Ph.D. Programs:  Don’t Divide Teaching and Research!

Dear Commons Community,

Carolyn Thomas, a professor of American studies and vice provost and dean for undergraduate education at the University of California at Davis, has an opinion piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education, calling on Ph.D. programs to do more to prepare students to teach.  She cautions against simply preparing them to be world-class researchers at a time when our colleges and universities need world-class teachers in their undergraduate programs.  Here is an excerpt:

“We excel, in the research university, at preparing our students to do world-class research — everywhere except the classrooms in which they teach. From the beginning we insist that Ph.D. applicants explain their research plans. When they arrive we put them through their paces in methodology classes, carefully taking apart their ideas of what they want to accomplish and introducing them to the hard work of gathering data, performing analyses, testing and retesting hypotheses, and exploring all possible outcomes.

We want students to understand that what they think is true has to be questioned, repeatedly, and that their findings have to be defended. It is an iterative process, and we expect them to be rather poor at it when they begin — improving through honest critique and firm mentorship over time.

When it comes to teaching, however, the message they receive is very different. We don’t ask prospective students to address their teaching experience or philosophy in graduate-school applications, and we do not typically talk about teaching in coursework or qualifying examinations. Often it is not until graduate students enter the classroom, as teaching assistants responsible for their own sections, that they begin to think about what it might require to teach successfully.

In the midst of papers to grade and sections to prepare, conversations between even the best faculty instructors and assistants lean more toward the pragmatic. There is little room or incentive to see one’s time as a teaching assistant as an opportunity to simultaneously teach and analyze classroom success.

Some of this is because of the importance placed on graduate-student research. This makes a great deal of sense: Training the next generation of Ph.D.s to be world-class researchers in their chosen disciplines is a chief responsibility of modern universities. Time spent in the classroom is often seen as time spent away from one’s archive or laboratory, away from the process of inquiry and original analysis that leads to cutting-edge findings and future academic employment. This makes it all too easy to teach our graduate students that they must be skillful researchers, and only adequate teachers.”

This is sound advice and a warning that our Ph.D. programs have a responsibility to develop the next generation of college teachers.



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