Teachers as Transformers

Higher Ed Gamma

I don’t think any of my undergraduate or graduate school professors taught in ways that teaching centers prescribe.  No interactive lectures.  Not much active learning, let alone flipped classrooms.  No learning objectives.  No careful sequence  of activities.  No innovative forms of assessment.  Our essays came back marked up in red ink that pointed out our papers’ flaws and fallacies without any regard for our feelings.  One literally said, as he pointed out his window, “There’s the library.  See you in four years.”

Yet those professors transformed my life.  They weren’t just teachers.  They were transformers.

When we met in the library or on the quad, they invariably asked what I had thought about a particular reading or idea, and listened attentively as I responded, and often punched back.  They took me and my classmates seriously, and periodically took us to lunch and invited us to their home.

As it says in Genesis 6:4, there were giants in those days.

We have much to learn from those teachers, as ignorant as they were about the learning sciences, dual coding, interleaving, metacognition, retrieval practice, and spaced practice.  Not so much about pedagogy as about teaching for transformation.

To know ourselves, it’s essential to know our own history.

Unfortunately, most academics know remarkably little about their collective history, even its more recent iterations.  In the absence of historical knowledge, we substitute myths, factoids, and nostalgia for a past that never was.

To better understand how higher education got to where it is today, you might read Harvey J. Graff’s “Lessons from the 1960s,” a brief essay that looks back to that fateful and contentious decade for ideas about how we might reinvent higher education for the 21st century.  Even as histories of 1960s colleges and universities, like Ellen Schrecker’s Lost Promise focus on student activism and radicalism and the conservative reaction, Graff shifts the lens and seeks to recover another side of the 60s that has proven easy to forget: The way that innovative faculty members engaged with students in a mutual effort to radically rethink and reconceptualize whole fields of study.

American history, my field and Graff’s, was just one of many disciplines that underwent a sea change during the 1960s and early 1970s. Diplomatic historians like William Appleman Williams showed how ideology and political economy drove American overseas expansion, political historians like Gabriel Kolko argued that business leaders, not reformers, shaped business regulation in their own interests, and social historians like Eugene Genovese revealed how slavery created a distinct class structure, politics, economy, ideology, and psychological patterns in the antebellum South.

No longer did US history reinforce the dominant liberal consensus.  It was revisionist in a radical sense.  By challenging received orthodoxies, overturning the conventional wisdom, tapping new sources, embracing new topics, and viewing the past through a much more critical lens, it transformed US history from apologetics, antiquarianism, and storytelling into a field as exciting and stimulating as any other.

Accompanying revisionism was an altered relationship between faculty and students. Questioning the past required collective action, rereading old sources, analyzing new sources of data, resurrecting long forgotten historical figures, and viewing history through fresh lens of race, gender, and class.  I still vividly recall the Friday evening potlucks at Yale historian Howard Lamar’s house, where the new history of the American West first came to life, critiquing Frederick Jackson Turner’s claim that the conquest of the frontier was the root source of this country’s democratic individualism and challenging Theodore Roosevelt’s celebration of the “winning of the West.”

What Graff recollects, as do I, is not only the spirit of revisionism, reinterpretation, and reassessment, of discovery and critique, but the spirit of collaboration and group effort.  Here’s how he puts this:  “Not only were professors always available in their offices, some invited students to their homes for informal class gatherings, potluck dinners, wine and cheese socials, and dinners with their families.”

I, for one, don’t see much of that commitment today.

The post-World War II history of American higher education is filled with ironies.

This history should not be viewed primarily as a fall from grace, from a golden era when standards were higher, students more engaged and better prepared, and reading and writing requirements more rigorous – even though grades have become more inflated and academic expectations in certain disciplines have eroded.  Rather, it is a much more complex and confusing story, replete with contradictions, that includes gains as well as losses, improvements and setbacks, progress and retrogression.

The number of campuses, enrollment, and programs rapidly increased, but may well have overexpanded in ways that are now difficult to support.  Similarly, the production of Ph.D.s soared, which ultimately led to overproduction relative to the number of available academic positions, especially, but not exclusively, in the humanities and the “soft” social sciences.

Access to higher education became much more democratic, as colleges and universities embraced first mass higher education and then near universal college education.  But as access expanded, so, too did the stratification of higher education and the depersonalization of the college experience.

A college education increasingly became the primary route to a secure, middle-class income, but this in turn led to soaring student and parental debt.  Meanwhile, admissions to the more selective institutions became much more competitive and the market for students became less local, but students from lower-income backgrounds were increasingly concentrated in the colleges with the fewest resources.

Contributing to higher education’s democratization was the federal government’s mounting role, funding university research and subsidizing attendance through federally-financed grants and loans.  But even as the federal government supported colleges and universities to an unprecedented degree, it also imposed new regulations and compliance burdens and campuses were subjected to increasing oversight from Congress, federal agencies, and the courts.  More ambiguously, it encouraged individual professors and institutions as a whole to allow research to trump teaching to become the top priority.

As higher education’s importance increased, its mission and responsibilities grew more diffuse.  In addition to being an educational institution, campuses’ other functions loomed ever larger, as expenditures on fundraising, research, and technology escalated.   Even small colleges took on the responsibilities of a small city for housing, transportation, health care, and sports.  To raise revenue, campuses became more entrepreneurial, expanding continuing education, offering summer programs, renting campus space, and more.

Campus divides deepened not only between the arts and humanities and the quantitative social sciences, the behavioral sciences, the brain sciences, the life sciences, and the physical sciences, but also the booming vocational and applied fields of study, from accounting and architecture to business administration, broadcasting and journalism, education, engineering, health care management, marketing, nursing, and technology.

Also, campuses became, increasingly, political and ideological battlegrounds.  Some of the battles were internal, as activist or radical students and faculty strove to alter curricula and campus policies involving diversity, sexual harassment, endowment investments, and other issues. But other battles, for example, over affirmative action in admissions and free speech on campus, were nationwide.

The greatest irony, of course, is that even as access increased and standards of care and completion rates rose, disparities rooted in class, race, ethnicity, and gender persisted.  These included gaps in access to the more selective and resources institutions, in completion rates, and degrees in the highest demand majors.

Graff focuses on yet another irony:  That a decade that emphasized education as transformational ultimately gave way to today’s world, where education, far too often is transactional, where learning and earning are in opposition.

If we keep looking backward, we are sometimes told, we can’t move forward.  But I find that view is utterly mistaken.  Looking back can remind us of what we have lost and what we need to regain.

No one expects a college teacher to mimic Mr. Chips or Dead Poets Society’s John Keating or the title character of Mr. Holland’s Opus.  But I, like Professor Graff, had just such teachers.  Indeed, I suspect that virtually everyone who has ever become a professor had mentors just like those: instructors who embraced us, inspired us, took us under their wing, and believed in us. And not just us, but my classmates as well.

The best college professors did I had did something else:  They made us their intellectual partners in revisiting older questions and revitalizing seemingly tired topics.

If we do those things, we will transform student lives.  If we don’t, then we aren’t doing our job.  Always remember: Our job isn’t merely to instruct but to transform, not just teach but stir, challenge, and edify: to help students mature, grow in confidence, and see the world differently, through new lenses.

Don’t just be a teacher or a research or a scholar.  Be a transformer.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

Steven Mintz
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Tuesday, January 3, 2023
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