The Choices We Make

Are we unfair to students?

Can our decisions, no matter how good our intentions, hurt student learning?

Are we teaching for ourselves, or for our students?

These are challenging questions, ones that make me uncomfortable when I hear them. Part of this discomfort stems from defensiveness; how dare you assume I’m doing things intentionally to hurt student learning? How dare you question my assumptions? But another part of that discomfort stems from an awareness that maybe these questions have a point.


My recent thinking about these questions has been sparked by a recent piece in the New York Times, which many of you have probably seen, that asks “Are College Lectures Unfair?” Annie Murphy Paul, the author of both this essay and an upcoming book on the science of learning, argues that, yes, lectures are unfair–they can privilege already privileged students and work against students who don’t happen to be “white, male, and affluent.”

a growing body of evidence suggests that the lecture is not generic or neutral, but a specific cultural form that favors some people while discriminating against others, including women, minorities and low-income and first-generation college students. This is not a matter of instructor bias; it is the lecture format itself — when used on its own without other instructional supports — that offers unfair advantages to an already privileged population.

At an institution like ours, where these groups are well-represented in our student body, this assertion should give us pause.

Is this a blanket declaration that all lectures are bad, all the time? I don’t think so. But I do think it forces us to ask hard questions about how and why we teach. For example, coming out of a field like History, where lecturing is the first, second, and third pedagogical choice of most historians, that was the method I used exclusively in my first several years of college teaching. I didn’t put any thought into the decision–it really wasn’t even a decision. I had no pedagogical training in grad school. So I just started to teach as I was taught.

In retrospect, by relying exclusively on lectures, was I privileging students who didn’t need the extra help at the expense of those who did? If Paul is correct–and she and others have marshaled some convincing evidence in support of these assertions–then that’s exactly what I was doing. So whether or not I meant to (and I most certainly didn’t), I was employing pedagogical methods that actually worked at cross-purposes with my larger goals as an educator.

In our growth and development as teachers, our pedagogy and philosophies necessarily shift in response to experiences, new perspectives, and an increasing body of interactions with our students. Much of this development occurs more or less intuitively: something isn’t working, so we try something else. But it would serve us well to be more explicitly intentional about our pedagogical development. Why am I doing what I do in the classroom? How did I decide on these pedagogical tools? What are they doing, exactly, with and for my students?

Structures are all around us–structures of privilege, status, social norms and roles. What are they doing to our students? Are we embedding, or challenging, those structures? These are hard questions. They challenge us to think long and hard, to discern what our motivations and habits are as teachers. But it’s a necessary and vital process to undertake if we are to grow as teachers and better serve our students and our academic community.

If this piqued your interest, or provoked some thoughts, you should join us for our next Conversations on Teaching, on Wednesday, October 14, at 4:00 PM in Rasmussen 217. Our topic will be “Language, Motivation, Resistance, Privilege, and Power,” and we’ll be diving into this type of discernment by examining and unpacking the structures in which we operate. It promises to be a challenging, fruitful, and thoughtful session; we hope you’ll be a part of the conversation!

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