American Council of Learned Societies
Occasional Paper No. 16

The Improvement of Teaching

Derek Bok
Harvard University

Francis Oakley
George Rupp


Sylvia Grider
American Folklore Society and
Texas A&M University

First of all let me say that I am honored to be part of this distinguished panel confronting the issue of improving teaching in American higher education. To share this podium with Presidents Bok and Oakley and Rupp is an extraordinary experience. Although I am not a university president, I am President-elect of the American Folklore Society. The annual mid-year meeting of the Board of the American Folklore Society coincides with this ACLS meeting, and so my friends and colleagues on the AFS Board are here today as my guests.

Administrators often remark that one of the problems with faculty is that they are more loyal to their disciplines than to the institutions in which they teach. As a faculty member, my response to that is “yes, of course,” because it is our disciplines that provide the emotional camaraderie and the emotional support which undergird our serious lifetime research interests. The various annual meetings, conferences, and symposia of our respective disciplines provide the primary fora for discussing and presenting our research problems and results. Of course that is why our universities provide travel funds for us to attend these meetings. Ironically, however, our disciplines do not require us to publish or perish; our institutions do. Our disciplines provide solace and escape from the arbitrary and bureaucratic pressures and constraints of the university. Because of my own disciplinary loyalty, I want to speak today on behalf of and informed by my fellow folklorists in the academy.

Although well known and respected in Europe, folklore is a much misunderstood discipline in the United States. The American Folklore Society, founded in 1888, is one of the oldest constituent members of the American Council of Learned Societies. Nevertheless, those of us folklorists who teach in colleges and universities, unlike philosophers or historians or literary critics, constantly have to explain to our colleagues and to the general public what we do. The main thing that we do is study and interpret tradition in all of its manifestations throughout human culture. The oral tradition is at the very heart of the discipline of folklore. Since so much of teaching is oral as well as traditional, whether lectures or Socratic dialogue, folklorists pay a great deal of attention to the teaching process.

Because most of our colleagues in the academy do not understand what folklorists do, the classes that we teach are usually not understood very well either. Because folklore has the popular connotation of “old timey” or “untrue,” a folklore course sounds like it is going to be easy. As a result, counselors and advisors often pack our undergraduate classes with students in general studies or with athletes or with students on academic probation. However, for most people the word folklore also conjures up nostalgic images which are inherently interesting, so we also get an inordinate number of students who are simply curious and looking for a relevant elective. And, of course, folklorists in some universities also teach a wide range of graduate seminars in the discipline. As a result, folklorists must be master teachers who can cope with a whole range of student ability, maturity, and interest.

The lack of separate departments in our discipline is another professional obstacle for academic folklorists to overcome. Folklorists can be found in departments of English, anthropology, history, and sociology, just to name a few. Most folklorists teach only one or two undergraduate survey courses in folklore and therefore rarely get the opportunity to teach their personal research specialties. Yet curiously, the current mandate of the university system is that professors must constantly engage in the publication of original research in order to keep abreast of the latest developments in their fields in order that they can teach better.

I think we can all agree that the simplistic, competitive either/or conflict between teaching and the publication of research results is disastrous to the overall educational process. None of us question the necessity of ongoing research to stay abreast of developments in our respective disciplines or the need to contribute to those developments. But how much cutting-edge information do undergraduates in introductory survey courses need? And how much can they absorb? And how long can the narrowly specialized research scholar stay interested in teaching if that scholar is assigned the same introductory courses semester after semester? Can it be that the talents of productive scholars are wasted in the undergraduate classroom? If so, it would appear that the paradigm of the relationship between teaching and research needs re-examining.

The research mandate of large universities impacts especially hard on folklorists in non-folklore departments. For example, does the publish or perish mandate mean that a folklorist in an English department, for example, should be publishing in literature, as do the other members of that department, or should the folklorist be publishing in folklore, which the bulk of the members of the department consider as peripheral? If all that the English Department in question counts toward tenure and promotion are refereed articles and books about literature, then the folklorist is unfairly burdened with having to publish and do research outside of his or her field, while at the same time teaching only one or two introductory courses semester after semester. Such are the double binds that unilateral standards create in our universities.

As we all know from experience, good teaching involves more than simply walking unprepared into a classroom, coffee cup in hand, and winging it for 50 minutes. In many respects, teaching a graduate seminar is much easier and takes considerably less preparation time than teaching an undergraduate class— which is why faculty with distinguished publication records usually teach most of the seminars. Good teaching requires extensive preparation, especially for introductory survey classes. That preparation can entail constantly reading in the professional literature, revising lectures, organizing slides, previewing tapes and films and videotapes, lettering overhead transparencies, and planning ahead for discussion opportunities. Furthermore, as we all know, effective learning does not stop at the end of the class period. Students, especially undergraduates, need to interact with us outside of the classroom too. They often need help with study skills, with goal-setting, with clarification of subject matter, and so on.

All of this, of course, takes the professor’s time away from research and writing. You can’t sit at the word processor and talk to a desperate student at the same time. Good teaching therefore can become personally too expensive for many faculty, because the more time that is spent on teaching preparation and interaction with students, ofttimes the fewer the refereed publications and the less likely that that faculty member will be tenured or promoted, which like it or not, translates into dollars lost.

The assumption that lack of publication automatically indicates a lack of research presents another problem that needs confronting. The current definition of acceptable research is that which is published in refereed journals or by university presses. Why must such publication be the only acceptable, rewardable outlet for research? What about research that is channeled into the classroom rather than publication? Why doesn’t that research count in the current reward system? Can the answer be because publication is the only kind of research that can be archived and quantified and thus compared by deans and promotion committees?

As a folklorist, I know that people in high-stress occupations have a tendency to bond into tight-knit and esoteric folk groups. The shared oral traditions of these occupational folk groups deal primarily with the stresses and concerns of making a living in that particular occupation. For example, lumberjacks talk about the dangers of felling trees, oil field roughnecks talk about the perils of rotary drilling, taxi drivers talk about which parts of town and which fares to avoid. Most high-stress occupational folk groups often share a rather caustic sense of humor which is sometimes shocking to outsiders.

Although the ivory tower is stereotyped as the bastion of tranquility where beloved faculty sit around and have great ideas, this stereotype is really no longer true—if in fact it ever was true. Because of the pressure to publish and get grants, university faculty are as highly stressed as any occupational group in our society. It should come as no surprise therefore that the main traditional items that faculty pass along from one to the other deal with their occupational stresses as faculty—publishing, teaching, and alienation from the administration.

Anti-administration jokes and anecdotes are probably the most common oral tradition among faculty. For example, “Do you know what an assistant dean is? It’s a mouse in training to become a rat.” Furthermore, considering how many of today’s faculty came of age during the turbulent sixties, it is no surprise that a number of derogatory anti-administration epithets have stayed in oral tradition—for example, “deans is pigs” is one that we constantly hear. Anti-teaching, publish or perish anecdotes and aphorisms are likewise common in oral tradition. These traditions, interestingly enough, and not surprisingly, express cynicism toward an educational system that is perceived as giving lip service to, but that does not really value or reward good teaching. For example, who has not heard the venerable chestnut: “Those who can, do, and those who can’t, teach.” There is even a cynical addendum, justifiably despised by our colleagues on education faculties: “Those who can’t teach, teach teachers.” There is another that I have collected from my colleagues: “The rich get richer, but the poor get students.” Or try this one: “Jesus Christ was a good teacher, but he didn’t publish.” Anti-teaching sentiment is not new. The Roman satirist, Lucian, described the punishment for kings who ended up in Hades: They were condemned to either sell fish or teach grammar.

Of more recent vintage are a couple of anecdotes which are currently being reported throughout the country. Let me point out, by the way, that one of the distinguishing characteristics of folklore is that folklore is always anonymous and people usually cite the friend of a friend as the source of the various anecdotes that we exchange. And so according to the oral tradition and “friends of friends,” an anonymous dean allegedly said, “When Harvard comes headhunting for my best teachers, then I’ll consider teaching when I make tenure, promotion, and pay raise decisions.” In a similar widely-reported anecdote, another anonymous dean allegedly told a starry-eyed new assistant professor that there was a formula for success in the university: “Get a quarter of a million dollars worth of grants every year, publish like a son-of-a-gun, and as long as classes aren’t rioting, forget about teaching.” Those last two anecdotes are especially noteworthy to a folklorist because of their structural dependence on triple implementation, which indicates the processes of traditionality in action.

As all of these anecdotes demonstrate, many faculty decry the growing emphasis on research at the expense of teaching, but feel powerless to do anything about it. President Bok has clearly outlined the measures that he has instituted at Harvard in an attempt to enhance and encourage good teaching there. But most of us do not toil with him in the groves of academe. Instead, we struggle in the trenches of large public universities dependent on state funding. Faculty down in those trenches apparently believe that their administrators will not promote good teachers with uncompetitive publication records lest that action give a signal to other universities that research is no longer their primary goal. Furthermore, some administrators apparently believe that all faculty will immediately stop publishing if the threat of not doing so is removed. And we as faculty know that that is not the case. As a further serious indication of the negativism toward teaching that is becoming increasingly prevalent in our universities, more and more faculty reportedly regard prizes and cash awards for teaching excellence as little more than token consolation prizes for not being competitive researchers. The feeling that there is no punishment or no sanctions for poor teaching only increases the sense of frustration on the part of the teaching yeomanry. Throughout the country, we see indifferent publication being rewarded and good teaching ignored. In addition, we have the paradox of released time from teaching being the standard reward for publication productivity, and the punishment for lack of publication is an increased teaching load. If the system were logical, just the opposite would be the standard practice—in other words, productive scholars would have increased teaching loads because they would have so much more to say to students.

So why bother with teaching at all, if there are so few real rewards for teaching well and no penalties for teaching poorly? Many of us teach because we love it and because of the deep personal satisfaction that interacting with students and the transmission of knowledge bring us. In fact, many faculty readily admit that teaching is the engine that drives them. A former master teacher who left college teaching to undertake a more lucrative career in another field describes teaching as “the passion to explain,” and goes on to lament that the loss of that passionate commitment is not compensated for by money or the prestige of being in another profession. It would be crass to intimate that any of us teach for the money, but by the same token, teachers have to make enough to live on. According to a recent front-page article in The Chronicle of Higher Education (April 3, 1991), faculty salaries nationwide already fail to keep pace with the cost of living. Since our society measures an individual’s social worth by the size of the paycheck, good teachers are going to have to be paid more if we expect to attract talented new people into our profession. Furthermore, we somehow must communicate to the upcoming generation that teaching is as much a part of our scholars’ obligation as is publishing.

I recently overheard a graduate student announce that he had to publish six refereed journal articles before his orals if he hoped to have any chance of getting a job upon graduation. Why six? And what about their quality? What about their content? What about the joy, the commitment to enriching our culture with new knowledge? I could not help wondering what these six fledgling articles contributed to his teaching apprenticeship, and whether his teaching record would help him get the job he so coveted. Such emphasis on publication to the exclusion of all else frequently produces an excessively narrow, sterile scholarly career instead of the broad “life of learning” celebrated by the American Council of Learned Societies.

Our current system which rewards publication but not teaching is requiring more and more caring, compassionate, and gifted teachers to compromise their personal integrity in the service of their paychecks. It is emotionally damaging and it is depressing to be forced to stand before a class and not give your best because you either did not have the time, or even worse, did not have the heart to prepare for that class. If the university demands publication above all else, then the pragmatic individual will publish at the expense of teaching preparation. The result is more often than not depression, cynicism, and burnout.

In conclusion, and with apologies to Lynne Cheney and the National Endowment for the Humanities, I firmly believe that the crisis in American higher education is not the curriculum. In the hands of a master teacher, almost any responsible curriculum can be effective. The real crisis is the systematic marginalization of teaching as a result of the pressure to publish at all costs. The best way to put a stop to this pernicious trend and therefore to begin improving teaching in American higher education is quite simply to recognize and reward faculty for teaching well.