On College Education

Well. Looks like I’m stepping back up on to my soapbox. What’s got me so fired up this time?

My college son called me to chat about one of his professors. Things have gotten so bad that students banded together and complained to university higher-ups, so much so that the department issued its course evaluation survey halfway through the semester.

After hearing my son read his responses listing the numerous ways in which this class and its instructors have fallen short, I found myself really,

really,

REALLY wanting to call up this department and give them a piece of my mind.

But I’m not that kind of gal. Besides, it sounds like the students are already advocating quite well for themselves.

Still, as someone who dedicates her entire life and livelihood to the pursuit of excellence in teaching, I can’t just let this go.

So here’s what I WOULD say, if I were one who would say it.

Dear Professor,

Let me start by saying this. Your job is HARD. You’ve been asked to step in for the very first time to teach this undergraduate course. What’s more, you’re being asked to do it in the middle of a pandemic, and while the university is doing everything it can to protect your life and the life of the students, we are in a scary time. And you are being asked to teach in ways that your predecessors never had to consider.

What I’m imagining you think and believe right now? First of all, that you really know your stuff. You know that the class you’re teaching is HARD, and it requires you to teach an encyclopedic amount of information. I’d also like to believe that you truly want what’s best for your students. And I’m also wondering if you’re starting to realize that KNOWING material, and being able to teach it MEANINGFULLY are two separate animals.

I’m also going to guess that you were thrown into teaching this course without any training or support in pedagogy, or the foundations of teaching. I’m going to guess that the preparation and mentorship you were given as an instructor may have been limited to a copy of the syllabus as it had been previously, as well as your own experiences when you were a student.

I can’t fault you for that. You are a part of a bigger system that values the quantity of content over its instructional delivery. You are a part of a bigger system that values publishing credentials over the craft of teaching.

I also imagine you think I may be speaking out of turn, that as an elementary teacher I don’t have enough understanding of college students to know what good instruction looks like at the collegiate level.

I’m going to be straight with you. Good teaching is good teaching is good teaching. Let me repeat that. Good teaching. Is good teaching. Is good teaching.

The same foundational principles that apply to teaching first grade will resonate with fifth grade. With eighth grade. With high schoolers. With college students. With anyone. Why? Because at the heart of things, we are all human beings. We are curious. We learn when we are motivated. We crave connection, feedback and growth.

I’m guessing the complaints you’re getting right now feel pretty terrible. Critical feedback, especially in this volume, can really sting. But it’s also a wake-up call. You can be better. You can improve the experience for all. How? Here are a few places to start:

1. Respond to your students’ communications promptly and sincerely.
2. Give your students meaningful, prompt feedback on their work.
3. If you can’t give meaningful and prompt feedback, it’s a sign. You are assigning too many things. Pull back.
4. During classes, use presentations as a starting point rather than a script. Your students will engage more, and retain more, if there is context and explanation of the material.
5. Be a person to your students. If they connect with you, they’ll connect with the material.

Maybe this way of teaching is different from how you learned this content. Maybe this way of teaching isn’t valued in a system like the one you are in. Maybe you haven’t gotten the guidance and mentorship you needed as an instructor. But from one educator to another, we both know this is how we best learn, and we know it is what our learners deserve – no matter the level.

You can do it. I have perfect faith in you.

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17 Responses to “On College Education”

  1. Tim Gels Says:

    Teaching is hard, and given the circumstances it might actually be harder than it’s ever been to do it well. I hope your son’s professor is able to pull things together and right that ship. (For the sake of commenting brevity, I’ll ask that at this time you imagine a standard criticism of teachers teaching as they were taught as students and not how they should teach as teachers.)

    • Lainie Levin Says:

      Thank you! And…YES. I actually wanted to dig in above into thinking through the teachers *we* learned the most from. They’re the ones who do all this stuff. But alas – I was worried about making the blog post too long. I’m with you!

  2. Ellin Oliver Keene Says:

    This is a perfect treatise for developing teachers at all levels. And by the way, send it.

    • Lainie Levin Says:

      Ooh that would take some gumption on my part! I may have left that in the pocket of my other pants. I might have to dig!

  3. Fran Haley Says:

    So right on so many counts that I cannot count them all. “Good teaching is good teaching is good teaching” – at every level – truth.
    “At the heart of things, we are all human beings. We are curious. We learn when we are motivated. We crave connection, feedback and growth” – so, so true. That feedback is what grows us – not compliance, not just doing the work for a grade, etc. Connecting with students… of utmost importance. Once my son did a draft of a research paper and hadn’t formatted the citations correctly – he did include them, mind, just not in the required format. The professor threatened to turn him in for plagiarism, “to teach him a lesson.” That didn’t happen (ahem) but why not give the feedback and REALLY TEACH such things that students need to know? How about really showing you care about the student more than your assignment? I mean, what’s the whole goal of teaching? I will stop here … will just say this whole post struck a deep chord with me and I love those last lines. Bam.

  4. ragnarsbhut Says:

    Lainie Levin, I have heard arguments being made for college being free of tuition costs. What are your thoughts on that?

    • Lainie Levin Says:

      That’s…a REALLY big question. As a lifelong public school teacher, I’d have to say that I have a firm belief in the right of all to receive a full education – in whatever form that takes. I think we’ve got inequity to fix in our preK-12 systems. Our society has a LOT to untangle when it comes to issues of race, class and opportunity.
      If we could fix those models, perhaps free college could someday be in sight.

      Here’s the other thing I’d also offer. Even as a teacher, I don’t necessarily believe that college is the proper path for absolutely everybody. If we were to support college education more fully, I think we should do the same for training in skilled trades. It’s about time we honor the expertise and knowledge those fields require as well.

      Ah, there I go again on the soapbox. It’s easy to get me up there!

      • ragnarsbhut Says:

        Lainie Levin, I don’t have an objection to the idea of education being low cost. What I am perplexed by is the lack of rational arguments in favor of free college. At the very least, something that does not seem unreasonable to me, would be hearing better arguments on the matter. I would rather hear arguments for free college from economists than people who want free college on-demand or from politicians who promise to make college free in order to buy our votes.

  5. Lainie Levin Says:

    Actually, there are economists out there who *are* discussing ways to shift the cost of college. I’m not sure if you listen to podcasts, but both Planet Money and Freakonomics have explored the topic.

    Actually, Mitch Daniels, the president of my son’s university, is at the forefront of this conversation (he’s featured on a Freakonomics episode), as he’s set up a different system to support students in gaining funding for college…

  6. ragnarsbhut Says:

    Lainie Levin, all of these countries that provide “free” college do so because of the fact that their taxes cover the costs. If some people want free college, I think it is reasonable for us as citizens to dictate what degrees they pursue. Just my thoughts.

  7. ragnarsbhut Says:

    Lainie Levin, here is a video for you: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0e50fQLyebI I don’t have any personal objections to college being low cost. The problem is that free college is not truly free.

  8. ragnarsbhut Says:

    Lainie Levin, I don’t have an objection to free college in absolute terms. At the very least, something that does not seem to be unreasonable to me, is if there were more intellectually based arguments for free college.

    Regarding education being a right, I agree with you in the sense that people have the right to educate themselves. You mentioned that as a lifelong public school teacher that you believe in the right of all to receive a full education – in whatever form that takes. What are your thoughts on charter schools? Homeschooling? Private schools?

  9. ragnarsbhut Says:

    Lainie Levin, I would not object to student debt relief if the student(s) that needed it were actually willing to work toward pursuit of degrees that facilitate the ability to earn a living. What I don’t like is hearing people who claim to be on government assistance gripe about wanting free college on the basis that they cannot afford it.

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