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Our time, we often think, is unlike any other in history.

We live, we are told, at one of history’s critical junctures, a pivot point where the nation’s soul or the planet’s future are at stake.

Back in 2009, the economists Kenneth S. Rogoff and Carmen M. Reinhart reminded us that this kind of hyperbolic or apocalyptic thinking is almost always wrong. While current events may amplify pre-existing trends, only rarely is this time different.

During the pandemic, it is easy to conclude that this time truly is different. The abruptness of the shutdowns and the scale of the economic downturn are unique. So, too, are the disruption of global supply lines, the aggressive government response, the aching uncertainty about the future -- and the devastating impact on the retail sector, entertainment and the arts, and, perhaps, higher education.

But the idea that our situation bears scant resemblance to the past and that older rules no longer apply is precisely the fallacy that Reinhart and Rogoff sought to correct. It’s not just that past is prelude, but that past experience should sensitize us to the challenges that lie ahead.

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Jonathan Zimmerman’s wonderfully fun to read The Amateur Hour: A History of College Teaching in America is a richly researched, eye-opening history of college teaching in the United States over a span of more than a century and a half, mining personal papers and institutional records and reports from over 50 archives.

The book offers a timely reminder that many of the teaching-related issues that trouble us today -- grade inflation, student disengagement, boring lecturers -- are not new, and that many proposed reforms -- active learning, project-based learning, even technology-enhanced and personalized learning -- are anything but novel.

His story is not for Pollyannas, but rather for those who relish absurdity, black humor, irony and, I fear, dashed dreams and heartbreak. Repeatedly we encounter earnest reformers whose well-intentioned innovations fall on deaf ears or result in unexpected or incongruous consequences.

Every era in the 20th century witnessed its own batch of proposed teaching reforms: seminars, tutorials, independent study, honors programs and the first teaching awards during the interwar years, televised classes in the 1950s and 1960s, computer-assisted “personalized” instruction in the 1970s and 1980s, and teaching and learning and instructional design and technology centers more recently.

What is especially striking are the remarkable experiments that never caught on. During the 1920s, Rollins College in Florida adopted a “conference plan,” which transformed classrooms into intellectual salons where students and faculty collaborated to solve a common problem. Around the same time, the University of Wisconsin established an experimental program that offered a learning and living community with an integrated curriculum, in which students studied ancient Greece during the first year and modern America during the second.

Another reform that failed to achieve traction involved comprehensive exams, which were mandated for a time at Antioch, Reed and the University of Chicago, and department-based comps, which became widespread at Harvard in the late teens and 1920s and were deployed at 94 institutions in 1935. The goals: to raise academic standards and prevent students from overspecializing.

Zimmerman’s book sparkles with fascinating facts: that the number of teaching assistants tripled -- from 11,000 to 31,000 -- between 1954 and 1964; that in 1965, 31 percent of all of Berkeley’s undergraduate classes were taught by TAs, while underclassmen at Wisconsin got 76 percent of their instruction from TAs, and upperclassmen 44 percent. Of course, the teaching assistants did this work with little or no supervision or training.

The book also contains an absorbing discussion of the educational experiments of the 1960s and 1970s. Here you can learn about innovations in classrooms inspired in part by the radical approach to teaching and learning described in A. S. Neill’s Summerhill, which involved dispensing with grades and assignments and treating classrooms like T-Groups or Encounter Groups.

You can also read intriguing accounts of Berkeley’s Tussman Experimental College, Rutgers’s Livingston College, Hampshire, Pitzer, UC Santa Cruz, Evergreen and SUNY Westbury -- as well as about their mirror image: behaviorist approaches to programmed learning that included Fred Keller’s personalized system of instruction (PSI), which combined self-paced instruction delivered on computer monitors with student proctors who tried to reinforce the lessons learned electronically. In one of the story’s many ironies, PSI was ultimately abandoned because it raised grades too much.

What lessons does Zimmerman draw from his history? Several conclusions stand out:

  • Teaching remains today what it was in the past: an amateur enterprise, without uniform training and ongoing professional development; well-defined, widely shared professional standards; or widely accepted modes of evaluation.
  • Notwithstanding the growing body of research into the science of learning and the expansion of graduate training in teaching starting in the 1990s, the adoption of interactive, student-centered pedagogies remains limited, even as instructors do offer more in-class activities and group projects -- partly because of worsening student-faculty ratios, increased reliance on adjuncts and the emphasis on scholarly research and publication at the expense of teaching.
  • Student teaching evaluations tend to treat teaching as a popularity contest, in which entertainment, theatrics and charisma matter more than learning, while reinforcing deep cultural biases and contributing to grade inflation and a reduction in rigor, reading and writing.
  • Teaching, despite proliferating prizes and lip service to its value, remains devalued in language (we speak of teaching “loads”) and in the lack of career-related rewards, and is inversely correlated with faculty salary.

Even though some faculty members devote a great deal of time and care to instruction, some apparently do not. According to one study conducted earlier in the last decade, faculty spent on average just 11 hours a week on teaching, class preparation, grading and advising.

Zimmerman ends his book with a conclusion that encapsulates his own rather ambivalent attitude toward teaching innovation:

  • That “teaching is a deeply personal and even spiritual act” that is too personal, ineffable and idiosyncratic to be systematized and professionalized.
  • That even as we work to systematically improve the overall quality of teaching, we need to keep alive the charisma and the deeply human elements that characterize engaging teaching, along with what William Deresiewicz describes as the “erotics” of the classroom experience.

No one can read this book without wondering: Is this time different? Will the academy take to heart the insights of the learning sciences? Will the faculty finally embrace progressive pedagogies? Will teaching, at last, become more professionalized?

If history might serve as a guide, the answer is an unambiguous no.

It seems likely that the pandemic will worsen the quality of teaching, by increasing class size and moving more courses online with only limited substantive interaction with or feedback from a scholar-teacher.

Most professors are likely to plod along much as they have for the past century and a half, treating teaching as an idiosyncratic, highly personal endeavor learned primarily through imitation and trial and error, not susceptible to professional training or informed by the learning sciences or instructional design principles, or supplemented with advanced technologies.

Last year, Steven Brint, in his comprehensive, shrewd and evenhanded study of higher education in the United States between 1980 and 2015, Two Cheers for Higher Education, devoted a lengthy chapter to reforms in college teaching. There, he described two contrasting approach to teaching innovation, one, the “new progressivism,” emphasizing active pedagogies and student engagement, the other stressing accountability and rigorous assessment of learning.

Change did occur. Student course evaluations became the norm, accompanied, sometimes, by peer evaluation of teaching. Teaching and learning centers proliferated -- though participation remained largely voluntary. Graduate school introduced Preparing Future Faculty training programs, though again only voluntary. Campuses hired instructional designers, educational technologists and, in a few cases, assessment specialists.

But the outcome was profoundly ironic. While instructional practice did change to a limited degree, and teaching did become more highly valued, there were few or no measurable improvements in student learning, or even in academic engagement. The overall quality of teaching may have improved modestly, but most educational institutions found ways to evade calls to rigorously and reliably evaluate student learning.

Nor was Ernest L. Boyer’s dream of a vibrant scholarship of teaching realized, where instruction and student learning would become the subject of serious academic research. After a brief period when NSF-funded Science of Learning Centers multiplied and Lee Shulman and the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching promoted serious learning research, Brint caustically observes, faculty’s expectations for student workloads diminished, grades rose and the purported emphasis on teaching provided some faculty with an excuse to evade their research responsibilities.

My own view is that we need to cease regarding teaching as a matter solely between individual instructors and their conscience. We need to shift, as Robert B. Barr and John Tagg argued in an influential 1995 article, from a teaching to a learning paradigm, with a goal of bringing all our students to a minimal viable level of competency.

We need to insist on formal instruction in pedagogy and assessment for graduate students and make ongoing professional development in teaching methods much more of a norm. If it’s important for faculty to take training in information security, might we not expect some evidence of continuing education in teaching?

Disciplinary associations can certainly help, by making professional development in teaching a central component of their annual meetings. Accrediting agencies could demand evidence that institutions are in fact taking steps to continuously improve teaching quality. Our best-resourced campuses, in particular, need to encourage serious research into teaching and learning.

Most important of all, faculty need to think of themselves not just as researchers or lecturers or discussion leaders or graders, but as learning architects who are committed to addressing inequities in their classrooms and bringing all their students to mastery. They need to design courses with explicit, measurable learning outcomes, and activities and assessments aligned with those objectives.

One thing that might make our time different is that the professoriate, accrediting agencies and major foundations all claim to care seriously about teaching. It’s time to live up to that assertion.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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