When one thinks of receiving wisdom by teachers, we most likely think of the ancient Greek scholars sitting in their schools, clout with beards and robed, thinking about deep things. Certainly, it isn’t the modern equivalent of our universities, with cramped lecture theatres, bored students being subjected to death by PowerPoint conducted by an equally stressed lecturer, and instead of students thinking about deep things they worry incessantly about passing the next test. Could this be why academics hate teaching? Is the constant moan about teaching load an externalisation of the existential crises brought on by near-unending teacher evaluations and marking of exam papers?
As an undergraduate, you are led to believe that lecturers are there to primarily, well, lecture and do a bit of research on the side. Once graduate school rolls around, you are quickly dispelled of that myth and told that teaching is a burden, a thing to get through with as little effort as possible, and that your research is the main priority. If you think that is an exaggeration, I’ve often heard people with extremely light teaching loads moan about giving the odd lecture or series of lectures, arguing that it simply gets in the way of the more serious business of writing the next paper (or grant). I have tried to argue that students tend to remember really good teachers, until I was gently reminded that in the hierarchy of academia, students’ time is apparently worth less than those of (self-salaried) academics. Why bother to really make strangers understand something important when you’re better off focusing on creating a great paper. That one action could inform the other is seldom thought of, let alone recognised.
This kind of insouciant arrogance feeds down the academic hierarchy, where graduate students are led to believe that their time is worth more than undergraduates. And of course, professor or junior academics believe their time is much more precious than those of replaceable grad students. Why do researchers teach? Should they even bother to teach or should they let lesser mortals do this unfavourable task?
Perhaps the casual disregard for teaching feeds off of a baser fear of being ‘found out’. For in teaching, one must confront the limits of one’s knowledge on a topic. Even supposed ‘simple’ topics taught in introductory undergraduate courses contain hidden subtleties that an unexpected question might bring to light. An inability to bring forth a satisfactory answer may turn, in the teachers mind, a false imposter into a real one. In reality, understanding something is not simply remembering and regurgitating ‘facts’ brought to your attention by a teacher, but a process in wrestling with the unknown nature of the world. This is a process which both teacher and student must work through in order for the Truth to be made apparent. This is what the Greek scholars fought so hard to achieve, and which the modern counterparts have forgotten, buried under the illusion of knowledge which masquerades as having achieved a certain grade on a test or getting that qualification.
When I think of great teachers, I think of someone like Richard Feynman who not only conducted foundational research into the nature of the universe but also made an effort to impart knowledge to the next generation. Even he admits that teaching someone to really understand something is not a trivial exercise, as people are interested in different things and learn things so differently. Often at times we learn the names of complicated things and processes without really understanding how this process works, believing that we have knowledge simply by knowing what to call different parts of a process. I like to think of teaching (and learning) as being more like a Socratic process; a teacher asks you (or you ask yourself) questions about how things work and you try to find ways of answering those questions. For example, when a teacher says that ‘opposites attract’ when referring to charged particles, you must ask yourself, ‘what does it mean for a particle to be charged?’, ‘how does this come about?’, ‘do we really know the fundamentals of particles to know how the phenomena we call ‘positive’ or ‘negative’ charge comes about or are we simply naming something that we accept without question?’.
This process is the closest that I can think of when attempting to attain true knowledge, not simply deluding ourselves into thinking that we have attained that state. When I was young I used to have a lot of trouble with this and think that other people had ‘got’ the concept while I was left floundering in ignorance. For example, a teacher would explain that sounds that you hear are generated by compressed air and they would use a slinky, or some such object, to explain the concept. They would then move the slinky in a different way to imitate light waves, and thus they thought they had explained the difference between sound and light waves. But I was still very confused. This was because I couldn’t understand how one processes sound and light very differently; how is that your ear takes compressed air and turn it into hearing music or noise?; how does your eyes convert incoming light waves into real images that you can suddenly see? This method of explaining the difference between sound and light waves explains none of those phenomena. This left me thinking that I had missed something important, that I was incapable of understanding such basic concepts that fellow students said they so readily understood. Now I know that this was not the case; neither school teacher nor fellow students really ‘knew’ these concepts because we still don’t really know how a lot of brain processing works. Sure, we know a lot about where in the brain this processing occurs, but that’s about it for the moment.
With the commodification of higher-education, it seems unlikely for teaching methods to readily change. There’s no incentive for teachers to teach beyond students learning material to pass an arbitrary test, and for students to engage with material beyond what is required to pass courses and get their degrees. But we can demand better of ourselves, both as a teacher and a student. There is no easy answer when basic economics states that universities must give out degrees as cheaply as possible, even if it is at the expense of real understanding. The only casualty will be ourselves, when we don’t even realise that we don’t know anymore.