The Myth of Good College Teaching by Robert Day

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Myth of Good College Teaching

At some point during the upcoming college graduation ceremonies there will be a moment when a member of the faculty is honored for excellence in classroom teaching. The chances are, even given local college politics, that the teacher deserves the recognition. That there is good college classroom teaching is not the myth: that it has any value in academic marketplace is. Think trading in Rubles.

Consider my friend for forty years, the brilliant American novelist John Barth. Over time I have met more than a few of his students from his Johns Hopkins teaching career. All of them praised the precision of his advice, his candor, his careful reading of their work.

Yes. And because of who he was as an important novelist he held their attention with Coleridge’s “glittering eye.” And because of who was he could have obtained distinguished professorships at a number fine colleges and universities. Now consider this:

How about we create a doppelgänger of John Barth albeit with few (if any) publications? Let us make him a teacher with deep knowledge of his subject; a teacher who prepares his classes with care. A teacher who is honored at graduation for his dedication to his students. And now let us imagine that this John Barth seeks the same professorships that author of The Floating Opera (among many other novels) is seeking. Futility to the x times y power.

But of course John Barth’s Hopkins students had the best of his glittering eye. Think about the well-published scholars and scientists in all academic fields, the specialists who are never going to be honored for their classroom teaching because they are neither good at it, nor care much about it. Imagine they have won national and international prizes and awards far beyond their college and university. It doesn’t take much to imagine that they too will get “the jobs, the dollars” to quote a line from Dee Snodgress’ poem April Inventory.

Each year I drive west on Interstate 70 from the East Coast to a remote town in Northwestern Kansas and along the way I see billboards advertising universities and colleges: One school claims a celebrated basketball player starred on its team; a small college asserts that it has a business program that will get its students jobs; a state school announces it is a nationally recognized “Research University;” another college brags that a famous speech had been given there; and, (my favorite) a university shows a massive picture of two clinched bare knuckled fists sporting ten championship rings from various NCAA playoffs. Taken together these billboards are fifteen minutes of fame for the colleges and universities that line the interstate highways of America (well, 15 seconds at 7O mph).

To be fair, you can’t put a picture of a celebrated teacher on a billboard (who would pay the bill?—not the athletic department), nor would any good teacher want that: Praise to face is open disgrace, as the old rule would have it. And if you were an honored teacher, you would probably not want to be celebrated at the half time ceremony of a football game—something I once witnessed.

So what’s to be done? Not much as it turns out. There is of course satisfaction in itself from teaching well; not unlike the pleasure of learning is the pleasure of learning—thus a liberal arts education, also not a valued currency.

Or there is this, again from April Inventory:

“There is a gentleness survives
That will outspeak and has its reasons.
There is a loveliness exists,
Preserves us, not for specialists.”

Robert Day is the author of ten books, including novels; works of literary non-fiction; collections of short stories; novellas; memoir; and poetry. His most recent book is Robert Day for President: An Embellished Campaign Autobiography. He has lived on the Eastern Shore since 1970. 

This essay was originally published in the Baltimore Sun and used with its permission. 

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