Back to School: Teaching, Research, and Regret

Our academic year begins in a couple of weeks, which means that this is the time for finishing, revising or at the very least updating course syllabi with the relevant dates. My teaching load is on the light side: two courses per semester, plus a moderate number of graduate and honours supervisions. (For the sake of comparison, a large, urban, public institution comparable to mine but located in the States rather than Canada would most likely involve a 3-3 load, or higher.) And I’ve taught each of my upcoming courses — an early modern European survey and an advanced lecture course on the Scientific Revolution — at least once before. In terms of my workload, I don’t have much to complain about. And, indeed, I’m mostly, say nine-tenths, looking forward to being back in the classroom.

Still, September comes too soon. You might think I’m about to gripe about needing more time or support for research. Because, as everyone but undergraduates knows, professors’ “real work” — the work by which their colleagues judge them and for which they are hired and retained by their universities — is research. Laments for chapters unfinished fill the air every August as scholars hang up their cameras, tuck away their manuscripts, dust off their PowerPoint slides, and bemuse themselves with their university’s online “learning platforms”. Meanwhile, administrators conjure ever grander research, publication and grant-writing targets for their faculty to hit. There’s a lot of truth to this caricature; certainly, I did not write as much as I wanted to. But that’s not where I’m going now.

At this point what I’d really like — as I plug the new year’s dates into my old syllabi, and fiddle around with readings and assignments — is some more time to catch up on pedagogy, as well as the mental and logistical wherewithal to bring more of what I read to bear in a more organized way.

It’s a cliché that PhD programs don’t teach teaching. It was a complaint of my generation of students, ten and fifteen years ago. But, outside of what you can pick up as a teaching assistant or glean from the odd workshop, it still seems largely true. My own pedagogical training consisted of a handful of TAships and a one-semester course in teaching composition, which was already considerably more than many in my cohort got. My graduate students now seem to have many more workshops to choose from than I did — including pedagogical seminars, though not history-specific ones. But they also, collectively, have fewer concrete teaching opportunities. Anyway, none of these is part of their PhD training in history, properly speaking.

Nor, more scandalously, is keeping up with history pedagogy a formal part of my job as a history professor. I started reading books about teaching in grad school not because I had to, but simply to lessen my terror at the prospect of facing a roomful of students. (I learned in my first “guest” lecture as a second-year that Columbia undergraduates circled quickly when they scented blood in the water.) I continue to read them when I have time, but that’s not as often as it should be — and as long as the numerical scores on my course evaluations don’t head abruptly southward (and even then…), there’s no pressure to do so. Changes in my teaching more often feel like unsystematic experiments or ad hoc reactions than carefully planned strategies. Contrast my research, which I am under increasingly hysterical instructions to multiply, which is vetted at multiple levels every other year, and which I curate to the smallest detail. So topping my list of unmet summer goals, inevitably, is a modest pile of books on teaching that usually dwarfs whatever I managed to read.

This subject touches on so many “disconnects” that it’s hard to know where to begin: between university PR about student learning and administrative pressure to increase enrolments; between academics’ persistent, perplexingly uncritical use of course evaluations and the growing literature on their flaws; between the obvious subjectivity of student assessment and the pretended objectivity of grading metrics; between exciting ideas in pedagogical work and the deadening limitations of an overstuffed classroom and schedule; between, I suppose, the soaring rhetoric of the humanities and the lumpen mechanics of their institutional existence. But this is as much a mea culpa as a jeremiad. Logistical constraints aside, some things are a matter of academic willpower and personal priorities. Teaching touches my conscience, but research determines my reputation. Even historians who value their own pedagogical skills sometimes treat them as a sort of genius, an emanation of the spirit or perhaps of the doctoral tam — which, conveniently, requires no great amount of time or programmatic effort to cultivate in oneself or in one’s students. Some, with sufficiently flattering evaluations, may believe it. Others would just rather get back to research.

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