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I’ve told this story elsewhere, but when I was doing peer-driven learning, I was told by a supportive friend not to let any of the senior faculty know what I was doing in my classroom because they would have put a stop to it. My position was a precarious one; as an instructor, I was on an annual contract that could be terminated at the end of any contract year. But what was more chilling to me was that my pedagogical methods, without any backing, were immediately thought of as unacceptable.

Fast-forward to now. Because I wrote extensively on student-centered pedagogy, I am out of the classroom and in a position as a faculty developer. HASTAC and The Graduate Center are engaged in a process to help spread student-centered learning. But I’m pretty sure if I went back to my position, the attitude towards my pedagogical approach would still be the same.

I thought about my situation, and the situation of many precarious instructors in higher education, both on and off the tenure track, when I read about the Berkeley math professor allegedly fired for being too good at teaching math. The biggest surprise for me as it made its way through my social media circles was how no one was really all that surprised.

I’ve heard from people both formally through my position and informally as I blogged that they can’t change their pedagogy because of the culture around teaching within their department/college/institution would punish them for incorporating student-centered pedagogy, project and collaborative learning, and/or technology-enhanced approaches.

Pretty sure there are loads of people who are glad I am out of the classroom and not in a tenure-track position, given my “radical” views of pedagogy.

This situation at Berkley is extreme, but not an isolated case. It is extreme insofar as the instructor refused to compromise their pedagogy and therefore lost his job. In my graduate class on college teaching last week, we discussed the lecture and its lasting presence within higher education (and when I say lecture, I mean this). We also talked about cultures around what it means to be a “good teacher.” And often “lecturing” and “teaching” are used interchangeably.

There is the idea that because we, the professor, learned via lecture, then the students must, too, learn via lecture. And also the idea that some of these courses are “filter” courses that if the students can’t learn via lecture then they aren’t suited for the subject. There is the pressure at a place like Berkeley, an R1, to focus on research, and thus teaching becomes a secondary concern.

But that new teaching strategies are dismissed immediately without testing them, without actually seeing if they are effective runs completely counter to the idea of a university as a place for new knowledge, discovery, and sound reason. If the strategy doesn’t work, fine, but to try to do things better and it immediately be dismissed because it is different reflects a closed-mindedness that one would hope wasn’t present within an institution of higher learning.

But it also means that the student suffer.

It makes me angry that many of the most innovative teachers are being either forced to compromise or forced out of the classroom completely. I hope that this story makes other people angry too. 

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