March 15, 2006

Summers, teaching, and history

NYU historian of ed Jonathan Zimmerman has penned an article on Larry Summers that's really about college teaching, and then University Diarist responded.

A few thoughts: The hook's wrong. I don't mind an essay on college teaching, but surely there was a better connection to current events in higher ed, such as the Spellings Commission. This one left me with minor mental whiplash. Why did Zimmerman think that Summers' exit had much to do with teaching at all? I thought Summers left because he pushed Cornel West out, or maybe because of last summer's comments on women and science, or maybe because of Harvard's $26+ million payout for an economics professor's follies, or maybe because he shoved out the FAS dean, or maybe because Summers was simply inept at interpersonal relations.

Note: Zimmerman e-mailed me after reading this entry to note that his original column did have the Spellings Commission hook, but the editors wanted a shorter piece and something they thought was better (i.e., Summers). So this is the Monitor's fault...

More substantively, Zimmerman is on target in terms of the rewards of teaching. I love teaching, and I feel its time squeezed by so many other obligations. Yet I do know of good scholars who were denied tenure because of teaching. More common is the "good fit" push—a scholar whose research is great and whose teaching style just doesn't fit for the institution (i.e., students gripe about the workload or the lecturing). The faculty member is taken aside, explained subtly that there are just a few options available, and within a year or so there's often a lateral move inside academe or the person leaves the field.

More subtly, Zimmerman implies (probably unintentionally) that there was some golden age of teaching: How did we arrive at this strange state of affairs? The story begins about a century ago, with the creation of the modern American research university. It's hard to see evidence that teaching at four-year-colleges has declined in quality over that time, or that there was some golden age in the past when professors were real professors, students were real students, and student athletes were also real students. The disincentives for paying attention to teaching exist but may not be impeding the improvement of teaching over time, and they may be relatively mild at many institutions or departments.

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Posted in Random comments on March 15, 2006 8:30 AM |