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.