the moral obligation to teach well

In universities, we often find instructors who, to be charitable, don’t take their teaching duties seriously. It’s easy to understand. Teaching well is challenging and it’s not rewarded as much as research. I’m not here to argue that we should change the incentives, but there are a number of compelling ethical reasons for teaching well.

  • You owe it to yourself: When you teach, you do it in front of others. Teach in a way that encourages your students to respect you.
  • You owe it to the discipline: If you want your discipline to be respected, teach in a way that earns the respect of students who form judgments about your field. This is also self-serving. Students who respect your topic may grow into wealthy and influential leaders who can fund your area.
  • You owe it to the students: Students have voluntarily taken a few years of their lives to study at your college. Many pay large fees to be there. Make it worth their time.
  • You owe it to other teachers: Mastery of the craft of teaching brings prestige and honor to the entire teaching profession, from kindergarten to PhD programs. Make teaching an activity that people want to do and respect, not avoid.
  • You owe it to society: Professors, especially the tenured, are subsidized by tax payers, donors, and every day people who send their children to your college. We live a life of financial stability so we can create knowledge and transmit it to the next generation. There’s a janitor who’s working overtime to make sure his daughter can attend your intro calculus class. Honor that trust.

The modern university may be geared primarily toward knowledge creation, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t have other important missions. Just because our subject motivates our work, it doesn’t follow that we can treat teaching as a cancerous burden. It’s a privilege and an honor.


Written by fabiorojas

February 2, 2009 at 12:54 am

Posted in academia, education, fabio

8 Responses

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  1. Thanks–I wish more R1 folks would say things like this. It’s important for grad students to know that teaching is going to be an important part of their professional lives, and that they should value and work hard at it.



    February 2, 2009 at 4:39 am

  2. “The modern university may be geared primarily toward knowledge creation.”

    But, isn’t the vast bulk of university education (#of students, etc) essentially knowledge dissemination, at teaching/non-research universities?



    February 2, 2009 at 5:36 am

  3. Moral obligation is one good reason to teach well. Another is that is can extremely rewarding; in the classroom you get instant gratification if you do it well, unlike waiting for reviews, submitting grants, etc.

    Even better: if you are smart about it, teaching helps your research. To teach something well, you really have to know it, so take the opportunity to learn things you’ve always wanted to. Assign that book you know you should read but haven’t, work on a lit review of a related project while prepping your courses, or even turn your courses into books and articles, just like Wuthnow has done.

    Teaching is a big part of the job, no matter where you are in academia, so do it well and with pride, whether for moral, affective, or utilitarian reasons.



    February 2, 2009 at 7:18 am

  4. I am a TA in US government and politics. I try to do a blog post every tutorial for the students to see how I read the assignments.

    Is this a good policy or am I just making their life easy?

    I do it mostly to help me clarify my thought for tutorial and to force me to be prepared.



    February 3, 2009 at 5:43 am

  5. I am surprised that there are so few responses to this post. It is a bold statement that Fabio has made, something which most ‘Research’ faculty fail to acknowledge in a research community. I had my undergraduate education and MBA from India, a country where research (in the institutionalized form) is a ceremony and teaching is THE activity that professors are expected to engage in. I hold great respect to some of my professors in India who had helped me get a solid foundation in the areas they had taught me. Some of these professors that I admire do not even have a PhD. Most of them graduated with a bachelors and/or master from the IIT and/or IIM respectively – two of India’s elite centers of academic excellence. They were extremely smart, carried on with them loads of practical experience, had a passion for teaching and were up to date on the latest research in their field. For example, Prof. A. M. Salim, was an IIM(Ahmadabad campus) alumnus and an ex-chairman of the state planning commission. He taught us business policy. Another example is Prof. S. Sahirudeen, who in an IIT(Madras campus) alumnus and an ex-senior general manager at ADNOC and Saint Gobain. He taught us production and operations research. Both were experts in what they were teaching (in a practical sense though), and they had good grasp on the cutting edge of research in their area. However, none engaged in scholarly research themselves. They just loved to disseminate knowledge, which they did with passion.

    Even if these professors had chosen a research career, they might have excelled in it, but they simply did not have the incentive. Research careers are almost non-existent in Indian academia. However, the US system is quite the opposite. The faculties have the incentive to produce excellent academic research, but the motivation to engage in teaching is almost non-existent. In fact, a professor who chooses a teaching career is dubbed as an “Adjunct”. Isn’t that a pity? An ideal case scenario would be to have the same professor equally engage in both teaching and research. However, the current institutions, which considers teaching an “addition activity” of professors should change yielding place to new and vibrant ones, which consider neither teaching nor research as an ancillary to the other. Instead, both research and teaching should go hand in hand.


    Rajiv Krishnan Kozhikode

    February 4, 2009 at 6:41 am

  6. I’m not totally convinced that at research schools there is no thought for teaching. I think that tenure cases still hang strongly on research, but there’s still an expectation that one is an effective teacher as well (though, sure, a lousy teacher/brilliant researcher package will still get tenure). I think it might actually be easier to teach well than to teach poorly—–no one likes to be hated by students and perhaps sneered at by colleagues (depending on your colleagues). Plus, I’d even maintain that someone at the forefront of knowledge creation/research, on the whole, will also be a better teacher—-at business schools the very rough contrast here is between a more scientific approach to teaching (reflected in more rigorous readings and discussions) versus a war story-heavy (Built to Last, etc) approach.



    February 4, 2009 at 3:23 pm

  7. Tf, your argument that “someone at the forefront of knowledge creation/research, on the whole, will also be a better teacher” would certainly hold good for graduate level courses as students taking courses at such levels already have some idea about the subject being taught and they are prepared to work independently. For them the professor is more like a senior collegue with greater expertise over the topic and for the professor such a course tends to give greater chance of an intellectual conversation with the students that enables him or her to further his or her own understanding of the topic. However, for an undergraduate course, the requirements are totally different. The area is totally new to the student and whether the student would pursue advanced courses on this area depends on a large extent on the ability of the professor to make the course interesting. However, these course could be very basic and broad in scope, which makes it less interesting to the professor and also means more work as he or she has to deal in areas beyond his or her immideate zore of expertise, which would in no way contribute to his or her research endravor, which gets rewarded dearly. Hence, unless teaching is his or her passion, or if there is no clear incentive in place, professors would not be motivated to take the extra effort. I have heard many undergrads complain that their professors were unable to explain farily simple concepts or were unable to solve fundamental problems in class. Ironically, these very professors are highly respected scholars in their field. The only issue is they have moved to a stage in their research carreer where they no longer remember the basics that the undergrads need to know and they are unwilling to sharpen their lost skills.


    Rajiv Krishnan Kozhikode

    February 4, 2009 at 4:54 pm

  8. I taught the way I had been taught. Then, I discovered that in the library the books on “Training” were nowhere near the books on “Education.” Most of our client learners come to us as adults — or, at the minimum, at the threshhold of adulthood. Based on that, I began to find ways to engage the students. I carry with me a Canadian Silver Dollar. On the back is a Voyageur and a Native in a canoe. I say that they had the same tools and the same goal, but that the native was the guide because he knew the territory — and so that is my role, to guide us through the territory for a profitable journey.

    Whether and to what extent all education can be “performance based training” is open to discussion. Ultimately, whether programming a robot (what I taught) or criminology (what I will teach), whether music (surely performance is the final test) or philosophy (I argue, still a matter of actual outcomes), the door to learning is locked from the inside. There is no such thing as teaching. There is only learning. You can demonstrate. You can explain. But you cannot subsitute your skill for theirs — or your motivation for theirs.

    Some arrangements seem better than others, prima facie. The infamous Milgram Experiment was scripted to be about pain as an inducement to learning. Hopefully, we can abandon that mode — and yet, learning and teaching are both painful far too often.

    In my state (Michigan) you cannot teach K-12 without demonstrable evidence of successful completion of at least one class in evaluation and measurement, i.e, how to write a test. Yet, no professor is required to meet that standard. It’s learn as you go… and some never do. They are not rewarded for it and there is no error signal for failure.

    If professors leased their classrooms and hung out shingles, those better at the facilitation of learning would be rewarded for excellence. If universities were “education malls” where client learners shopped for values, new methods would be invented and refined. In 100 years, we have gone from the steamship to the spaceship, but education still consists of someone standing up in front of marker board, talking.

    Do not look to computers. Would you tout the inkgel pen as an educational innovation over the pencil? Computering allows much, and begs for much more. Word processing is merely neater than handwriting. In lieu of an essay would you accept a cloud diagram or a fishbone? Would you assign such a project? Would you submit three-dimensional tinkertoy of concepts to a peer-reviewed journal? What could be done with Sims or SimCity? For 40 years, we had Conway’s Game of Life and never made the cells into families or neighborhoods … or individuals…

    We know that Soviet agriculture did not work because the model was wrong: absent rewards, most people do the least necessary and many do less than that. Yet, what can be expected from tenure and unionization? The best ethos mustered is one of the deontologic “You owe it…” That assumes that payment has been made up front — and it has. In most markets, we pay _after_ value has been delivered. Certainly, the timing of the exchange is defined by contract (or custom). To take the customer’s money and not deliver the goods is called fraud.

    The roots of the the problem are deep and tangled. We cannot slap a patch on one function and stave up another and splice others and so on and expect a transcendental transformation of academe. But you can make whatever changes to those structures and functions over which you have control: your own classroom.


    Michael E. Marotta

    March 23, 2009 at 5:24 am

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