for The Chronicle of Higher Education, Stacey Patton reports that an increasing number of graduate students and professors wish to get rid of comprehensive examinations as a requirement for completing graduate school.[1]

Traditionally, faculty and students have considered “comps” essential to a graduate education. However, as Patton notes there is a growing coalition of faculty and students who consider the exams to be arbitrary, punitive, secretive, and ultimately bereft of value. It is claimed that comps slow students in their education, and sometimes they are even scared out of a program.

Debate has given way to changes in some institutions. “Some programs,” Patton writes, “have already revamped their exams to tie them more closely to a student’s thesis or dissertation, and to be more relevant to what students plan to do in their careers.” In a study of English master’s programs at forty-three institutions only thirteen required comprehensive examinations. Nineteen of those programs allowed students to choose between exams or other projects, and eleven of the programs did not require any exam or project at all.

Patton illustrates by reporting about an interview with Linda S. Bessette. “Bessette, who is 60 and works as a financial planner, enrolled part time in Central Arkansas’ master’s program in English in 2007.” Her program required comprehensive examinations for successful completion. She knew this but was “shocked when she learned that five out of six of her classmates failed it in April.” Ms. Bessette claims that the failure of her fellow students indicates the failure of the department that tested them. “The information, she said, showed that the English department had a high failure rate. . . . In her complaint, Ms. Bessette asked some pointed questions: Why would so many of the English graduate students fail to pass the comprehensive exam if they had successfully completed their coursework? . . . Ms. Bessette argued that the department’s exam was ‘fatally flawed’ and ‘capricious.’”

At the base of Ms. Bessette’s frustration lies a belief that education must be collaborative and open. This is a belief shared by many in education. Rosemary G. Feal, executive director of the Modern Language Association, expresses this view: “Exams, she said, should not be punitive or serve as a gatekeeping function.” She continued: “‘we owe our students a cogent explanation of how our assessment tools relate to our curriculum . . . That’s a basic contractual agreement.’”

So, in a nutshell, the accusation is that comprehensive examinations, unfortunately, are difficult, time-consuming, scary, and (gasp!) flunk-able. Well. You know that in these Briefly Noted columns I typically try to be candid, while at the same time staying on the nearside of disrespectful. But this time I find it hard to restrain myself. Any graduate student who shies away from difficult, time-consuming, and flunk-able examinations has no reason not to shy away from submitting an article or book for publication (imagine such a poor little lamb at the hands of double-blind peer reviewers!) or from taking a job as a professor (bless his heart, this graduate student will spend the rest of his life being “examined” via student, peer, and dean evaluations, and his job is in the balance).

The one criticism I will grant is Rosemary Feal’s point that the comprehensive exams must be tied to the curriculum and/or dissertation, and that the students must be given an explanation of the exams. But the other points appear to me among the silliest of this pedagogical silly season.

Comprehensive exams ought to be difficult, time-consuming, a bit scary, and eminently flunk-able. This is not to say that they are punitive or capricious. Quite to the contrary: comprehensive examinations offer the faculty committee an opportunity to evaluate the student’s mastery of his chosen field, assess his readiness to progress to the dissertation stage, and prepare for a lifetime of scholarly debate and discussion.

For this reason, the institution where I teach—Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary—requires both written and oral comprehensive examinations. The written examinations are six hours in length, and are divided into two parts. The first part of the written exams is designed to test the student’s mastery of some significant topics within his chosen field of study, while the second part tests their readiness in the narrower subject area of the student’s chosen dissertation. After the written examinations, the student sits for an oral examination that takes approximately two hours. In the oral exams, the professors engage the student’s written answers but also engage the student on any topic relevant to that student’s studies.

Take, for example, an examination in systematic theology. During the first part of the written exams (which evaluates the student’s mastery of significant topics within his field), a student might be asked to (a) build a doctrine of creation which addresses the notions of creation order, covenant, kingdom, the image of God, plurality/diversity, and Sabbath; and (b) make an assessment of N. T. Wright’s theological method, with special attention to his critical realism, his emphasis on narrative, and his understanding of the relationship between Israel and the church.  During the second part of the written exams (which assesses the student’s preparedness to write a dissertation in a narrow subject area), the student might be asked to explain the ways in which postliberal theologies have been shaped by Ludwig Wittgenstein and Karl Barth (if, in fact, the student’s proposed dissertation would focus on post-liberalism).

Some time after taking the written examinations, the student enters a room with three faculty members. They will ask questions and make comments about any weaknesses shown on the written exams. They might ask questions that were not even addressed on the comps, just to make sure the student can address the doctrines of God, Christ, Spirit, Church, Salvation, or Eschatology. Further, they will push the student to drill deeper so they can get a feel for the student’s limits. To relate back to question “a” above, the professor might ask the student to put his doctrine of creation in conversation with fall, redemption, and new creation, showing the relationship between the concepts so as to bring out their meaning. In particular, he might be asked about the material world, whether God created it ontologically good and, if so, whether its (ontological) goodness was affected by the Fall. And so on.

In so doing, the faculty members not only assess the student’s depth and breadth in systematic theology, and his depth in the subject matter of his proposed dissertation, but also are able to evaluate his ability to handle himself in discussion and debate. If the student cannot argue a thesis on the spot with three interlocutors, he likely will not fare well when presenting a paper at a theological society, making an argument in a book or blog, or even answering the probing questions of a layperson in his congregation. However, if the student can hold his own in a discussion, and do so in a gracious and socially appropriate manner, he probably is ready to write books and blogs, present papers at a professional society, or handle publicly the questions of a congregant.

Should we get rid of comprehensive examinations? Nullo modo. Something is lost when a community refrains from taking part in constructive communal disputations. Such disputations offer a valuable venue for constructive dialogue and debate, socialization, evaluation, and hopefully encouragement of the student. The trend toward abolishing comprehensive examinations is a sad one, and one which we should not follow.

[1] Stacey Patton, “Graduate Students Urge Changes in Comprehensive Exams,” in The Chronicle of Higher Education (Oct 18, 2013: A16–17).

Briefly Noted: “Only Disconnect” by Andrew Reiner

Now this is an interesting suggestion. In the September 28, 2012 edition of The Chronicle Review (p. B20) Andrew Reiner, professor of literature at Towson University, writes that college students can better learn how to learn by taking a sabbath from technology–a social-media sabbath. Reiner’s impetus for this suggestion is the rampant preoccupation college students have with social media.

Reiner cites a study by Reynol Junco that suggests American college students may spend, on average, one hour and 40 minutes on Facebook and three hours a day texting. Reiner also shares that, after surveying his own classes, one student admitted to “fake texting” while in public. The problem, Reiner suggests, is not with social-media per se but with many (most?) students’ fear of being left out of the crowd, whatever crowd that may be. It is no wonder that this problem also manifests itself in classrooms. How many of us peek at Facebook or text (or even fake text) while in a classroom, or even (gasp!) in a sanctuary? For college students and others, then, endless access to social-media may not be a sign of humanity’s tech achievements but rather its desire for distraction.

Going beyond this diagnosis, Reiner suggests that all the social-media activity reveals students’ fears of vulnerability and failure. He claims, “when we allow for intimacy, we open ourselves to two of the most dreaded conditions in our culture–vulnerability and failure.” So, learning requires intimacy, relationship with one’s subject. Yet, because hyper social-networked students seek the crowd, they eschew taking the necessary risks inherent in learning about something other than themselves or their status update. Why spend time learning about something new when I can find out what new pics my “friends” may have uploaded today? For Reiner, education suffers because social media is a safe place for this generation of American students.

To provide a remedy for this problem Reiner suggests that students take a social-media sabbath in order to “create a space of deceleration–and detachment from outside distractions.” Reiner follows the suggestions of Abraham Joshua Heschel’s book The Sabbath. In 1951 Heschel argued that mankind’s solution to its many problems would not be total renunciation from technology but “in attaining some degree of independence of it.” Thus, he called for a day of rest from that technology. Reiner calls for the same. To that end, he gave his own students an assignment to take at least four hours away from all social media. After the experiment one student wrote that she “hadn’t felt so light in years.” It remains to be seen if students will automatically learn better due to such a sabbath, but it does seem a more human way of living. Indeed, for those with a biblical worldview, Sabbath has always been a godly thing.

Now, after I post this blog, I think I’ll tweet a link to it, and then say something about it on my Facebook update. Grin.