Why Teaching is No Fun
I've just finished preparing my Analytic Philosophy class for Spring. Teaching this course is a kick because I relive my philosophical youth, particularly when I reread papers from time time when Analytic Philosophy was young. I've been sneaking around the Web peeking at other people's syllabi for comparable courses and it seems that we all do what we like--I seem to like reading Russell more than most.
But the constraints imposed by the students I have to deal with and the System in which we operate make teaching miserable. In part it's because I'm female, physically unprepossessing and peculiar: if I don't work very hard to assert authority and display organization I will be treated as a buffoon--a funny fat little women, a figure of fun. Other faculty can afford to be laid back but I can't: I have to exert myself to the fullest to act "professional" since I don't "look professional." Once I've established myself, after a few class meetings, I can let go a little--in fact I sometimes let go a lot sometimes and enjoy myself, but I always have to work at maintaining order and structure. My appearance is against me and I don't have the social skills to "facilitate" discussions or use any of the gimmicks we're encouraged to try, so I lecture, keep strictly on track, and do everything I can to avoid the appearance of "disorganization."
But it's not just me. The System makes things difficult because the brute fact is that the university is both an educational institution and a screening agency for employment and admission to professional programs. I have to grade students, and because they know that they are there to get their credentials, I have to establish a clear scheme for assessing them and rigidly stick by it. This year, after agonizing, I've decided to grade them on the basis of a term paper and objective type quizzes to see that they're keeping up with the reading. I haven't yet decided how many quizzes or how much they'll count and here I have to figure in a number of factors: I have to weigh my own view that these quizzes are a waste of my time and theirs against their interest in not having everything hang on one term paper; I have to have enough quizzes and have them at set times to please students; I have to work at these quizzes to make them good, to see to it that they aren't a complete waste of time.
I wish I could give students collaborative projects but grading them is a hassle. I wish I could give them take-home tests: I have a stock of very clever, juicy questions and I'm interested in seeing how students answer them. It would be wonderful if students would get together and discuss these questions--that's what philosophy is all about. But they won't discuss them unless they're a graded assignment and if they are I have to worry about collaboration: what is legitimate and what isn't? what do I say to students who've worked on a question together and come up with substantially the same answer but where it's clear that one student engaged with the material and understood what was going on while the others parroted snatches of the solution without understanding it? Furthermore, because the university is an employment agency I have to rank students and get a spread of grades: I have to make sure that some students do badly.
So I'll give true/false and multiple-choice tests where students can't complain about the grades and I'll weight them heavily enough to please students who don't like writing essays. I'll restrict topics for the term paper and impose mickey mouse rules about it to make it harder for them to cheat. By the time students get their grades they'll be home on vacation and less likely to give me a hard time: they can't complain about the grades for objective type tests and they won't complain about the grade for their paper so I'll be off the hook. Pedagogically, this stinks. But I will do it so that I can get this crap off my back so that I have some chance to talk about Russell, Ayer and Quine, about Skepticism about the External World, Puzzle Cases of Personal Identity, Twin Earth and all the things that interest me and got me into philosophy in the first place.
I'm fed up with the whole thing. I love my field: I would gladly learn and gladly teach but the System makes it difficult. My son is now in college and convinced that faculty are out to beat up on students. I've talked to other students who believe that faculty really like to lecture, don't want to hear what they have to say, don't want to engage in discussion. Hardly. We're all of us caught in an evil net