Skip to main content
SearchLoginLogin or Signup

Teaching as Craft

Published onJun 06, 2023
Teaching as Craft

The most glaring paradox of university education is that it involves the highest form of education while teachers have had the least – or in most cases, no – pedagogical training. People who set off teaching at a university – as I did some 25 years ago – are usually graduate students who have been given the opportunity to do PhD research. While they work on their PhD-research project they are occasionally asked to do a teaching job: teaching a class on the topic of one’s dissertation; providing an introductory lecture in one’s field; or grading exams and papers. And before you know it, you are considered a teacher without ever having learned anything about how to teach. If I take myself as an example – I do not think my career is very different from that of my colleagues – as a beginning teacher without any pedagogical qualifications, I started the job while relating it to my own experiences as a student. Who were my favorite teachers and why? What types of teaching were most attractive and productive for me? And that was how I fell into a deep trap, and it took me a while to realize that I was trapped. I assumed that what was best for me as a student would also apply to the students I had to teach. A big misunderstanding.

That I started my teaching career with this misunderstanding might be caused, in part, by the fact that I studied philosophy (at Amsterdam University). The philosophy program was/is a relatively small program in which you were mostly taught in small groups. My take on students’ likes and dislikes might be biased by this philosophy background, because I thought that most people who choose a philosophy program already have a tendency to ask a lot of questions, to be critical, to be curious. Philosophy students are not average students (I thought). You would not study philosophy, I thought, with the objective to get a fat-paying job – even though almost all my year mates ended up very well. You would not engage in a study in philosophy – in my opinion – just to get a certificate. So, my first experience of teaching was in the philosophy program. By preparing terribly well and copying the teaching behavior of some of my own favorite teachers, I managed to satisfy this student population quite nicely. The satisfaction survey – the teaching evaluations – gave fine scores. And for some time, I fancied myself a pretty good teacher. Yet, I gradually came to realize that most students – even within the philosophy student population – were not all as critical and curious as I myself had been. Very slowly it dawned on me that perhaps I was, after all, a slightly different student than the average student, and that this was exactly why I was teaching. Most students at university do not embark on a PhD track after getting their master’s degree. Students who are selected for pursuing a PhD were among the most curious students during their studies, students who like to read or study something extra, to ask tough questions. These are actually the kind of students you might dream of as a teacher because you do not have to encourage or motivate them in any way. So, when I started teaching, I thought all students were like that.

Perhaps I took my studies in philosophy too seriously. At any rate, I was taught that Aristotle had said that all human beings naturally desire knowledge, and what Aristotle had said must be true. However, when I started teaching large groups of psychology students who were required to take a philosophy course, I quickly came to realize that most students are not at all naturally curious. Moreover, I learned - away from the small groups of the philosophy program – that teaching at universities is often arranged in such a way that this curiosity is hardly triggered. There I stood before a group of about 200 students, still somewhat convinced that all these students had something in common with my younger self. The satisfaction survey soon showed that those students themselves thought very differently. Teaching evaluations dropped acutely to such a level that alarm was raised. The students found my teaching boring and felt that my lectures were of no use to them for their education or for their future jobs. There you are without any educational qualification. I was offered a teaching expert with whom I could go through a few sessions on how to approach lecturing in front of large groups. Someone once said to me, “education is too important to leave that to educational experts.” At first, I did not really understand what the person meant by that. But when I had to work with my education expert I finally understood. The most solid advice the best man gave me was that standing in front of the large group I should just imagine I was in front of a small group. That is like telling a performing musician that when she has to perform in a large concert hall, she should pretend she is at home playing in the bathroom. Every performing artist knows this is preposterous advice. So much for expertise.

Then someone came up with the brilliant idea of assigning me a mentor. Someone who also taught a required minor to the same student population. And there was my first introduction to Alkeline. She became my mentor for academic teaching. I went to observe her lectures and she came to watch my lectures and then provided me with feedback. When I went to watch her lectures, my spirits immediately sank. What a flamboyant lecturer, I thought, how easily she speaks and drags along the entire group. The courage sank because I knew that I am anything but flamboyant - I am quite serious, and am always looking for the right words, afraid to say something wrong, it must all make perfect sense - you know, one of those nitpicking philosophers. I do not remember exactly what her lectures were about, but I distinctly remember her telling an anecdote to explain the cultural differences in how people occupy space in public places. She told the students that she herself had experienced once being on a crowded bus in Asia. There were no seats left. A woman who already had a seat invited her to sit on her lap by patting on her thighs. Alkeline imitated the physical invitation gesture in the lecture hall full of students. For all the (Western) students in the room, it became at once palpable how the way you should move your body, and the extent to which you should keep your distance from other bodies is also a matter of upbringing, culture, tradition and education. Inviting a complete stranger to sit on your lap is unheard of. If I did that to my colleagues or PhD students I would be immediately charged with transgressive behavior. On the crowded bus in India, however, that invitation had a whole different meaning. The fact that I can still remember that anecdote now indicates that this was a tremendously powerful educational tool. At first, I thought, I cannot share an anecdote like that at all, because I have never experienced anything like that. I have never been to Asia. In that respect, I am a bit like the boring philosopher Kant, who had not been outside his own Köningsbergen all his life, and for whom his afternoon walk was the highlight of the day. But then it also occurred to me: you do not have to experience something like that yourself at all to still bring it up in a lecture as your own experience. As a teacher you can twist any example into a personal anecdote. Perhaps Alkeline has never even been to Asia. For the purpose of educational transfer, it really does not matter whether an anecdote is based upon your own experience or not. Hence my first lesson: use (many) examples and anecdotes and if you want them to resonate with the students tell them that they are based on your own experiences.

Another important thing I learned from Alkeline was that I should try to be less stern. I was quite inclined to make my own standards very explicit to the students ("if you answer in text message style, you will get a failing grade from me"). Alkeline taught me that such a strict attitude will only cause the group to come against you and you won’t get them into your story. Thus, to indicate that students use the correct academic register when answering exam questions, it is better to say "when answering your questions, make sure you write in full sentences." In our feedback sessions, I immediately indicated that I could never teach like Alkeline. The nice thing now was that she then said I should by no means try to do that, but rather develop my own strengths. Being precise and serious does not have to be an obstacle to teaching well, she said. You just have to develop your own style. If you are not originally a joker, you should not force yourself to tell jokes during lectures. The most directly applicable tip Alkeline gave me at the time was not to use boring sheets. That you should still put in a picture here and there. I guess that I was still under the spell of one of my favorite teachers in my MA philosophy: the well-known Dutch classicist Cornelis Verhoeven. He never drew anything on the black board (this was before the advent of PowerPoint), and often said in a somewhat haughty tone: "pictures are for children". All in all, you could thus say that Alkeline cured me of the elitist perspective on education that I had inherited from my own philosophy education.

The assignment for this essay was to say something about educational utopia. So far, I have only reflected on my own trial and error trajectory, and the role Alkeline played in it. I think I have been very lucky with this mentorship, and when I think of educational utopia, I think mainly - very nostalgically - of forms of education in which mentorship plays an important role. Or even some form of the master-apprentice relationship that is so important in learning crafts and skills. I spent some time teaching at the medical school and saw there how the medical students in the second phase of their program (the MA part) spend most of their time on internships in different practices where they learn the job hands-on as they walk along all day and work with people who already know the tricks of the trade. Of course, there are also risks to such a master-apprentice model. It is quite hierarchical and, of course, because of the power difference, there can be abuse of power. Nevertheless, we all really like the fact that our doctors have learned their skills and knowledge not only from books, but largely through their masters. I have increasingly come to embrace the statement "that teaching is too important to leave it to educational experts" because I think teaching is primarily a skill and even a craft, much less a bunch of tricks based on all sorts of theories. In my educational utopia, we will do away with the current University Teaching Qualification (UTQ). Instead, all starting university teachers should learn the craft of teaching while being paired with someone with substantial professional experience. I wish for everyone to be introduced to a master like Alkeline. The advantage of such master-fellow pairs might also be that the "masters" are also challenged to stay fresh, to keep up with the times and new developments. An apprentice is not someone who blindly follows the master. When, as a beginning teacher, you are taken directly under the wing of someone with (substantial) experience, you also immediately understand that you cannot take yourself as an example student, that most of the students you teach have very different ambitions than the ones you had when you were an undergraduate student.

So much for my utopian university teacher education. As for teaching students, I dream of the day when lectures for large groups have been abolished. In one of the UTQ classes I had (at Maastricht University), an education expert explained the degree to which information sticks with the students through the application of the different types of education. She explained that the form of education that makes the material stick the least is the lecture, and the form that makes it stick best is when students explain the material to each other. At the time, I asked why so much value was attributed to lectures in most programs. Why do we prioritize the form of education that makes lecturers prepare the most, makes them very nervous, and leaves students with little learning outcome The education expert in question shrugged her shoulders. She did not know that either. Well, of course, the answer to that question is that lectures serve many students at the same time. And why? We all know it: the more students we can graduate the more money we make as a university. The only disagreement I ever had with Alkeline concerned this point. I told her that when students come to my office because they are stressed about not being able to meet deadlines, or that they are afraid that they do not yet master the material, that I advise them to take as much time as possible. I usually try to comfort the students a bit with the following advice: "Do you know that your generation lives to be 90 years old on average - yes on average, and highly educated people often live even longer - and suppose you finish your education at 22, you will have an awfully long time to linger in a paid (but perhaps boring) job. You’d better try to continue studying until you’re 30." Alkeline didn’t think I should give students that kind of advice. I think in her heart she was in complete agreement with me, but of course, as dean, she was responsible for a good outflow of students, and therefore responsible for a financially healthy climate of the University College.

My ultimate utopia for college education is that we no longer give so many students a degree as quickly as possible. Personally, I also think that there are far too many students walking around university who do not really benefit at all from a university degree, and who also do not really enjoy the academic mindset. In the Netherlands we should get rid of the idea that everyone with a pre-university (VWO) diploma is suitable for university. As far as I am concerned, university is primarily a place where you ask questions rather than a place where you find all your answers. When you have successfully completed your VWO-education you are not automatically a questioner. For me, it would be a dream if we had an admission policy at the university that tested on curiosity rather than on cognitive abilities. With such utopian screening at the gate, there will undoubtedly be far fewer students. These we can then teach in nice small groups, and if they want, they are welcome to stay for a few more years.

No comments here
Why not start the discussion?