“The Students Are the Material”: David Gooblar and the Art of College Teaching
By Ryan BoydJanuary 5, 2020
The Missing Course by David Gooblar
Things are different at the college level. In higher education, a perverse combination of incentives and structural impediments turns good teaching into something that is both undervalued and mystified — you either have the touch or you don’t, but either way it probably does not affect your career arc much. New professors (or, just as likely, new graduate TAs) are left to figure things out on their own. And this, argues Temple University professor David Gooblar, is a catastrophe.
Gooblar’s new book, The Missing Course: Everything They Never Taught You About College Teaching, seeks to change things. He begins by underscoring a conundrum: although PhD students are mainly prepared to do research, those who become professors will, unless they land one of the vanishing tenure-track jobs, spend most of their time teaching. “As graduate students,” writes Gooblar, academics
are trained almost exclusively to be researchers and writers and are expected to pick up whatever pedagogical training along the way, perhaps by osmosis. When they get in front of a class, most fall back on what their own professors did (which probably doesn’t stray all too far from what their professors once did).
Even worse, in the relatively few positions where a tenure-track professor has the chance to build a long-term career at an institution, teaching is valued far less than scholarship, even though the former “is a discipline every bit as challenging and intellectual as anything we tackle in our research.” What Gooblar calls “the industry” does not usually promote you for being a great teacher, which makes little sense if we are to believe all the political and institutional elites who assure us that helping students deepen their intellects is the university’s core role. “The job of the American academic,” Gooblar observes, “is teaching. Why don’t we train academics for that job?”
My own path as a junior faculty member is representative of what many college teachers go through. At the enormous University of California campus where I did my graduate studies, teaching assistants were given scant formal training in how to guide or evaluate undergraduates. Certain professors worked more closely as mentors with their TAs, but many were content to let you do whatever you wanted in your discussion sections. You jumped into the deep end, and hopefully you could swim. Once I had my PhD and joined a UC writing program as an adjunct lecturer, I likewise got little in the way of formal pedagogical training. My boss was nice enough to give me a few books — I remember Joseph Harris’s A Teaching Subject — and talk to me about new trends in composition studies, but that was about it. It was disconcerting, and felt a bit unprofessional, to have cobbled together my working expertise from so many random, unorganized sources — to have jerry-rigged my knowledge about how to do my job.
The Missing Course is part education theory, part reflection on labor, part toolkit. Gooblar critically diagnoses how teaching gets done (or doesn’t) in modern colleges and universities, but he goes beyond critique, offering a series of activities, approaches, and strategies that instructors can implement. His wise and necessary book is a long defense of the idea that a university can be a site of the transformation of self and society. A profound sense of care motivates it: “The students are the material,” and to teach well is to practice “the mysterious art of helping people change.”
Unfortunately, the conditions at most schools make it hard to accomplish this. Under the neoliberal regimes that have colonized higher education since the Reagan era, especially in the public schools that dominate the landscape — definitively documented in Christopher Newfield’s Unmaking the Public University (2011) and The Great Mistake (2016) — instructional budgets are often the first thing to get cut in the name of austerity and fiscal pragmatism, while material power is channeled upward into a corporatized management’s hands.
Faculty are put in one of two streams. The lucky few enter the tenure-track, where promotion depends heavily on research production, not teaching quality. But the number of such career paths has been shrinking since the 1970s and utterly collapsing since the Great Recession, particularly in the humanities. (Read the gruesome numbers for literature PhDs if you’d like to feel bad.) Everyone else who manages to stay in the faculty pool — over 70 percent of the professoriate — takes teaching-intensive jobs, either as full-time non-tenure-track faculty or (more likely every year) as a part-time adjunct who doesn’t even get an office. Most of these NTT positions involve teaching more students in larger classes than pedagogical research suggests is ideal. Even at my well-heeled private university, I am currently in charge of giving rich, individualized instruction to 57 students this semester. The evidence is clear: teaching is the central labor “within the frenetic and overburdened life of the twenty-first-century professor.”
And, Gooblar argues, it should be. If we’re right when we say that college can train students in critical thinking and democratic debate, that it gives them the space to imagine different and better futures, then institutions of higher learning should be prepared to invest everything they can in classroom teaching. Changing the structural conditions of our labor must be a goal — and that, I would argue, will only be accomplished through collective action — but teachers must also consider how effective our individual classroom practices are.
Fortunately, college professors think constantly about their work. As anyone who has ever been in a room full of teachers can tell you, we love to share ideas for assignments, classroom activities, evaluation methods, mentoring approaches, and the like. There is a tremendous body of wisdom circulating within the profession. Often, in turn, it becomes the basis for research into effective pedagogy, which is abundant, albeit often locked up in scholarly journals or siloed at conferences. The problem is that this working knowledge has not been effectively integrated into the structured training that graduate students and junior faculty get at most institutions. Experienced teachers already know what works; the task now is to disseminate this knowledge as widely as possible. The Missing Course, along with projects like West Virginia University Press’s “Teaching and Learning in Higher Education” series, is a major effort to begin doing that.
In line with recent scholarship such as Joshua Eyler’s How Humans Learn and earlier theorists like bell hooks, Gooblar emphasizes that teachers must create participatory, democratic learning spaces, preferably in real non-digital classrooms where students can build lasting relationships with each other and their professors. Reminding us that there is no such thing as a generic student — the classic 18- to 22-year-old residential collegiate model is not the norm anymore — he contends that the particular scholarly disciplines in which professors are trained are less important than students and their various learning situations and needs: “We teach students, not just subjects.” Students are not “kids,” nor are they empty vessels waiting to be filled with knowledge. They have to be activated, intellectually and emotionally, as human beings.
This task is a challenging one, because, as John Warner has shown in Why They Can’t Write (2018), most K–12 students are subject to batteries of testing and evaluation and ranking — not to mention actual dystopian surveillance programs. As a result, they often arrive at college bored with or hostile to formal learning, seeing it as a necessary dose of pain on the way to a career, a series of arbitrary tasks ordered by teachers. Gooblar notes the same pattern whereby so many college students end up socialized to be “obedient and subservient” about their own educations. The intellectual habits generated by various sorting and watching regimes “reinforce faculty domination of the classroom space and encourage students to remain passive, deferential, and apathetic.” Given that pedagogical research clearly indicates that the best learning outcomes derive from environments where students are active participants, this is, to put it lightly, a problem.
Gooblar points out that a popular model — the lecture — is an especially poor way to engage students in their own learning. “Continuous exposition by the teacher,” as the scholar Derek Bruff puts it, turns potential learners into passive subjects, and Gooblar goes as far as claiming (and I tend to agree) that “[i]n the not-too-distant future, it is now imaginable that researchers will refuse to study lectures as a mode of teaching, because to do so would be an unethical imposition on the poor students who have to suffer through them.”
He also goes after grades and the tenacious myth of Grade Inflation, supposedly the bane of all true academic rigor, whereby lazy students are getting easy A’s for slipshod work. At least that’s the narrative you can find on the op-ed pages. Gooblar points out that, in the first place, grades are pedagogically counterproductive, the quintessential extrinsic motivator that turns students into instrumentalists with short memories:
When grades are the main driving force behind our students’ motivation, instead of trying to master the material for their own benefit and assimilate it into their prior knowledge, students figure out what’s expected of them to attain a good grade and act accordingly. Extrinsic motivators are additionally problematic if we want students to develop a lifelong interest in our subjects; after graduation, when the rewards for learning are gone, the interest disappears.
Then there’s the panic about grade inflation. But Gooblar emphasizes that the subject has been heavily researched, and there is no evidence that rising grades produce poorer learning outcomes, so it’s “probably a victimless crime.” If we want our classrooms to be “less competitive and more cooperative,” we should see grades as (at best) a “necessary evil” of present institutions, and at worst a red herring that distracts from real structural problems in higher education. “Let employers and graduate schools come up with their own ways to evaluate students,” he declares, since teachers have “more important things to do.”
But Gooblar does more than theorize and critique; The Missing Course is also a concrete toolkit that draws on knowledge generated by master teachers in the arts, sciences, and humanities. Thinking of writing a syllabus with student input? Looking to incorporate more self-reflective “meta-cognitive” practices into your teaching? Concerned that nobody does the reading? Want to run a livelier discussion? Seeking better models of feedback for a writing-intensive course? Gooblar has something for teachers from any field or course level. Most chapters end with bullet-pointed takeaways that will be especially useful for less experienced faculty.
Rather than top-down models of transmitting knowledge, where a teacher is a sage dispensing wisdom, Gooblar emphasizes giving students work that encourages reflection on their thinking processes and provides meaningful engagements with their experience of the world. Our students are not what newspaper columnists frequently portray them as — they are not generationally lazy or corrupt, and they will buy into a course designed to make them true participants in the production of knowledge. Often this means giving students assignments that model the scholarly, critical, and creative work that professors themselves do. (Progressive drafts of this essay, in fact, will become teaching materials for my future writing seminars when we discuss how writing is a long recursive process.) Gooblar underscores what good teachers know instinctively: that we must teach our students as our equals and partners. That does not mean giving up intellectual rigor, but it does mean recognizing that pedagogical efficacy never derives from constrictive, capital-A authority. We are, after all, learners ourselves. One cannot become a good teacher if one isn’t continually learning from experience, because “learning is much more like an act of revision.”
Some progressive departments have already found ways to integrate the knowledge Gooblar has helped collect into their faculty training and development practices. In my school’s writing program, for instance, we require new instructors to take a pedagogy course, which is in turn supplemented by frequent symposia, mentorship, and peer feedback. This produces better individual teachers and, more broadly, nourishes a culture devoted to pedagogy.
Teaching is not solely an intellectual practice; it also taxes your emotional reserves, and as such the job is a form of what the sociologist Paula England calls “care work.” Gooblar argues convincingly that an attention to teaching as both labor situation and professional discipline won’t just make classes more interesting and valuable for students. It will also reduce burnout, a major threat to workers in care professions like teaching and medicine. In many ways, The Missing Course is an argument for building more empathetic, cooperative, democratic institutions, better places to learn and work, as opposed to the hierarchical, heavily managed, anxiety-inducing, grade-obsessed environments we have now.
I have always been irritated by language that frames the academy as a space apart from the world, whether this takes the form of threadbare right-wing invective against tenured radicals or well-meaning defenses of the supposedly timeless humanities. A university is situated in more contexts than you can count; it is not a golden island or an ivory tower, no matter how many gates and fences schools put up. All the ills and anxieties — and all the potentialities — of a society will show up in its schools. Colleges and universities are not exempt.
At the same time, however, a campus does feel existentially special. Lively classrooms can generate knowledge, stage meaning, and communicate ideas in ways that feel downright magical, as anyone who has been in a good class can tell you. This magic isn’t always the norm, but if Gooblar gets his way, it may become so. These vivid environments and moments are constrained by various structural conditions, and they are always already attached to the rest of the world by a million threads, but they are, I think, a kind of sacred, differentiated space. I like how Gooblar theorizes it: “In the classroom we get to imagine and bring into being a parallel world, a world slightly more than just our own, with slightly different realities that we can shape with our students.”
Teaching is how we pass on a world, or worlds. Gooblar’s work will contribute a great deal to this strange, contingent practice and to the frustrating but still deeply promising universe of American higher education.
Ryan Boyd (@ryanaboyd) lives in Los Angeles, where he is on the faculty of the University of Southern California's Writing Program.
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