Thursday, September 10, 2009

Graduate programs that teach you to be a teacher

As promised, here is your thread about teaching-oriented graduate programs. I'll get us started: my grad school was pretty good about emphasizing good teaching. Of course, I can't tell you which program it was, or even what, specifically they did, without badly damaging my pseudonymity. Sorry.

Anyways, it would be nice if people could be as specific as possible about what good teaching programs do, and include tips I can take into the classroom. Thanks.

--Mr. Zero


Anonymous said...

Any reason to believe that being a good philosophy teacher is something that can be taught?

Of course, other things being equal, knowing more about the subject probably makes you a better teacher; but, that doesn't require a graduate program that goes out of its way to teach you how to be a teacher.

Leland F Saunders said...

Certainly some aspects of being a good philosopher teacher can be taught, for example, how to write a comprehensible syllabus; and certainly other aspects that one can be taught how to think about, for example, how to think about pedagogic aims for a course, what sorts of readings are going to be intelligible for a particular group of students, or what cluster of assignments will provide useful and meaningful feedback. So, at least in the course development aspect of teaching, there is a considerable amount that a person can learn in some sense of that word.

But, when it comes to getting in front of a class and delivering a knock out lecture, it seems that some people are just naturally more gifted at doing that than others. For whatever reason, they find it easy to build rapport with students, to use humor, to keep their attention while delving into complex arcana. That much is true, however, I don't think that means that we cannot learn something about how better to engage students in lecture. Early on in my teaching career, I got some feedback from a professor that proved extraordinarily helpful. I would say that he taught me something about teaching philosophy by showing me some simple things I could do that would make me more effective in front of a classroom.

All that to say, there is a useful distinction between learning how to do philosophy in a graduate program and learning how to do pedagogy.

Mr. Zero said...

Hi Prof. Saunders,

I would say that he taught me something about teaching philosophy by showing me some simple things I could do that would make me more effective in front of a classroom.

Do tell!

Leland F Saunders said...

Hopefully you can call me professor in another year--I'm just about to take my first trip on the philosophy market in *gasp* four weeks! Good luck to us all!!

I'll just point out two things that the visiting prof pointed out to me that I never would have thought of on my own; things that he said gave the perception of a barrier between me and the class.

The first is that, I used to stand behind one of those big classroom tables when I taught. I'd put my notes on there, and pretty much stay behind it the whole time. In talking after his visit, he simply pointed out that this physical barrier can also be a kind of psychological barrier between me and the students. So, the next week I got out from behind the desk, and, as far as I could tell, it made a difference in how engaged students were (though maybe I'm just suffering from some cognitive biases).

Second, he pointed out that I drank a lot of coffee when I taught, and that I only drank when students were talking, which could give the impression that I wasn't really paying attention. Instead, he suggested that I leave the coffee at home and make eye contact with students as they are talking, and to maintain eye contact with them in responding. And, in general, just to make lots and lots of eye contact. I did that too, and lo and behold, students were more responsive!

As I said, these are really simple things, but I don't think I would have thought of them on my own, and they have been very helpful in developing rapport with my students; especially when I made the move to teaching a large lecture course.

Anonymous 8:58 said...

Good luck, Leland! (Unless, of course, you are up for one of the jobs that I am after!!)

That sounds correct and I should have been a bit less dismissive in my question. It strikes me that there are some tips and tricks that can improve your course design and rapport with students. I am hoping that most grad programs put at least that much into preparing graduate students to teach.

I don't think that the large research institution that I am at puts much focus on teaching, but we nonetheless get the basics and faculty will watch us teach and give us suggestions. Beyond that, however, I am somewhat skeptical that there would be much benefit to trying to teach teaching. As you say, it seems like the biggest factors are such that you either have it or you don't.

If it is a case of severely diminishing returns after the basic training for teaching philosophy that all programs provide, then it seems that it would be a mistake to pay much attention to whether a school focuses on teaching teaching when deciding on a program.

Chris Stephens said...

I would put in a plug for Syracuse's philosophy department in this context. Though I have no first hand knowledge of their program, they have the reputation of having a very well organized and run system for training TAs. Their program was discussed in Michael Patton's 1992 article in the journal, Teaching Philosophy. They also have some info about it on their website.

My own experience, starting as a crappy teacher, and now, after a number of years, thinking I am much better (I could of course be deluded about this), is that a _lot_ of what makes a good teacher can be taught. Perhaps it is just my unrepentant empiricism talking, but there is an enormous amount of empirical work on pedagogy - some of which isn't worth much, but some is, I think, very valuable. Even if most of it just consists of simple tips such as the ones Saunders mentions, these can make a big difference.

I think most graduate programs (including ours) don't do enough to train teachers - in part this is because we're not necessarily experts in pedagogy, and in part because many people don't think that teaching skills can be taught (beyond a few basic suggestions).

One of the most important factors in getting better as a teacher, I think, is simply the willingness to do so - to continue to self assess (and get others to assess you) and find ways to improve.

SU Alum said...

One very helpful Syracuse practice (when I was there, anyway) was to videotape grad student teachers/TAs once a semester and then discuss them with a faculty mentor and three of four other grad students. Watching oneself teach can be a painful experience -- at first, anyway -- but it's very, very helpful in nipping what will become likely become bad habits in the bud, in seeing what one is doing pretty well at, etc.

In my experience there certainly are things that one can learn to do better: use the board better, create more effective PowerPoints (if one uses them at all), articulate course goals and daily class goals more clearly, etc.

Inside the Philosophy Factory said...

It seems that many grad programs (both in philosophy and other disciplines) believe in the false dichotomy that places good teaching on one side and good research on the other.

After quite a bit of teaching experience, I see that good teaching is more effective teaching. This means that there is less individual student attention necessary with good teaching -- thus, more time for research.

I'm currently tenured at a CC with a 5/5 load, department chair for 45ish faculty in several small disciplines. I also do a bit of other service work AND have written all of my dissertation with that kind of a work load. The last three years have also been long-distance marriage time for me... with 12 hour round-trips to see my spouse.

So -- in that set of working conditions I've had to become more efficient... I'll give the highlights:

1) Plan ahead -- prep ahead and don't change things at the last minute. Also, if you have a textbook that works, stick with it.

2) stay organized, both in your office and in the classroom. This cuts down time spent looking for things and students don't question as often (thus you don't have to spend time answering them).

3) Figure out a pattern of low-prep, high in-class student involvement activities and use them over and over -- so the students get the pattern and you don't have to think up new stuff. My most recent one is to have them divide into small groups and, in essence, fill in the content of a power-point slide whose title is a leading question. They do more of the talking -- you do less work.

4) Use on-line assessment as often as possible. I do many low-point reading quizzes that are graded automatically. My students also submit everything except paper development assignments on-line. This lets me stay organized and grade in little bits, because I can grade from wherever I have internet access.

5) Set strict limits on revisions, late papers and make-up exams. All of these things take extra time for you. Especially if you are doing on-line assessment, a sick kid, car that doesn't start etc.. is no longer an excuse. I usually have my exams open for 24-36 hours, but you could include whatever you currently use as an acceptable make-up period. This lets them sort out internet access, come to campus to take it etc -- and you don't have to administer it.

Anonymous said...

I graduated from a Leiter-ranked program in California, and there was *nothing* about pedagogy. You're basically thrown into the pool. Sad.

Asstro said...

I guess my thought when I suggested that a separate thread be dedicated to this topic was not whether pedagogy could be taught, or whether there are any programs that do it well, but whether it might make sense for some lower-ranked or unranked PhD programs to rebrand themselves as universities that produce great teachers. There's absolutely no reason that every PhD program should strive to be the next NYU.

Earlier comments are correct when they suggest that it simply isn't true that all search committees (particularly of many SLACs and teaching schools) look immediately for top pedigree in their prospective candidates. Matter of fact, being from a Leiterrific University may be working _against_ a philosophy candidate at schools that emphasize teaching.

I know this because, before I got my current job at a Leiterrespectable Research I University, I sat as an external evaluator on a search committee for a SLAC. The searches were run completely differently. At my current university, we absolutely do look at a person's background--though, fortunately for all of you on the market, it is really and truly the writing sample that weighs heaviest in terms of landing an interview. (And yes, we read them, albeit through our own lenses and with our own biases.) We want someone who will produce great philosophy, become a person of note in her field, be productive, work with grad students, and eventually get tenure.

On the SLAC committee, however, pedigree and promise were viewed as a strike against a candidate. We had a few candidates with a narrow dissertation focus, fantastic pedigree, and excellent writing samples. Frankly, we established early on that they wouldn't stick around at this SLAC, so we didn't invite them for fly-outs.

My point in observing this is that the job market is not a monolithic ranking system where the best candidates go to the best jobs. Rather, there are multiple niche markets internal to the job market, there are many kinds of best jobs, and many kinds of best candidates for those jobs. PhD programs can use this to their advantage by fashioning their curricula around capturing these niche markets. They should, in fact, do this.

For all those who have ever sat through a faculty meeting at a lower or un-ranked university and had one or two colleagues wonder aloud why you even have a doctoral program, it would make sense to re-evaluate the branding of your program. Sure, it would be nice to produce top-notch, Leiterrecognized, awesomely interesting, graduate student interlocutors and colleagues... but that can happen in a variety of ways, and I have reason to suspect that if an unranked program, say, takes advantage of the need for great philosophy teachers, they well might attract graduate students who are very interesting, very fun, very smart, and ultimately very successful.

So that's really what I think this thread should be about.

Any thoughts on this?

Anonymous said...

Yeah, my graduate program, despite another poster's comment on another thread somewhere around here (not in this thread, another) basically sucked. The faculty hid behind a barrier of research and didn't want to get involved with the grad students' teaching whatsoever. Something like imparting teaching skills is non-existent at that place.

I've found that the faculty will "appear" like they are helping students learn to teach, but really are not. Good teaching skills requires experience AND feedback. Many other faculty just got off on insulting the grad students behind their back (if they weren't too busy playing in a band or whatever they do.) They wouldn't do teaching observations, they wouldn't give feedback on syllabi, etc etc. Laziness and arrogance on their part, as far as I'm concerned.

It is a shame because alot of the grad students suffer there, and even though they are teaching the faculty and student mentoring relationship is so poor to non-existent that learning to become a good teaching would only come after it is too late.

Eddie said...

but whether it might make sense for some lower-ranked or unranked PhD programs to rebrand themselves as universities that produce great teachers.

PhD granting phil programs, even the non-ranked ones, are usually housed at research institutes. The phil profs at these places haven't been hired because they know how to teach teaching (or how to teach at all, really). So I don't know if they could rebrand themselves in this way, and I suspect many phil profs would resist.

This doesn't mean nothing can be done. At the non-ranked program I graduated from, several things were tried. For instance, our profs recognize that, for nearly all of us grad students at non-ranked U, a job at a 4-yr regional state college would be great. To prepare us for such work, our profs insisted that we take a lot of history, and a lot of value theory (our program's focus, for the most part). The idea was that this broad training would give us a fighting chance at a job, by preparing us to teach a lot of different classes in these areas. This breadth is a virtue at the sort of college we could reasonably be expected to get a sniff from at graduation.

Other things we did:

We had many sections of class X, some taught by grad students and some by professors. One semester we all taught the same book, and then met once a week to talk about the issues in the book and how best to present them. These meetings were led by the profs and advanced grad students, who'd been there before.

We also brought Martin Benjamin to campus one summer, and he gave us a two-day seminar on teaching philosophy. I think he's retired now, but Richard Momeyer (Miami University of Ohio) does something similar w/regard to teaching ethics at APPE.

Anyway, I'm not sure Asstro's idea would work, but there are still things your department can do for you.

Second Year TT guy said...

I'm definately with Asstro on this one, the Philosophy job market definately has several different niches. And there are lots of community colleges and SLACs that are looking for a certain kind of job candidate.... one who is excited about teaching a 4/4 (or more)course load in a small department. Such a candidate would need to be able to offer a wide variety of courses, offer some assurance that they actually want to have such a job, and be good at teaching while occassionally producing an article (at least at the SLAC... probably not at the CC).

When I was on the job market, several of the SCs I interviewed with (at these smaller schools with heavier teaching loads) asked me in one way or another whether I really wanted the job. If I could basically say that I've been training specifically for a teaching oriented job all along (and could provide some evidence for it), it definately would have helped me.

What could a Ph.D. program do to prepare their grad students for such a job? First, make sure they get plenty of teaching experience. After all, every research university has lots of sections that the TT professors rather not teach (critical thinking, logic, intro, etc). Furthermore, the Ph.D. program could network with all the local colleges to try to provide adjuncts for them on a regular basis.

Second, the coursework at such a Ph.D. program would have to provide a broad training. Every graduate should have the background to teach basic intro courses, ancient, modern, intro to ethics, etc.

Third, there would have to be a serious attempt to develop a student's teaching skills. Not every professor at a research university is going to be an expert at teaching, but most of them know a few worthwhile tips they can pass on to us. It wouldn't be that difficult to provide a substantial mentorship for each student.

If the Ph.D. program was intentional in developing this identity, they could make sure this identity is reflected in letters of recommendation and in how the grad student presents himself in cover letters and interviews.

I don't think it would be guarenteed to work, but I think for some non-Leiter programs this rebranding strategy would make more sense than anything else they could do to help their students.

Anonymous said...

I'd like to respond to Saunders's quite apt point about connecting with a caveat. I am a relatively young woman, which I find can make students initially somewhat dismissive. Given this, clear markers that I have authority can be helpful - I generally do stand behind a table where I keep my notes, and I prefer that they call me "Professor" or "Doctor". I nonetheless manage to make connections and have recruited a number of majors, (this is where I think the points about eye contact and active engagement are really important). I'm sure a lot of this is relative to individual things (some people, or kinds of people, come with more natural "presumptive authority"), and also to particular schools (given student presumptions about how a prof will act).

Anonymous said...

I'm skeptical of much of this discussion for a number of reasons.

One, many seem to assume that non-research institutions don't value research very highly. My school is an SLAC, but the load is 2-3 and in addition to being excellent teachers, we're expected to have a respectable record of publications in order to earn tenure.

Two, having a knack for teaching swamps whatever a PhD program could do to train its students. It sounds mean-spirited, but you're on your own here. If you need to be told to make eye-contact with students, you're way behind the curve.

Three, having served on Search Committees, successful applicants find some way of communicating an interest in teaching. Once that's established, it doesn't matter whether they come from Princeton or Syracuse or Miami or UConn.

The single best thing PhD programs can do for their students is to give them opportunities to teach. Practice, practice, practice.

Anonymous said...

Second Year TT guy is "definately" neither TT nor a philosopher. Or if he is, then higher education failed him.

Asstro said...

Maybe I should pipe in to help steer the conversation in a more reasonable direction.

Whatever I had in mind didn't involve primarily teaching about teaching. What I had in mind was that some otherwise neglected graduate programs could easily (and, it seems to me, should) shape their programs around the lumpiness in the market. This doesn't mean that a program has to abandon a commitment to research, nor to producing good philosophers. Quite the contrary. Rather, it means that instead of focusing on pumping out PhDs who are highly productive analytic philosophers, as I think many PhD programs do, a PhD program could focus its emphasis on providing grad students with the resources to be attractive philosophers for the unique requirements of a SLAC or a teaching college. They could also make it known that their students more than the Princeton students, make for better fits at SLACs and teaching colleges.

To take a parallel case, consider the so-called "Continental Underground." This is no small community of PhD programs: Stony Brook, Boston College, Boston University, Vanderbilt, Emory, DePaul, Penn State, Villanova, Oregon, Memphis, Duquesne, Loyola-Chicago... The list goes on. All of these programs produce numerous philosophy doctorates every year. Matter of fact, all of these programs actually _place_ their students, sometimes at schools that are extremely desirable, sometimes with placement rates that are not unlike many of the top programs on the Leiter ranking. I take it that what's going on here is that they have a niche and they are exploiting this niche. There is a similarly large niche for good teachers of philosophy.

Now, as to those who object to the caricature of any particular SLAC as somehow not interested in research, I don't see how that's implied by what I've said. Obviously, there are a range of schools, and a range of job requirements for that range. The basic idea that I'm pressing is that it's not at all clear to me why, say, the University of Dingleberry should try to produce students like Rutgers produces students. It's not clear to me that Dingleberry is doing that now; and so therefore it's not clear that we're correct to evaluate a program based on its resemblence to Rutgers; and it's also not clear to me that Dingleberry should not take advantage of the lumps in the market and design its program for those lumps.

Anonymous said...

Asstro, I guess I'm still not getting your point (this is Anon 1:38 again).

In particular, I'm not seeing how the "continental underground" functions as an analog for a possible 'niche of good teachers of philosophy'. Any sensible Search Committee hiring someone to teach X ought to have some awareness of the programs that are particularly strong in area of specialization X.

How is the analog for teaching going to go? Again, if good teaching is to a large extent having a knack, then we'd expect to find good teachers and bad teachers coming out of every program. Beyond offering students opportunities to teach and practice teaching, I can't see how else graduate programs could take on the identity of an institution that provides good teachers. (Breadth of education is one possibility, but graduate students seem to avoid this, or do it on their own, regardless of program.)

Asstro said...

Hey 1:38:

It's just a niche thing. Just as an SC hiring a Continental would know not to look to Princeton or NYU for a candidate, but may instead look elsewhere -- perhaps to the Continental underground -- so too might an SC hiring for a teaching position have reason to look to a school that produces particularly strong philosophers with an interest in teaching undergraduates.... someone who is not, for instance, dead set on researching a very fine point in epistemology, but instead has a broader focus; perhaps has specialized in "big thinkers" or in the rudiments of epistemology; perhaps has done something innovative and cross-disciplinary in his or her dissertation that might appeal to a smart undergraduate population. I don't really know. The point is that if a school like the University of Dingleberry -- a school off of or low on the Leiter ranking, but with a faculty that aspires to do strong research -- wants its graduates to place well, I fail to see why they can't carve out SLACs as their niche.

All PhD granting programs, fwiw, are producing prospective philosophers. That's what they're doing. So the question is: what should their product look like?

Asstro said...

Actually, here's a different way to put it.

You are on the market. Who are you? Who do you want to be? Where do you want to land?

Choose to build your CV as a candidate for research universities and you'll be trimming your chances at SLACs. Choose to build your CV as a candidate for SLACs and you'll be reducing your chances at research universities.

The line isn't that clear, obviously, but there is a line. If you have five publications at top journals and only a very small teaching portfolio, you'll probably get healthy nibbles from research universities but only a smattering of teaching schools to look at you. If you have a history teaching several diverse classes, with innovative curricula, strong student recommendations, and a demonstrated commitment to community building, but no publications, you'll likely have a harder run at the research schools but maybe do fairly well at attracting SLACs.

Your pick. Who do you want to be? Not everyone wants to be a researcher... but most are trained as researchers. Why is that? That doesn't make sense, particularly when people from programs of less remarkable ranking have such trouble finding placement.

Anonymous said...

I too question the cogency of Asstro's proposal (though I'm grateful that he or she has made it; thanks for excellent contributions to discussion on this site!).

I've taught at three liberal arts colleges, though I'm now at a research university. Based on the former experience, I can testify to the general worry that colleagues who aren't driven to produce good research soon become dead wood in every other respect as well. At each of those schools, the better teachers are also the better researchers. In fact, in each of those departments -- at least, when I was there -- you could make a strong case that the best teacher was the best researcher (i.e. the one who was most regularly publishing in the best journals).

There's a simple explanation for this: passion for philosophy tends to produce both the commitment to produce good philosophy and the commitment to teach it.

Of course, there are good researchers who are bad teachers. But there are very few truly effective teachers -- to majors, not merely to intro students -- who are not also keeping up with the discipline by actually contributing to it.

Anonymous said...


Anon 1:38 again. A couple short remarks. First, I agree wholeheartedly with Anon 8:24: I think your contributions are excellent even where I disagree.

I do actually agree strongly with most of what you say in your comments (5:12) above. I received my PhD from a strong research program, but purposefully designed my CV to be attractive to teaching institutions. (I like teaching more than researching and I valued my own undergraduate experience more than my graduate studies.)

I guess I remain unconvinced that a graduate program could successfully carve out a niche for itself as an institution to which SLACs should look in order to fill positions. I think that individual candidates have to do this for themselves.