John Constantine Tobin
College Professors Don’t Know How to Teach ...amirite?
Updated: Sep 8, 2020
During my undergraduate days, I remember a common saying among my classmates that college professors don’t know how to teach. This rhetoric especially surfaced at times when we were most frustrated with our courses or the particular teaching style of a professor. We’d say, “Well, professors aren’t required to have teaching degrees, right? This must be why I have no idea what is going on in this class.” Occasionally, this same sentiment would be turned on a Graduate Instructor, “They’re not even professors; they don’t know how to teach.”
It’s possible that this was true for some teachers. During those days, I attended a large, public research university and there certainly were professors that focused more heavily on their research than their teaching, but to say that professor doesn’t have teaching experience is simply inaccurate. Professors might be clunky in their style, awkward in the classroom, or simply have a teaching style that isn’t facilitative, but more directive. Having recently studied what a facilitative classroom is, I realize I respond much better to this method of teaching and might’ve dismissed directive styles as bad teaching because of my discomfort with them.
My point is that at this point in my studies, having been through a Masters program and dipped my toes into my PhD, I now know that all of those professors I’d dismissed actually had years of experience teaching and had taken courses in pedagogy. Of course, there is some degree of variance into how in-depth these pedagogy courses are: my Master’s course being less in-depth than my doctoral one, but regardless of depth, such courses are required before ever working as an Instructor of Record.
But what is a pedagogy course?
Well, I’m a writing instructor, so I learn Writing Pedagogy. I think it was Nancy Sommers, one of the great writing pedagogues of our time, who described pedagogy as somewhere between theory and practice. It’s that fine line where I apply my familiarity with the most recent research in the field, my teaching philosophy and my expertise with teaching methodology in the classroom with students.When I say I’ve taken courses in writing pedagogy, this means I’ve spent time reading through the theory of teaching writing and discussing with my peers and my professor just how to apply these concepts in the classroom. Some example topics: grading and assessment, how to respond to student writing, considering ‘end comments’ on essays as a genre, the concept of control in the classroom, and much more.
It’s true that as a writing professor, I don’t take four formal years of educational theory. Pedagogy classes usually are a semester long, but there’s a different kind of learning and application that occurs with us graduate students on our journeys to becoming professors. We’re constantly studying the latest theory in our fields and while we’re doing this, we’re also in the classroom with students sharing that knowledge. It’s a fascinating mix of learning and application that is far more in-depth than I realized as an undergraduate. Throughout every waking moment, there is a cohort of new teachers learning with me, as well as fellow faculty members who approach the lowly graduate student as a both a colleague and mentee: sharing their teaching strategies, taking a vested interest in our own methods, and cultivating a unique pedagogical environment of theory, practice and community. As a doctoral student, this will go on for years through both the Master’s and doctoral phases of graduate study: anywhere from 5-7+ years. That’s no small amount of teaching experience.
I just wish that as an undergraduate, I’d had some inkling of what was going on behind the scenes with my graduate instructors and professors. If I had known the incredible amount of detail poured into their pedagogical experience, I don’t think I ever would have dismissed them as I did. Now that I’m an instructor, I’m trying to open up to my students about the sources of my knowledge and experience. It’s okay for me to explain a few details about my classes, such as why we’re studying rhetorical analysis, where that theory comes from and why the course is structured the way it is. I think letting students know what’s behind the curtain might just give them an appreciation of the knowledge that professors have worked so hard not only to understand, but to pass on to their students. For me, I might have started to understand that my first exposure to the college classroom is where the cultivation of my own pedagogies began to take form.