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The Amateur Enterprise of College Teaching

Tracing the history of undergraduate teaching practices and exploring how they can be improved.
A walkway and buildings on a typical college campus

How much has college teaching really changed in 150 years? Not very much, according to Jonathan Zimmerman, an education historian and professor at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education. In his latest book, The Amateur Hour, Zimmerman traces the history of undergraduate teaching practices in the United States and how it has yet to reach a level of professionalization.

“There is some pretty good knowledge about what constitutes good teaching, but most college teachers aren't aware of that knowledge, and most of all, they're not required to master it and demonstrate their mastery of it,” he says. “That's why it's still an amateur enterprise, the teaching part.” In this episode of the EdCast, Zimmerman discusses how colleges and universities got to where they are today, and what it might take to change the future of college teaching.


Jonathan Zimmerman

I'm Jill Anderson, this is the Harvard EdCast. Jonathan Zimmerman doesn't think college teaching is what it should be. That means a lot coming from Jonathan. He's a veteran college professor and education historian whose latest book, The Amateur Hour, explores how undergraduate teaching practices in the United States began and changed, not always for the better. Calling college teaching an amateur enterprise seems like a risky move for a professor. So I asked why he decided to study this topic.

Jonathan Zimmerman: It is tricky because obviously I'm being very critical of an institution that has nourished me and privileged me and benefited me in all kinds of ways. I love the university and I feel deeply fortunate about what it's given me, but I also think that it's made some fundamental and I would even say unjust missteps in the way that it's imagined in value [inaudible 00:01:06], and I hope those things come through in the book. I don't see them as inconsistent, but it is dicey for the reasons you're describing because it's a criticism of us. How many people like that? I don't. I don't really like it when someone criticizes me.

Jill Anderson: Well, one of the things that was really compelling is this idea that someone from 150 years ago could walk into a college class today and you say, it wouldn't have changed all that much. And you're talking about the teaching, not obviously technology.

Jonathan Zimmerman: Exactly.

Jill Anderson: Why?

Jonathan Zimmerman: First of all, it would have cleaned some, but my point is not nearly as much as other institutions. So with my students, sometimes I'll say, let's imagine that Theodore Roosevelt or Woodrow Wilson came back today to Princeton or Harvard. If you showed them gender relations, race relations, systems of communication, systems of transportation, they would be blown away, and in some cases appalled. But if you brought them into kind of a big lecture hall in those institutions, I think they'd say, "Oh yeah, I remember this." Universities are conservative institutions. They're not conservative politically, but they're conservative in the dictionary sense. They change very slowly, and part of that is okay. In fact, part of that is, I think, on purpose and salutary. They're supposed to conserve things, but I would argue that this is a tradition that we've conserved too much.

Jill Anderson: I know that there's a lot of reasons for why college teaching hasn't really been professionalized or maybe even emphasized, and I'm wondering if you could talk a little bit about that, why it's been so difficult for college and universities to really get behind investing in college teaching, or even looking at it more as a profession.

Jonathan Zimmerman: Yeah. There are many reasons. And since you mentioned profession, let's start that and let's start with the gender piece of all this, which is that teaching had been coded as and feminine as having less status. This should not be a surprise to anyone who thinks about America. I've spent the bulk of my career at two large research universities where my tenure home has been in the school of education, and the school of education is the lesser cousin status-wise. Since I also have a foot in the arts and sciences, I'm quite aware of this. That's because teaching as a whole has less status and that in turn is because of its association with gender and femininity. Whenever somebody says we should improve college teaching, let's go take some classes at the ed school, generally, the response from everyone outside the ed school is, are you kidding?

First of all, we'll subtract 10 status points. Also, they are the people that have educated our school teachers and the school teachers don't seem to be doing very well either. So I'd rather not associate my name or most of all, my status with that. So I think that's one really important piece and feed. Another just at the most basic or even being a level is it strikes me the teaching is irreducibly personal. It's deeply connected to our personalities, our character, our activities and behaviors in ways that other things we do aren't. So if somebody criticizes the book, as I expect they will and they should, I will not take it personally. I really won't. I'll either decide that they were correct in whatever critique they're making or perhaps I don't agree with it, but I won't feel like it touches me at my core. If somebody comes into my classroom and says I'm not doing right by my students, that's going to touch me at my core.

I think it speaks to a kind of vulnerability that attaches to teaching that we don't talk very much about, but I think we're all at some level aware of.

Jill Anderson: Do you think that a lot of faculty pursue the job with that interest in teaching?

Jonathan Zimmerman: I actually do. I know that I did, and I know that many others did. And this brings me to what I've already recognized as the biggest misconception surrounding my book, which is that what I'm saying is that American faculty are not good teachers or they don't care about teaching. Now, surely there are some people who are not good teachers and don't care about teaching, but that's actually not my point at all. My point isn't that they don't care or that they're bad at it, it's that they're amateurs and amateurs can be very good at what they do. The greatest gymnast of my youth or my teenagehood was Olga Korbut, and that was in the days before Olympic athletes got paid. She was an amateur and she was the best in the world. Saying you're an amateur doesn't mean you're bad at what you do because some amateurs are extremely good.

What it says is that there isn't a shared set of understandings or practices on what constitutes good. So that's what professions do. The book that you read, Jill, I had to submit it to other professionals, to other experts on the history of higher education, other experts on the history of the United States of teaching, and they had to certify it in some way. And the way they do that is through a shared set of standards about what constitutes good practice. That's what professions do. And we have professionalized the research function, but we have not professionalized the teaching function. There is some pretty good knowledge about what constitutes good teaching, but most college teachers aren't aware of that knowledge, and most of all, they're not required to master it and demonstrate their mastery of it. That's why it's still an amateur enterprise, the teaching part.

Jill Anderson: I thought a lot about our K through 12 teachers, and I know you mentioned them a little bit earlier because it's interesting how this is the exact opposite in a lot of ways of how much time K through 12 teachers need to spend being evaluated, being certified, so on. And I know there's been some attempts in the past couple of decades to maybe heighten college teaching and the success has been mixed. So since you were just talking about the idea of professionalizing it, do you think you can really change that state of college teaching and begin to professionalize it?

Jonathan Zimmerman: Oh boy, [crosstalk 00:00:07:22].

Jill Anderson: You had to know I'd ask that.

Jonathan Zimmerman: [inaudible 00:07:24] reasonable question, but let's remember that I am a historian, I study dead people. So I'm always a little loath to answer questions about the future, but this is what I will say. I will say that since the 1990s, there has been more attention to college teaching and more awareness of what good college teaching is than there was in generations before that. And so that's, I think, a note of hope. It still is not nearly what it should be, but I do think that we've certainly developed a better scholarship about what quality teaching is than we had before. And I think that is, let's just say unnecessary, albeit not a sufficient condition to professionalizing it.

Jill Anderson: What does good college teaching look like, and if it was professionalized, what would that look like?

Jonathan Zimmerman: Good college teaching engages students in their learning. There are a lot of good ways to do that. But if they are not invested in what they're learning and most of all, if they're not actively trying to make sense of it and make meaning of it, whatever they quote, learn is likely to be quite ephemeral. If all they're doing is memorizing a bunch of stuff and spinning it back to me on a test, it's quite unlikely that they're going to have any lasting learning. Lasting learning comes from activities that require students to engage in the big questions and the big methods of a field or a discipline.

Jill Anderson: Correct me if I'm wrong, but it sounds like college faculty are largely evaluated today by students.

Jonathan Zimmerman: They are, they are. The short story is, for a long time, they were essentially not evaluated at all, or there was some exceptions, or they were evaluated, but by what I call rumor and osmosis, we heard from such and such a person that you're really good or you're really bad. But there was nothing formalized about that until the advent of student evaluations, which actually go back very far in time. They date to student protest about poor college teaching in the 1920s at places like the University of Michigan, which suddenly got very big, mainly because women were going in great numbers. You find student accounts where they say, well, I went to a room that's supposed to seat a hundred, there were 200 people in it standing up, sitting on the floor. There was some dude up front with a microphone that didn't work and he mumbled. Why am I here?

And student evaluations date to student protests over poor college teaching. What happened after the Second World War is they were taken over or some people said co-opted by university administrations. And I would say that, although there are exceptions to this as well, for the most part today, the overwhelming majority of teachers who were evaluated are evaluated mainly or only via student ratings and evaluations.

Jill Anderson: That seems tricky. It makes me think about the idea of just making the customer happy. And that would naturally take you away from making things maybe more rigorous or challenging, or even the intent of why you're there.

Jonathan Zimmerman: Definitely. Look, there are many issues and problems with student evaluations, but before I get to them, I want to say that I think they're important. I think we should have students evaluate us, and I think they're important things we learn from those evaluations. So just to take some very obvious examples, does the professor return work properly? Turns out that that's a really important practice in student learning. And if you don't do that, your students' learning is inhibited. That's something you can discern very well from student evaluations. Or does the professor make her or himself available outside of class? This is also, I think, something that's extremely important to success as a teacher and it's also something that you can measure, I think, extremely well via student evaluations. So that's all for the good, but here's what they can't tell you. They can't tell you how much the student has learned.

It turns out that you and I, and all the human beings are pretty lousy judges of that. You might on your student evaluation say that you learned a huge amount from this class, but then when researchers try to measure what you've learned, there's often very little correlation between the two. The other thing to your point about rigor is it turns out that one of the best predictors of a strong student evaluation is the grade that the student expects to receive. So if you expect to receive an A, you're more likely to give a high evaluation than if you expect to receive a C. Now, defenders of the system will often say, well, look, the kid who expects to receive an A, the reason they expect to receive the A is that they're learning a lot. But that strikes me as a little tendentious, especially if we stack it up next to the other really important trend that's happened since the 1960s, which is massive grade inflation.

I'm sure your listeners have read about this, but there's been enormous grade inflation in the United States. The great inflation is more inflated at the more elite schools, which is sad and ironic. It's basically a rich get richer thing. If you go to mid-tier state university, they're more likely to have classes that are grading on a curve that will end up with you getting a B- or a C than if you go to Brown or Penn. Ironically, when I put that data to my students at Penn, often they'll say, well, of course at the elite schools, they're higher grades because the students are smarter there. And of course this is radically self-serving and it's also ahistorical because it doesn't explain why in 1960, there were half or a third as many A's as there are now. Is that because people in 1961 are smart? That too strikes me as tendentious.

So student evaluations, just to make it clear, they are important. They can tell us stuff, but they're limited just like any other measure. And unfortunately, because we don't professionalize teaching, we don't have real peer evaluation of it, they're all we've got.

Jill Anderson: You've already made it clear that being an amateur doesn't necessarily mean you're doing a bad job, that you can be a good amateur teacher. But with this pandemic, it's really kind of changed the landscape quite a bit for teaching, and especially in some universities where they've had to make significant alterations to their teaching. Maybe they're going just virtual and so on. So I'm curious how you think that might change the landscape of college teaching going forward, or if like history seems to show us, it kind of stays the same.

Jonathan Zimmerman: Well, here's what I think is radically different about this moment. What's radically different about this moment is everyone has been forced to learn via machine, virtually everyone, to use a loaded adverb. And for the most part, Jill, those machines are introduced to bring newcomers into the system. See, the other context we've got to make clear to our listeners here is during the time we're talking about, and mostly 20th century, college and university goes from an institution that was patronized almost entirely by white men and a small minority of white men to a BA moth, right? To an institution that has 4,000 places we can get a BA, and depending on how you're accounting, 20 million people participating. That is the dominant theme of the past 100, 120 years. Is institution going from a narrow institution to a mass institution.

And the machines are an important part of that because the machines are inevitably introduced in order to bring more people into the system, to increase what we might call access. What's different about this moment is everyone's been forced to learn by machine. So there was plenty of online instruction and online learning before this moment, but it was heavily concentrated in places like community colleges and especially the for-profits. Now, suddenly my students are doing it. That's what's radical about the moment. And I think, or at least I hope, and now here I'm doing my [inaudible 00:15:37] that I said I shouldn't do, is that it's going to create a day of reckoning, and here's why. A lot of my students and other students are arguing that what we're doing now over Zoom just isn't as good. And they may well be right. But Jill, if they are right, if it's not good enough for a student at the University of Pennsylvania, why is it good enough for a student at Delaware Community College?

This seems to be a basic question of equity and democracy that I hope this moment will at least force us to address.

Jill Anderson: Jonathan Zimmerman is an education historian and professor at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education. His latest book, The Amateur Hour: A History of College Teaching in America, looks at how undergraduate teaching practices in the country began and changed over time. I'm Jill Anderson, this is the Harvard EdCast produced by the Harvard Graduate School Of Education. Thanks for listening.


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