'The Amateur Hour' by Jonathan Zimmerman Sheds Light on Poor College Teaching

From the cover of The Amateur Hour (Johns Hopkins University Press)

Students often complain that their professors are boring and little interested in the classes they teach. How different from other service industries, where people are so eager to do their best.

A new book by Jonathan Zimmerman entitled The Amateur Hour explores the history of college teaching and sheds some light on the generally poor level of instruction for students. In today’s Martin Center article, professor Matthew Stewart of Boston University reflects on it.

First, there evidently was no “golden age” long ago when college teaching was excellent. In the 19th century, it was pretty dismal. Stewart writes, “Unsurprisingly, students expressed anxiety and boredom, a combination of emotions bound to lead to resentment, if not cynicism, over the long haul. After students finished parroting the assigned readings, professors sometimes concluded the class by reading straight from the text. In the latter decades of the century, concomitant with the rise of the PhD, lectures came to replace recitations as the primary form of instruction. Nevertheless, the same basic student complaints prevailed. They felt bored and disconnected from the material.”

Yes, there were some top-flight instructors, but not many. One gets the impression that colleges figured out early on that they were selling credentials and whether the students learned much or little didn’t really matter.

Shouldn’t colleges today try to ensure that new faculty members are properly trained in teaching methods? Many do, but it’s doubtful that they accomplish much. Stewart writes, “Belief in the importance of personality correlates strongly with the belief that great teachers are born, not made. Thus the split between those who think that education classes are mostly a waste of time, and those who think that college teachers, like any other teachers, ought to be given formal training and brought up to speed on pedagogical research.”

Many of the faculty who have gone through those education classes are still lousy in the classroom. That has a lot to do with their incentives. To advance, they need to focus on their research. Time devoted to the classroom and students is largely seen as time wasted.

I’m surprised that Zimmerman doesn’t mention (at least, Stewart doesn’t bring it up) Adam Smith’s famous observation that college instructors who were directly paid by the students were far more engaged and effective than were those who were paid by the university. That’s the missing incentive.

George Leef is the the director of editorial content at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.

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