On not liking teaching

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Some hubbub has emerged over an opinion piece published over in the Chronicle of Higher Education a few days ago, entitled: “I don’t like teaching. There, I said it.”

You should go over, give it a read, and please let me know what you thought, before I let you know about what I think about it.

I’m not writing this response so that I can contribute my own $0.02. I’ve written this response because I hope to move the conversation beyond the myopia of the entire discussion involving the article, which only tracks the myopia of the piece’s author.

On one side, you have a predictable argument: “If she doesn’t like teaching maybe she should have a different profession.” On the other side, you have a predictable response, “If she’s teaching well, she doesn’t have to like it because that’s her own business.” Another predictable counter to the initial criticism is that teaching is only one part of the job of a professor.

The preceding statements are all correct, and they are not contradictory. And they’re all mostly pointless. Instead, we might want to look at the nature of our profession, and why this particular pseudonymous author doesn’t like teaching even though she’s chosen this line of work.

For starters, I don’t know many people that received their Ph.D. because they were interested in teaching and who were primarily interested in teaching at the university level. If this is one’s primary motivation in completing a dissertation, what are the odds that the dissertation will be completed, and what are the odds that the person will do a good job?

I have to admit that, if I were in a position in which I had doctoral students, I would be reluctant to take such a student into my lab because that student would lack the ganas that is required for success in grad school. You just don’t do research on something for five+ years unless you’re passionately into it, and that isn’t going to come from a desire to teach at the university level. If students go into grad school with love of teaching above all else, will these students ever publish their theses?

Being a professor may or may not someone’s greatest passion and a personal calling as a career. Regardless, being a professor is a job. You do something and you bring in a paycheck. In my view, it’s a friggin’ awesome job. No matter how you dress it up, though, it’s a job, even if you love it.

Most people don’t like their jobs. You wouldn’t judge your supermarket cashier, your plumber or your associate director of human resources based on whether or not they like their jobs. You care if your plumber replaces your fixture promptly, professionally, and at a good value. Your interactions would be more pleasant if he enjoyed his job, but that’s not your concern. Your plumber might not like being a plumber. For a bunch of people, this is what life is like, to a good extent, and our default mode is to not enjoy our moment-to-moment existence. (To be clear, the last plumber I interacted with was talented, friendly, pleasant and seemed to be enjoying life.)

Maybe my plumber was doing the same thing that the pseudonymous author of the Chronicle piece does. Maybe he doesn’t like plumbing deep down but he has to convince his clients that he likes it because that’s the only way he gets referrals and keeps his job. Heck, I’d be glad to offer a referral, and if he seemed like a gloomy gus then that might not be the case. I’m not sure. Smiles do matter. I would wager a small bet that my plumber, deep down, is happier than the author of the Chronicle. I doubt he’d write an article for a plumbing trade journal about not liking plumbing.

Would my plumber be a better plumber if he enjoyed his job? Over the years, I would think so. It’s hard to have pride in one’s job over the years if one doesn’t enjoy it. Why stay current with the latest plumbing technology? Why focus on quality control, and why not get a job done in the minimum amount of time and effort required as long as you can get away with it with the client? Yes, I do want a plumber that enjoys his job. Other than my empathetic concern for all other people, I don’t care if my plumber enjoys his job. However, I’m willing to bet that the happy plumber will be the more effective plumber in the long run.

The author of the Chronicle piece writes that if one likes teaching for the wrong reason (“because one loves the spotlight”), then this person might be a worse teacher than a person who doesn’t care about teaching at all. That’s a Ray-Bolger-scale strawman argument that I’ll choose to ignore.

The author implies that she’s a perfectly fine teacher, just as she is perfectly fine at cutting the grass, changing diapers and doing the laundry: “You don’t have to enjoy something to do it, and you don’t have to enjoy something to be good at it.”

In short, the author dismisses the notion that happiness leads to doing a good job. If you know how to go through the steps to do laundry or make risotto, then you don’t have to enjoy it to do it well, right? Isn’t teaching the same way, if you do what it takes to be effective in the classroom you don’t have to enjoy it to do it well, do you?

Is teaching so special? Do you have to enjoy teaching to do it well even though that’s not true of many other tasks?

I think that might be the case. A good performer that could fake enjoyment might be just as effective, perhaps. What evidence do I have? Oh, I don’t have any. I’m not even particularly concerned about being right, that’s just a hunch.

This question itself – is teaching different because excellence requires a passion – is the center of the banal discussion of this article that I’d like us all to get past.

This whole discussion has been based on a linear thinking about teaching. You enjoy teaching or you don’t, and as a result you are good at it, or you’re not, or there’s no relationship between enjoyment and effectiveness.

Instead of asking whether enjoyment of teaching is required to be an effective teacher, how about we ask:

Does effective teaching lead one to be happy?

It seems this is not true for the author of the article. She argues that when she’s an effective teacher she doesn’t enjoy it. This means that effective teaching doesn’t make her happy.

Now, that’s her real problem.

And, I suspect, it’s her students’ problem too.

Ignoring the parts of teaching that none of us like (grading, grade grubbers), do I like doing most of the other stuff? Not really. Do I derive deep enjoyment from crafting a particularly good lesson? No. Do I really like developing a new laboratory exercise that involves inquiry for students to learn a central important concept in my discipline? Not much.

I don’t need to hide behind a goddamn pseudonym to say that. You know why I don’t need to hide? Because I deeply enjoy teaching. I love it.

How can I love teaching if I don’t enjoy doing all of the parts of it?

I don’t love the process; I love the outcome.

My brain is adequately wired, and has enough experience, that I can be driven by delayed gratification. Among the list of great feelings are having taught a great class and a having taught a great course. Even better is when you’ve spent the whole semester teaching an academic scientific concept, and at the end, students tell you that you’ve made a difference in their lives.

You’re damn right that’s enjoyable.

If that’s not enjoyable, then I don’t know what the hell is wrong with you. If students aren’t telling you that you’ve made a difference, then you might want to reconsider what constitutes effective teaching.

So how are mowing your lawn, making risotto and picking up trash different from teaching? You do the first three for yourself. When you teach, you are not doing it for yourself. You’re doing it for others. That’s the difference.

Let’s look at the author’s risotto example more carefully. According to her, if you know how to follow the steps, then you can make a great risotto. (By the way, if you are making risotto with all of that stirring instead of using a pressure cooker, you’re nuts. Seven minutes under high pressure and the risotto is perfect without any stirring. Get yourself a pressure cooker pronto if you don’t have one, and let me know if you need any tips.)

So, she claims that that she can make a good risotto without enjoying the process if she follows the steps. That’s true, but who is eating this risotto? It’s my bet that she is. If she’s making this risotto and not tasting it, then she’s probably not going to be focusing on doing a great job.

If she’s making risotto for others, and she’s not eating it herself, would she still make good risotto? You bet she would, if she actually cared about the people for whom she was cooking. If it was her spouse and kids, she’d make it super-tasty, take the time to mince the garlic just right, and all that. If it was just some schmo who she was feeding in a soup kitchen, maybe she wouldn’t make as good of a risotto. She might be able to, but does she go through the effort? I doubt it.

I love making a great risotto, though I don’t do it often. I’ll spend much more time in the kitchen making the risotto just right because that makes it so much more enjoyable. Do I inherently enjoy peeling and mincing garlic? No? Do I like peeling, seeding, and cubing a butternut squash? Not particularly. Do I like making a special trip to the store that has the particularly good parmesean? Of course not. But I do it, because I really like the risotto. I don’t find the cooking process objectionable, and I love being able to make a wonderful meal.

If you were to ask anybody who knows me very well, they’d say that I enjoy cooking.

So, now let’s look at the teaching of our pseudonymous non-liker of teaching, which can only be evaluated based on what she says and chooses to not say. She implies that she’s a perfectly fine teacher even though she doesn’t enjoy teaching. She’s only teaching because it’s her job.

Even though she’s teaching just fine, she still doesn’t enjoy it. Effective teaching, even when done efficiently, takes plenty of time.  If she’s not enjoying the product, then how does she go through the motions to teach so well?  Let’s take a look at what she thinks goes into effective teaching:

Effective teaching is, after all, a set of behaviors. What students need from us are clear presentations, careful selections of course material, engaging discussions—in short, the right behaviors.

If she thinks that this list above comprises the top requirements for highly effective teaching, then no wonder she doesn’t enjoy teaching.

I’m willing to wager that if she were to cook some risotto for me, I would find it passable but not delicious.

What do I think is highly effective teaching? Here’s a starting point.

If you’re going to enjoy teaching, then what brings you the most enjoyment is successful teaching. If you think that a rote set of behaviors, disconnected to your own emotions, makes you an effective teacher over the course of your career, then you’ve squandered your time failing to change the lives of your students.