This week, I taught the final class of the semester in my seminar on Roman law. I have been teaching for 27 years, at Yale, Harvard and Lewis and Clark. This was, simply put, the most satisfying teaching experience of my entire career. I enjoyed it immensely—the students responded very positively to the subject and pedagogical approach, and I learned a huge amount in the process. I could not possibly be more satisfied, not more surprised. I have been teaching for decades, and though I always find the process rewarding to some degree, I had no reason to expect this semester would feel so good. This unexpected development has left me wondering: What conditions created such a perfect teaching and learning experience?
For me, the biggest factor was teaching a brand-new course I had never taught before. Most faculty teach the same courses over and over, either because of the demands of particular degree programs or because they want to conserve the time and energy needed to design and teach a first-time course. But I love teaching brand-new material. Teaching something new, I learn right along with my students, and they can feel that difference: it makes us peers and colleagues as learners. Nothing is done by rote. Every class is an adventure.
I was also teaching a course of my own choice, not a course assigned to me or required by my institution. As a result, I was teaching what I most wanted to teach, addressing intellectual issues that fire my imagination. This degree of intellectual excitement translates directly to the students. They can tell the difference between teaching as a duty and teaching as a passion. And the alignment of my teaching with my research interests meant that time spent in the classroom did not feel like a drag away from my other responsibilities, but part of my research, a way of advancing my own intellectual agenda as well as helping students on their own educational journey.
From the student perspective, perhaps the most important factor was that the course was an elective. No one had to be in that classroom; they were there by choice, because they wanted to study the subject. The class size was also capped at 20, giving every student a chance to speak in class, asking questions and raising points that interested them. The relatively small size allowed us to bond as a learning community and to express the individual perspectives we brought to the material.
The class was in person, not streamed or Zoomed. I am not an opponent of online education. In fact, I am an advocate, for it gives us the opportunity to offer educational opportunities to dispersed communities at low cost. But there is no doubt in my mind that students got more out of this class, and I enjoyed the intellectual engagement more, because we could interact face-to-face, and not through a screen.
My personal situation also impacted the outcome. The fact that, at this stage of my career, I am not unduly worried about job security or personal finances made a huge difference. Many times, junior and adjunct faculty are so focused on their employment status, publishing or making financial ends meet that they cannot bring their full attention and best selves to the classroom. In contrast, I was able to relax and focus on teaching.
Finally, I had the luxury of teaching only one class this semester. This meant I was totally focused on these 20 students, not overwhelmed with multiple responsibilities or grading hundreds of papers or exams.
I use the word “luxury” quite consciously, because I am very aware that the optimal conditions I experienced this semester are impossible to replicate at most institutions. The opportunity to teach one elective course only, of your own choice, face-to-face, with a capped class size, while financially and professionally secure, simply does not reflect the reality of teaching in today’s institutions.
But that, in fact, is the most important thing I learned this semester. Currently, we are creating institutions staffed by poorly paid adjunct faculty and junior professors worried about their careers, teaching large online classes that students are required to take. This massive deviation from optimal learning conditions undercuts the intellectual development of our students, the quality of our teaching and faculty job satisfaction. Senior college and university leaders need to understand that every deviation from optimal learning conditions—the conditions I experienced this semester—carries heavy costs. “Efficiency” is not efficient if it results in poor learning. I understand that teaching solutions must scale. Our ultimate goal has to be effective teaching and learning, however, not efficiency or scale as an end in itself.