What Is The Future Of The Disciplinary Expert In The Academy?
Note: This post is part of our League Symposium on Higher Education in the 21st Century. You can read the introductory post for the Symposium here. To see a list of all posts in the Symposium so far, click here.
By Alex Small
I want to ask a somewhat different question than most posters probably will: What is the role and future of the professor’s expertise? To explain why this question matters (isn’t the whole point of college that you learn advanced things from experts?), I need to make some digressions on the recent history of higher education. Some might wonder if this question matters when universities are all about to be swept away by online schools. Even then, I would argue that the question of expertise matters. Do you want an online course with subject matter decided on by somebody whose professional emphasis is the subject matter itself and the practice and application of the material, or somebody whose research focus is on educational methods relevant to that material?
(Please note that I am writing this from the perspective of a theoretical physicist at an undergraduate-focused public university.)
1. Professors, Research, and Expertise
It is often said that the rule of the academy is “Publish or perish!” This is true at research-oriented universities, which place a substantial emphasis on doctoral-level education. It is also true at the more elite private undergraduate colleges. Good luck getting tenure at one of those places without significant scholarly output. However, historically it was not true at the lower-tier state schools (the ones with few Master’s programs and few/no doctoral programs) and many private undergraduate colleges. Generally, the faculty at these places focused on teaching. That’s not to say that they did no research, and there were always a few who produced spectacular research in teaching-oriented schools, but the general trend was more modest levels of research output. One wouldn’t fear perishing for lack of publishing.
That has changed in recent decades, for a number of reasons. Part of it is pursuit of prestige and grant money. Part is recognition that students learn valuable things from participating in research. Go to an undergraduate-focused institution and you’ll find students in the research labs contributing to projects. And there are other factors.
At the same time, “Scholarship of Teaching and Learning” has exploded in popularity. In my field it’s known as Physics Education Research (PER). The rise of this field is largely driven by insights into how people learn. Some of it is synergistic with the increased emphasis on research in teaching-oriented institutions—if your institution places a heavy emphasis on teaching, what could be more relevant than studying how effective your teaching is? However, there is also a tension between the findings of pedagogical research and the belief that students will benefit from being taught by faculty with active research programs.
I should also pause to emphasize that educational research in the university classroom differs from K-12 educational trends in that the people doing it usually have a PhD in the field that they are teaching. If you do research in physics education, you go to a physics department and get a PhD in physics. You take the same physics courses and qualifying exams as any other physics PhD student, but your thesis project involves researching a question on how people learn in the physics classroom instead of a question about the physical world. They have a solid foundation in physics, but their perspective remains (understandably) somewhat different from that of other physicists.
2. Much of the scholarship of teaching and learning is valuable, and I use it.
Before I dissent, let me emphasize that I find three modern pedagogical insights completely unobjectionable, and consistent with the common sense and experience of any good teacher:
First, people learn more from a class if they read/study/practice beforehand. This is true whether the class is a lecture in a large hall, a video on their iPad, a discussion in a small room, or an online chat. If you’ve examined the material before the presentation and discussion, you’ll learn more from the presentation and discussion. Consequently, I give online quizzes before many of my classes. Students have an incentive to review the material before I discuss it, and I can tailor my discussion based on their answers. This is really just a modern version of an ancient practice called “Doing the reading before class.” (Nowadays, though, they call it a “flipped class”, because everybody loves buzzwords!)
Second, people learn more if they are thinking and discussing, not just sitting there. Thus, I break up my lecture with questions to the room. Often these questions are multiple choice, and they use a “clicker” (basically, a remote control) to answer after discussing the possibilities with those around them. I see how many people selected each answer and I know whether to spend more time on the topic or move on.
Third, people learn more from constant feedback on their work. Thus, I give a lot of online homework, so they immediately know if they got the right answer or need to do it over for partial credit. Say what you will about partial credit, but doing it until you get it right is better than waiting a week to find out if you did it right.
3. On the other hand…
As much as I use these tools, I dissent from some PER prescriptions. They tend to take the common sense things that I have just pointed to and dress it up in a lot of jargon. Some of their workshops are also very preachy. Academic science might have a lot of atheists, but to this squishy Catholic many educational presentations feel like evangelical church services.
Beyond concerns about style, one big divide between the PER community and other physicists is over the types of questions and homework problems that we value. Delving into the specifics would take us far from the question I want to get to. The key point is that there is a fundamental difference of perspective.
4. Another, arguably bigger difference
As much as I value keeping students engaged and thinking and working during class, I don’t want to completely shut up. Attribute it to a personality flaw, if you like. Or, use the common “sage on the stage” metaphor to dismiss me. In my view, I absolutely love physics and want to share it. And I don’t just want to share via whatever activities a team of pedagogical researchers prescribed. No, I want to share the way that a real, live practicioner thinks about and uses these powerful tools and ideas. When I’m not teaching I’m doing research. I am constantly thinking about physics, solving problems in my main research projects as well as various side projects. I may not be Feynman, but I still have insights to share! I have been working in research since my freshman year of college. I have loved every minute of my journey in physics, and I want to share some of that.
However, educational researchers say that students only learn via activities. What matters is the students and what they do, not what the instructor says to passive listeners. I should shut up and give them group work, whether that group work is in a lab or in a small classroom or in an online forum. At one workshop, a more adamant type bragged that he won’t even answer questions because he wants students to look things up on their own. There’s an important idea in there, there’s a place for “Did you try looking it up?” But the subtext is that the professor’s expertise has no place in the learning, and that even careful answers to questions detract from learning. There’s no point to a role model showing how he or she would do it. I recall reading an article by somebody who had done some very clever things to make a class more activity-based (including some activities that I plan to borrow), and they were almost ashamed as they described how they lectured on a few subtle topics because the material just didn’t lend itself to activities. Is this a classroom or a confessional booth?
As for me, I want a balance. I want students doing things, but I also want to share my perspective, my love of the subject, and be an example. If pedagogy researchers made group activities that really modeled how an expert did things, I might reluctantly shut up. (Maybe.) But pedagogy researchers look at the subject from such a different perspective that their activities rarely show how practicioners think. They ask different questions and value different things. There’s a place for that (indeed, I have argued that my department should include a pedagogy researcher in the next batch of hires!), but it shouldn’t all be that way.
5. Or should it?
Let’s take pedagogy researchers seriously. They certainly have more statistical data than I do. Maybe they’re right, and the instructor’s perspective is not what matters. OK, it mattered to me in college, but those of us who get PhDs and become professors are unusual sorts. For 99% of students it doesn’t matter. If so, then what we really need are faculty who fully understand and accept the rationales behind activities designed by pedagogy researchers, who are not just partial adopters like I am, but rather are fully-immersed in the educational literature. They will develop and teach classes that are 100% best practices, 100% focused on the students and their activities, and not on a sharing of the perspective of the “sage on the stage.”
Still, I think that we need a balance, and that half the point of college is to go beyond learning what is already known. Maybe 4 out of 5 experts do agree that some particular activity designed by a team of pedagogy researchers is the most effective way to convey a given concept. (Yes, toothpaste ads are applicable metaphors, on multiple levels.) At some point, though, students need to encounter the example of experts struggling with the unknown. Some of that comes from guided research projects, and some comes from advanced specialty courses that go to the limits of what is known (e.g. in some of my advanced classes students will read research articles published in the last few years). However, some of that comes from role models who say “The material we’re covering here is well-established stuff, but the approach that I will take here, the sorts of questions and methods that I will use, are the same that I use in my own research. They’re also the same questions and methods that I use when approaching a topic that is known to others but not (yet) to me.”
Still, that is just my take. It’s a take that would resonate at some proudly traditional private institutions, but at a large state school that is devoted to efficiently serving the masses it may not be a relevant take.
One reason I think that my traditional take is relevant is the pace of change in the modern world. In a world that changes faster and faster and confronts us with more and more information, the last thing you need (at least after crossing certain basic levels of competence) is more training designed around the most efficient path to discovery of known results. You should encounter sophisticated role models approaching new ideas, because you’ll spend your life confronting more and more new ideas. In a changing world, anchors matter more, not less. I hope for a balance, where pedagogy researchers provide guidance on how to present ideas, and people doing basic disciplinary research decide what ideas to present.
If I’m wrong, though, it is rather funny that teaching-oriented schools have increased their emphasis on research at the precise same time that educational research has called into question the relevance of faculty expertise in the discipline. Why does the school want me to go out and probe the unknown if my experience is irrelevant to the students? Why does the school want me to continuously polish my skills in the field if my perspective is not what matters? Don’t hire and evaluate people based on their research, hire people with a sound foundation in physics and deep immersion in modern pedagogy. The increased emphasis on faculty research is irrelevant in this new model.
Finally, what about online classes? The dilemmas that I outlined are arguably just as relevant. Do you want an online class where all of the videos and simulations and guided activities were designed by four out of five experts who agree that this particular presentation is the best way to guide you to understanding this concept? Or do you want online access to presentations from the perspective of a world-renowned expert? In reality you’ll get a bit of each…I hope. Or maybe the pedagogy researchers will prove that the sage on the webpage is just as irrelevant as the sage on the stage. We need to take that possibility seriously, and confront it.