David Gooblar is one of my favorite writers about teaching and I was excited when I found out that he'd be publishing a book designed to help others approach their teaching with intentionality, rooted in what they most value when it comes to helping students learn. It's a book I wish existed when I first stepped into a classroom twenty-five years ago, and even today with all those years behind me, I benefitted greatly from reading The Missing Course: Everything They Never Taught You About College Teaching. I wanted to ask David about the journey that led him to write the book and he obliged my questions with some very good answers. Programming note: I'll be away next week, but I'll be back before you can miss me. - JW
John Warner: How prepared were you when you first entered a classroom as the instructor of record?
David Gooblar: There’s a sense in which I was very prepared. I worked very hard to put together my clever interpretations of the novels I was teaching. I remember very specifically writing my little lecture on Portnoy’s Complaint, tying Alex Portnoy’s yearning for shikses to the New York Intellectuals’ love/hate relationship with genteel literary culture. I had only been trained to do research, and had only had (with very few exceptions) professors who taught this way, so I figured this was what teaching literature was: you stand up at the front of the class and be brilliant. Once in a while you ask the students what they think about the book, or about your interpretation: if you get some answers, you’ve succeeded; if no one speaks up, you’ve bombed.
But was I prepared to actually teach? To help my students learn something of value? To help them develop in a specific way? Not at all. I suppose if you had asked me, I might have justified my way of teaching as modeling the kind of interpretation that English students were supposed to carry out. But I wasn’t given any training at all before entering the classroom, and I certainly hadn’t given any thought to the possibility that there might be any other way to teach. I was thrown into it, and thoughtlessly fell back on how my professors had done it.
JW: You’re describing what I think of as teaching folklore, the stuff that’s handed down to us either from what we experienced as students, or piecemeal as early career instructors. What was some of the folklore that you initially gravitated towards? What did you first start to move away from?
DG: It’s absolutely true that teaching is a profession that for far too long seemed to only pass knowledge on as folklore. But I want to emphasize how little thought I gave to the stuff. It wasn’t that I thought the way my professors taught was the best way to do it; it was that the subject of ways to do it never entered my mind. I’m sure the faculty members in my graduate department cared about their students, and even enjoyed teaching. But approaches to teaching simply was not a subject, save for in one respect.
When I think back on it now, I’d say the main bit of folklore had to do with the absolute centrality of the text. The only relationship that mattered for teaching English was between the professor and the text. So when English instructors did ask each other about teaching, in my experience, it was always something like, “How are you going to teach Seize the Day?” The expected answer to that question was your “take” on the book: i.e., “I’m going to teach it as an allegory for the fate of the consumer within nascent mass culture.” Nobody would ever answer by discussing an activity the students would do, or mention the students at all.
The power of this folkloric assumption was so strong that the only way I was able to get out from under it—in fact, the only way I was able to see it—was by being thrown into teaching a course without a literary text at its center. In my first fall in Iowa, I managed to get a last-minute class as an adjunct at Augustana College in Illinois. It was a first-year course called “Rhetoric and the Liberal Arts” and the only required texts were Graff and Berkenstein’s They Say/I Say, and a handful of essays on the function of the liberal arts. It was a huge shock. I really had no idea what I was doing, no idea how to fill class periods without a novel or story or poem to interpret. My interest in active learning strategies, in the importance of class time as time when students would do stuff, began in that desperation. It would still be a while before I was any good at it, but that was the real start of my career as a teacher.
JW: It’s interesting that you talk about the “real start” of your career because for me, it’s like, at some point, you can be switched to “on” when it comes to thinking about pedagogical issues, and after that it becomes a never ending journey with no terminus. It seems to me like The Missing Course is a way to get people switched to “on” and put them on that journey.
DG: That’s a really good way to put what I was trying to achieve with the book. I say over and over again, in the book and elsewhere, that improving as a teacher is much less about finding the right set of strategies and much more to do with adopting the right mindset. To me, that mindset grows out of a fascination with teaching as this incredibly powerful, essentially human, activity, one that is as endlessly variable as the number of students who walk through our classroom doors. How do I help these students develop? How do I help them do something they can’t currently do? How do I help them improve themselves and discover opportunities previously unavailable to them?
JW: We both have backgrounds in literature and writing, and for me teaching and writing are very similar in that to do both well you need that proper mindset (as you point out) and you have to be open to iterative improvement as you try something. When it doesn’t go as well as you hoped, it means revision and reattempt, just like writing. I found that immersing myself in trying to become a better teacher helped me with my writing and scholarship as well, as I really examined the purpose and process underneath everything I was doing.
DG: Yes -- I’ve found that, too. One thing I tried to get at in the book’s introduction is that the lack of pedagogical training in graduate school is a scandal not just for practical reasons—we aren’t preparing students for the reality of an academic career—but also for philosophical ones. Teaching—how to help other human beings learn and develop—is an enormously complex and fascinating subject, easily the equal of other academic disciplines, and exactly the sort of thing worthy of the deep study graduate school exists to enable. It’s also absolutely central to the reason we have institutions of higher education at all. And we treat it like this afterthought. There are all these Ph.D.s and soon-to-be Ph.D.s, with this hugely important and complex discipline right under their noses, right at the center of their industry, and we tell them, essentially, to ignore it; it’ll take care of itself. What an enormous waste of talent and energy.
I do hope that academics can read my book and come away with practical strategies that they can easily integrate into their teaching practice and better help their students. There’s plenty of those strategies in the book. But I was really trying to go beyond that, to promote through my writing a way of seeing teaching that could make readers as excited about and fascinated with the pursuit as I am. When I teach, I’m engaging in a pursuit that’s obviously beneficial to other people and tremendously intellectually gratifying to me. How many other activities can you say that about?
David Gooblar teaches, he teaches teachers to teach, he writes about teaching, he teaches about writing, and sometimes he even writes about writing. He’s currently Associate Director of the Center for the Advancement of Teaching at Temple University. He’s the author of The Missing Course: Everything They Never Taught You About College Teaching, just published by Harvard University Press. Since 2013, he’s written a regular column on college teaching for The Chronicle of Higher Education.
From 2013 to 2019, he edited and maintained Pedagogy Unbound, an online collection of teaching tips for the college classroom, submitted by college instructors. That site is now archived as part of David’s website: pedagogyunbound.com.