Wednesday, June 8, 2011

The Birth of the University...

Present day universities and colleges are an odd duck in sheep's clothing.  Faculty actually work for ........ themselves.  And you thought they worked for their university.  Not so.    So let's take it from the beginning. 

An early group of teachers were the Sophists in ancient Greece.  They taught young  upperclass men for a fee, unheard of in those days, and would only teach those that could afford it.  And they taught philosophy and reason although their statements were quite often not true.   Hence, in today's world, the term sophist means to deceive by specious statements.  In the philosophical world, the Sophists professed skepticism.   But the key word here is not 'skepticism' but rather, 'professed' which means to state publicly.  So a Professor is someone who states something publicly.  

The next body (although they existed alongside the Sophists) of teachers were learned men who studied on their own.  Most of these learned men had patrons who sponsored them, Kings, Popes, Titled persons and rich men, who in some cases, kept the learned men like pets.  "My learned man is better than your learned man..."  The learned ones could teach what they had learned by sometimes only if the knowledge was approved by the sponsor.  A good example can be found a book entitled: "Galileo's Daughter: A Historical Memoir of Science, Faith, and Love."  Based upon a series of letters between daughter and father, one can see that Galileo's learnings had to be brought before church at that time for approval.  And yet, Galileo strongly held to what he had found--that the earth was not the center of the universe.  

Interestingly enough the church sponsored the next category of teachers indirectly, monks from several different disciplines.  These pious Monks would pray, study, write in cloisters for years interacting between the groups at times.  It is said in some history books that the long sleeves of the Monks provided a good place to steal bread and food while walking through the market place while the hoods protected their identity.  

There is an interesting story about these groups that I delight in telling.  The Monks would meet from time to time to report on what they were studying and it is said that if the report was not done well, those in attendance would throw stones.  I've had the same feeling at some of my own department meetings at my university.  But that is not the story I want to relate.  In the same report, it was said that the body of monks would elect the "least" among them to find a room for them to meet, to start the fire to warm the room and to send out notices of the meeting time and place.  And this person was called a "Dean."  You could get out from being a dean by making a "good" report.  A delightful bit of information I think...... 

So...through the efforts of these monks we have the beginnings of colleges and universities.  "A collection of learned men [and women when you add Galileo's daughter]."  So who "owns" the knowledge that these scholars gleamed from the world around them?  Does the King, Patron or Pope own that knowledge?  Or the person who discovered it, teased it from the environment, developed it?  Interesting question.  This debate still rages today in Idaho where the president wants to change the configuration of the university and the faculty (monks?) will have none of it.  See: Stanley Fish's article, "Faculty Governance In Idaho" in the June 6th, New York Times,  We live in interesting times.

Let us clarify some terms before we continue too far down this road.  At a present day university there are a number of different levels of instructors or faculty.  The lowest level (meaning they get the least money for their work) is the Graduate Assistant.  Neither fish nor fowl, the graduate assistant is a student and a worker.  He/She assists some professor in the research, teaching, or administrative details like running labs or doing library research.  A graduate assistant working on their doctoral studies might even be ask to teach a class.  Rare but it is done.

From graduate assistants we go to the Instructor.  This is a wide category--ranging from someone who teaches a lower level class over and over to someone who is invited to join the faculty after they have had a successful career in the real world but may not have the degree.  

Next we enter the professorial world.  Beware, ye who dare to enter here!  What a quagmire!  Before I explain the levels be it known that the old monks had some standards for their rock throwing.  A professor has to do three things well, teach, service, and research.  In many universities, the latter takes the form of writing--either books or articles in learned journals (journals are Magazines controlled by other monks).  But these three characteristics are not viewed equally by all universities.  Teaching by and large is the least of the three.  Service is the second of the three-- that is being an officer in a learned organization or in charge of a major national committee to study something is considered service.  The top tier is research which is evaluated by what is written.  

But politics also takes its toll.  A faculty member who is in the "pure" sciences will receive ratings that are higher then a faculty member in education or the social sciences.  Different politics for different universities.  I visited an Ivy league college some years ago to research their student teaching methods.  They had NO educational professors, in fact, NO education department.  Anyone that taught education courses was in the Department of Psychology.  Interestingly enough, they also had no one supervising student teaching.  A student had to find their own position and get the teacher to agree to having a student teacher in his/her classroom.  This an Ivy League college program.  Quite frankly I would have at that time put any of our education students against any of theres except they were Ivy League and would only admit the most capable students in their program.

Now that we have the evaluation scheme outlined, the results of ones research, teaching and service give us the different levels of professorialship.  The lowest level is the Assistant Professor.  Normally the youngest of the department, these are the new professors starting out in their career of inquiry.  After a period of time and good marks in those three areas of concern, an Assistant Professor can be elevated to Associate Professor.  This position has more freedom to study and sometimes are given the harder courses to teach.  Definitely more is expected in the area of service both on campus and nationwide.  The highest level is the "Professor," sometimes called "Full Professor" or in private conversations amoung the younger, "the old Bulls."  This phrase I believe is dying out as we get more full professors that are female.  A good thing!  

Now let get to a major point for this blog, that of college teachers and teaching.  So who owns the knowledge that professors acquire and write about from their research--the professor him/herself?  The Department?  The University?  It is a delicate matter.  I've always held that the material I wrote was the property of the public, i.e., I would not copyright my material.  Anyone can use it--the same holds for this blog.  I think John Dewey and I and a host of other philosophers more learned then I would agree that ideas and facts belong to the world.  But not all professors think that way.  Some professors discover some new thing that can be marketed outside the perimeters of the university and make millions.  Who owns that knowledge?  

But here is a fact that troubles me--most professors are not taught to teach.  Perhaps this is why teaching is the lowest category in the evaluation of a professor.  The field of education is the exception.  Most education professors have taught in the public schools for at least three or more years.  Many taught classes while working on their doctoral degrees.  "How to Teach" is their field of interest.  I can say that at my college of education that were a number of excellent teachers, all of which I would have enjoyed to sit in and take their course.  

Do faculty members get evaluated or "graded" on their teaching.  By and large the answer is "no".   Some universities have an evaluation procedure that has the students in that class rate the professor in a number of categories from "being available at office hours," to "explains things after class."  It is not scientific and the evaluation form fits all classes even though it does not.  How does one compare a philosophy course which deals with ideas to one of my Instructional Technology course which deals with mechanics and software.  

As you can see, this subject of college teachers and teaching is a quagmire.  And there is much more that needs to be addressed.  Next time we need to look at how all this new material is acquired and transmitted to the student.  Then the question becomes how to see if the student "learned" the material and how well. What! we're going to talk about grading?  That is beyond the quagmire--that is a mess.

Did you ever thank your college instructor?  I had a number who thanked me and who have become my friends.  They too study how people learn.

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