Sunday, March 04, 2007

Taking the log out of our own eye

I admire Brad Delong very much: he is a wonderful blogger and scholar. He also is very tough on the Washington Post. I, on the other hand, consider the Post a treasure, and am grateful to have it on my doorstep every morning. To be sure, the paper has stories that I am not crazy about; it also regularly has stories that are breathtakingly good (such as the recent series by Dana Priest and Anne Hull on Walter Reed).

So let us stipulate that that even the best newspapers have reporters who are not particularly good at their jobs. Unfortunately, universities, even the best of them, have professors who are not particularly good at their jobs. Here at George Washington, we have many wonderful, inspiring teachers. We also have people who should be embarrassed to step into a classroom--people who are unprepared, are indifferent, or worse, haven't kept themselves up to date on their supposed area of expertise. Moreover, unlike reporters, who must meet short deadlines, professors have time to reflect on what they are going to say and do in their classrooms.

Some might argue that comparing George Washington with the Post is not really appropriate: the Post is supposed to be one of the greatest newspapers in the country, while GW is rarely listed as one of the greatest universities. OK. When I was an undergraduate at Harvard, I encountered some really horrible teaching (and of course, truly extraordinary teaching, from Gwynn Evans, James Q. Wilson, Stanley Hoffman, Benjamin Friedman, and my Ec. 10 TA. Jeff Wolcowitz, among others). That was between 1976-1980, so perhaps all the bad teachers are gone now, but based on what Derek Bok and Harry Lewis have been writing lately, I doubt it. I am guessing that even Berkeley has bad teachers.

This is not a plea for reducing the emphasis that universities place on research: many unproductive researchers are bad teachers, and the greatest teachers are often the greatest researchers. Gwynn Evans, my Shakespeare professor, was likely the greatest Shakespeare scholar of his time. During my time teaching at Wisconsin, I discerned a strong positive correlation between research productivity and teacher quality. And no wonder: active researchers know their subjects well, and that rubs off on their ability to explain and enlighten.

Nevertheless, we need to do a better job of quality control for teaching. How exactly we do this without compromising academic freedom is not entirely clear to me. Culture probably matters a lot. When I was a visiting Professor at Wharton, it was striking to me that even those who didn't particularly like teaching considered it important to avoid embarrassing themselves; people generally had too much pride to do anything less than well. More generally, I see too much complacency is our business; many professors are content in the knowledge that American universities are the best in the world, and so don't feel any urgency to change. One of my colleagues here at GW gets upset with me for being too self-flagilating.

I actually feel a great deal of pride in being a professor at a reasonably well-known university--I think that it is among the most rewarding things one can do in life. I think in generally our universities are wonderful. But before we go around removing other institutions' specks, we have some of our own timber to clear.

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