American Council of Learned Societies
Occasional Paper No. 16

The Improvement of Teaching

Derek Bok
Harvard University

Sylvia Grider
Francis Oakley


George Rupp
Rice University

I gather from conversations over coffee that many of you have vigorous responses and questions you want to pursue with Derek. In view of that fact and the further fact that we are running out of time, I will confine my comments quite stringently to a response to Derek’s paper. That way my remarks can serve as a transition to what I expect will be a lively discussion among all of us.

I begin with high praise. I think the paper is excellent. It is refreshingly concrete and therefore illuminating—all the more impressive because it sheds light on terrain that is too often lost in a fog of abstractions. It is especially important—here is an example where the medium is the message—that the president of one of those nefarious research universities that is culpably derelict in ignoring its responsibility for teaching, himself so manifestly is concerned with the process of teaching and with ways of improving it. Those of us who have known Derek over the years and have listened to what he has been saying and writing are not surprised at his animated involvement with questions of teaching. But the fact of his involvement does help to correct, if I may put it this way, the stereotypes of administrators and deans that, as Sylvia reports, folklorists among others perpetuate, probably in unhelpful ways.

I note in particular two constellations of virtues that I see in the presentation that Derek gave us. First is the nuance and balance both in diagnosis and prescription—a respect for the complexity of issues, a resistance to the kinds of easy simplifications that make good folklorist anecdotes or that appear on dust jackets of books but are really not helpful if we are serious about improving teaching. Here are a couple of examples of this respect for complexity.

One example is the care with which Derek sets the context for his discussion of improvement in teaching, by making it clear on the one hand that there was not a golden age and on the other that the current situation is not a catastrophe. I think this establishing the context for the discussion is especially important to avoid the misunderstanding that Frank alluded to, namely, that attention to the improvement of teaching is somehow an admission that the situation is a disaster. At the same time, having insisted that it is not a catastrophe and there was no golden age, it is important to register the clear recognition, as Derek does, that there is ample room for improvement and also that a special constellation of problems have developed with the emphasis on research in research universities following World War II. That is one example of the virtue of nuance and balance in Derek’s presentation.

A second example, again one that Frank alluded to, is the question of how teaching relates to research. Derek in his presentation cites data that show that teaching is not correlated negatively with research productivity. If anything, the reverse is the case, although probably in the noise level in terms of statistical significance. So it is not the case that greater research productivity correlates with less good teaching. Accordingly, Derek, I think rightly, and Frank clearly agrees as well, resists the pressures to promote successful teachers who are not proficient at research. Having rejected this sort of easy simplification that figures in popularized versions of this problem, Derek then focuses his criticism at two points. First, he focuses on our apparent willingness to tenure productive scholars with only the most cursory look at the quality of their teaching; and second, he focuses criticism on the propensity, especially in larger institutions, to measure scholarly productivity in terms of quantity rather than quality. So that is another example of a nuanced and balanced position: not allowing the divorce, the separation of teaching and research, but nonetheless calling attention to places where we can make improvements and ought to do so.

A third example where this kind of balanced position is advanced very effectively is on the issue of student evaluations. Derek at least tacitly acknowledges the criticism of relying too extensively on what could degenerate into student satisfaction measures alone. Having conceded that point, he then argues effectively, as Frank also just has, that carefully crafted student evaluations provide data that first of all correlate very closely with expert assessments of teaching and also, if carefully constructed, can help to focus both student and faculty attention on specific educational goals rather than just the popularity of courses. That is another example of where Derek’s presentation exhibits this virtue of nuance, of balance, of resisting easy simplifications.

The second constellation of virtues is what I take to be the central insight of the presentation: that improving teaching requires systemic attention to interlocking processes within complex institutions and not simply ad hoc and unconnected measures. Indicative of this point are Derek’s repeated references to developing a comprehensive strategy, forging a network of incentives, creating an environment, fostering a process, launching continuous programs of educational research, experimentation, reform, and so on. Derek delineates the ways in which concrete mechanisms or procedures mutually stimulate and reinforce each other and thereby overall institutional cultures, which is a very helpful focus in contrast to an approach that lays out just a series of disconnected steps. The development of expectations as to teaching portfolios is one illuminating instance that comes up all through Derek’s thinking about these problems, but there are other examples as well.

To exhibit nuance and balance and to advocate systemic solutions to persistent problems are certainly virtues; but, as always is the case in the currency of virtues, there is another side of the coin. This other side of the coin may not be a vice but it is at least the shadow side of the virtue: places where there may be a need to be less nuanced and balanced and aware of complexities and more pointed in questioning established patterns and procedures. I will offer two examples of this other side of the coin in the interest of getting our discussion under way.

The first has to do with teaching fellows. All through the presentation, a system of using teaching fellows seems to me to be more or less taken for granted. In the written version of this presentation that you forwarded to us ahead of time, Derek, you observe in passing that it would be “impossibly expensive to offer the personalized instruction that teaching fellows provide if universities had to depend entirely on professors.” Now in your skillful presentation to this assembled gathering, you elided that specific sentence. It may be a little unfair for me to quote it anyway, but I think it will get at some issues that we should discuss. You certainly have excellent proposals for improving the performance of teaching fellows, and you also call, I think quite rightly, for more careful supervision of teaching fellows by faculty members. But it seems to me you do not engage as trenchantly as I think you should the central responsibility of faculty for personalized instruction of undergraduates—and not just through teaching fellows or graduate students. I have a specific illustration that is in fact about your institution. One of our deans has a son at Harvard. He has an enormously high regard for the education he is getting and certainly would go there again; so he is in no way an unhappy camper at Harvard. But in the second semester of his son’s sophomore year, he called home just enormously excited because he had had a conversation with his professor as they were walking across campus—which was clearly the high point of that half of that semester. Now I know that it is the case that Harvard faculty are available to undergraduates. Dick Light’s assessment seminar findings show that aggressive undergraduates, or undergraduates who avail themselves of this opportunity, can meet with faculty members and most of them are receptive. But I think we have to look more systematically at ways to make sure that in fact faculty members take that responsibility for personal contact with undergraduates seriously and do not take completely for granted a system that has teaching fellows as a layer between faculty members and students. So one place where I would welcome a more vigorous questioning of established practices is on this question of the use of teaching fellows and the responsibility of the faculty for personalized instruction.

A second example where it seems to me a more pointed and unqualified position would be welcome is on the matter of reduced teaching loads in our efforts to recruit faculty. Here again, in your presentation, you did not refer as directly or explicitly to this issue as you did in your written remarks. Both in your written remarks and in other contexts like the Association of American Universities, you have taken the position that a research university should commit itself not to initiate offers to reduce teaching loads of professors that it is seeking to recruit from other institutions or to retain when other institutions are interested. My question is, is that enough? You have said that it would be asking too much to insist that a dean or a provost never agree to reducing its teaching loads or teaching schedules when trying to counter offers from other institutions. But it seems to me that the practice of reducing teaching loads as an inducement to faculty, whether in recruiting them or in keeping them, is so fundamentally perverse and so directly undermines the kind of connection between teaching and research that we are talking about that it should be forsworn, even as a response to the initiatives that come from other institutions—as difficult and uncharacteristic as that would be for deans and provosts and department chairs. If it is the case, as I think most of us if not all of us are persuaded, that there is an impending shortage of Ph.D.s, then all forms of competition for faculty will be intensifiing in the decade ahead. In this setting, leading institutions must exercise leadership and refuse even to counter offers to reduce teaching loads. Only then will such offers come to be recognized as irresponsible, as contravening fundamental values that universities have to endorse. That harder line, or more pointed position, is the one that is called for rather than simply a commitment not to initiate such offers of reduced teaching loads.

I do not want to end with an exaggerated emphasis on points where I would like to see you go further, Derek. I do think there are a few such points, but I want to reiterate my overall sense that this is an excellent presentation. I am delighted to hear from Stanley and others that it will be available in written form to people because it offers proposals that are concrete, practical, illuminating, and also, demonstrates that leaders of major universities in fact are very concerned about teaching in their institutions. Thank you.