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Speculative Diction

Punching for pedagogy


Earlier this week over at Margin Notes blog, Léo Charbonneau wrote about the annual meeting of Canada’s Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education. I really enjoyed this post because I think university faculty in particular — who are also teachers! — should be encouraged to get engaged with pedagogy and the scholarship of teaching and learning as much as possible, and such events facilitate that process.

The one thing that did bother me was some of the commentary from McGill’s Provost Anthony Masi, who stated that “research is the fundamental goal of the professoriate […] It is what defines the character of the university. […] But the second thing in the academic duties is of course the teaching, so we do need to keep those two things in mind”. Masi added that since only about 30% of PhDs end up in faculty jobs (as you might guess, I would love to know where this statistic came from), “putting the emphasis on teaching at the PhD level might not be the most appropriate place for it … unless we think that learning something about learning is a useful life skill” (emphasis added).

To take the second point first: I believe strongly that pedagogy should be taught, and modelled, in graduate programs — particularly in the PhD — and I think there are a number of reasons for it.

Firstly, it’s very difficult to make assumptions about people’s future needs. We don’t necessarily know, during the course of the PhD, whether or not we’ll be teaching in the future. Some of us may want to teach, but might not find the opportunity in a higher education context. Some may head into other environments where teaching skills are explicitly required such as colleges or corporate/organizational education. And still others might leave academe only to return later, after gaining professional experience in another field.

Secondly, for those considering an academic career, early exposure to and experience with teaching provides a sense of the demands of a tenure-track position, including the need to balance different elements of the faculty workload. Students need a sense of what the work is actually going to look like, and opportunities to develop strategies for doing better at it.

Teaching should be a part of the “package”, part of the special skill-set expected of us when we complete a PhD. In fact, Dr. Masi comes from a university that, he explains, has a strong commitment to training PhD students in teaching. I would have preferred to hear him holding this up as an example and explaining how it works, instead of implying that for many it may be a waste of time.

Another, related reason that these comments bothered me is that they reinforce institutional and systemic norms and assumptions that teaching work is necessarily “less than” research. Research work is already heavily privileged in the “academic economy” (witness the entire stratum of under-paid contract teaching faculty who cannot find tenure-track positions). Pedagogical knowledge tends to be dismissed, either implicitly or explicitly, as less valuable knowledge; teaching work can be fragmented and outsourced. This is a cycle that only continues to feed itself from the PhD onwards, and it’s why we still see teaching — particularly undergraduate teaching — described as a “load” that can be shed as a reward. We are already operating in a professional context where graduate students are often encouraged to treat teaching primarily as something required to win and keep an academic position, rather than as a central part of their personal academic ethos.

Yet those seeking tenure-track work will likely be teaching multiple courses per semester. It’s always struck me that there’s a bit of a mismatch between the kind of teaching activity many people experience in the PhD, and what they’re likely to see if they obtain an academic job. How will students gain the experience they need to deal with this, when many of them haven’t taught a course by the end of their degrees? I think the points and comments made by both Masi and Carolyn Watters (of Dalhousie University) are indicative of this deeper problem with the uneven access to both training and jobs that would allow PhD students to develop a “teaching program” of their own, or indeed to decide if university teaching is something they want to do at all.

Lastly, is there really any doubt that “learning something about learning is a useful life skill”? Not in my world, but then again, I’m in a Faculty of Education so I could be considered biased. To my ears this flippant remark shows that the implicit assumption is, still, that teaching knowledge is a frill. But learning how to teach is also about learning how to communicate effectively with people who may know very little about something; it is a process of translation, and these kinds of communication skills are in high demand in the current job market. It seems to me that from every angle, learning to help people learn is a good idea; now we just need to start reinforcing and emphasizing that fact rather than downplaying it.

Melonie Fullick
Melonie Fullick is a PhD candidate at York University. The topic of her dissertation is Canadian post-secondary education policy and its effects on the institutional environment in universities.
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  1. Diane Enns / July 11, 2012 at 13:47

    Well said, Melonie. I would add that aside from the lack of training in grad school, students often don’t have the opportunity to practice teaching (aside from performing T.A. duties) until they show up for work at their first job.

  2. Diane Enns / July 11, 2012 at 13:52

    Sorry, I see that you already made that point! What we need to do is find ways to get grad students teaching their own courses.

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