Continuing Challenges in University Teaching
As the new academic year begins, the higher education press is replete with articles about the tasks facing universities and colleges after the last couple highly challenging years. Everyone connected with higher education knows that the pandemic has changed things, though exactly how is unclear. In the US, universities and colleges face the added challenge of a highly charged political environment and the attendant “culture wars.” How we address these tasks will to some extent define our immediate futures, so they are indeed important. Part of the difficulty, though, is that the equally challenging tasks that are still with us from well before the pandemic and the inability of liberals and conservatives to hear one another are no less pressing now than they have always been. Among the more protracted of them concern the purposes of our teaching.
A university education has many goals, some emphasized more than others by this person or that. We teach so that students may understand their world and themselves better than they would otherwise; so that they may be prepared to undertake successful careers; so that they are in a position to live as knowledgeable, politically responsible, and morally respectable citizens; so that in general they may be able to lead lives rich in meaning and satisfaction. It should not be controversial to say that these goals are all important and that none are to be slighted.
Of these four goals, it is interesting to note that the one that has the most immediate relevance for students upon graduation concerns their preparation for work. We are citizens immediately as well, of course, so there is an urgency there as well. But most people will need to support themselves when they leave university, immediately, and we must offer them the skills and knowledge they need to do that.
Those of us who teach in higher education have been educated to be masters and doctors in our respective fields. We have not, as a rule, been educated to be teachers, even of the material that constitutes our own field, never mind the many skills, sometimes called “soft skills,” that are required for our students to succeed and to live well. This is not news, and universities for many years have been trying to address this lack of our preparation to teach through Teaching and Learning Centers and similar structures. With the possible exception of general education programs, with their limited success, most of us have not, on any large and sustained scale, attended to the need to help our students develop the soft skills they all will need: in communication, ethics, global and cultural competencies, etc. One might, with some justification, say that we are denying our students their due if we overlook these features of their education. In other words, as professors, administrators, and professional staff in higher education, we have a responsibility toward our students with respect to their education in these skills no less than in their disciplinary education. Though we often try to deal with this sort of thing by requiring this course or that, as far as general student results are concerned, we are probably only modestly successful.
This point is not new, though it is useful to remind ourselves of it from time to time. In fact, there are specialists and organizations devoted to helping devise ways to address the issue of soft skills better than we now do. We need to understand better the depth and breadth of the problem, which is to say how well we are or are not addressing the problem already. And then we need to understand mechanisms, strategies, devices, structures, and methods to help deal with it. In all likelihood, it is not a matter of teaching more, which becomes immediately onerous, but of teaching differently. This is the reason that pedagogical strategies and methods become important.
We can meet our responsibilities toward our students in these respects if we attend to how best to do so. Turning to the organizations and people who are in a position to help will be a good initial step.
19 September 2022