Teaching More, or Teaching Better?

A cranky column by Margaret Wente appeared in the Globe and Mail last week, complaining that professors don’t teach enough. It blended a few sketchy statistics together with a warmed-over discussion of teaching loads, an issue that has been around the block a few times before.

Wente missed the more interesting conversation about what is actually going on at universities today. How much we teach may be important, but how teaching is changing is considerably more significant. It’s in the how rather than the how much that the most fertile conversations are percolating.

One steadily growing change at universities is that disciplines have become more porous. When I (and Wente) were in university, teaching was rigidly aligned in silos, biology students learning in the Biology Department with the occasional foray into Chemistry, History students taking History courses with the occasional required course in the sciences thrown in to provide the illusion of a broad education.

Universities still are organized into departmental siloes for convenience, but now strive to build webs of interdisciplinary teaching programs that connect diverse departments. In my university, for example, we have a program that merges molecular biology and business, training students who emerge primed to take on entrepreneurial positions in biotechnology firms.

Our Cognitive Science program focuses on an array of subjects including consciousness, language, learning, information processing and decision-making, at the intersection of Linguistics, Psychology, Computing Science and Philosophy. World Literature focuses on life in other nations, cultures and religions, drawing from English, Cultural Studies, History, Art, Religion, Psychology and Film Studies.

For professors, teaching in these programs requires more work rather than slacking off.  These interdisciplinary offerings exist in the interstitial spaces between fields, spaces that require more preparation and interaction with students and other professors than simply delivering a lecture in our own narrow discipline.

A second trend at universities has grown from students’ passion to learn from sources broader than just their academic professors. At SFU, for example, we now have a new category, Professor of Professional Practice, practitioners from whom students will benefit by exposure to their professional experience.

These new appointments are expanding how students learn by providing practical examples of what they might do with their education. A performing artist teaching in Contemporary Arts, a successful corporate executive in Business, or a federal fisheries scientist seconded to Resource Management, all add a dimension to education that enlivens the classroom and broadens students’ ideas about what they might do after graduation.

A third exciting trend, perhaps the most time-consuming for faculty to teach, is experiential learning, in which students go out into the world and do work that has real meaning in their lives. Student projects in our Semester in Dialogue program are prime examples of how university education can focus students on who they want to be in the world, often leading to employment.

One student created a video dance performance to explore gentrification in an impoverished Vancouver neighborhood, and was so inspired that she started a successful floral shop that employs residents from the community. A second conducted a project to reduce household waste and garbage from a few test households, after which our regional government hired her to scale it up to a neighborhood level. Another group of students became interested in reducing carbon emissions, and went on to create a thriving bicycle service delivering office supplies and groceries in downtown Vancouver.

There are endless other examples, but the point is this: experiential learning demands more faculty time and more intense interactions with students than preparing and delivering a canned lecture or the typical 5-minute encounter during office hours.

Probing, mentoring, advising, connecting; these are the kind of activities that more and more of today’s university faculty are engaging in, and they don’t show up on any statistical summary of faculty workloads.

The conversation about whether professors need to teach more is a dying discussion at contemporary universities, replaced by the more vibrant dialogue about how to make education more relevant and engaging than the lecture-heavy models that used to predominate.

It’s an exciting and provocative time at universities. I know I’m teaching way more than I used to, and loving every minute of it.