“I hope I didn’t sound too much down on teaching. I enjoy it. And it is not a great deal of work right now. But it’s really not a raison d’être for me. In other words, it was about what I expected. On the other hand, it is probably the most positive part of my life right now.
David Pace to Michael Sherry, November 13, 1971
A few months ago, my old friend, Mike Sherry, sent me a copy of a letter containing the lines above, fully aware of the irony of my having begun my career by minimizing the role of teaching in my life. Having just reached the fiftieth anniversary of my first week teaching, this seems an excellent occasion to acknowledge how utterly wrong every thought in this passage was – everything, that is, except for the final comment, since, except for family and friends, teaching has continued to be “the most positive part of my life” for the last half century.
In the decades that followed my writing this letter, teaching was to become my craft, my vocation, my way of making a difference in the world. It has not only been a rewarding personal experience, but it has served as a means of professional advancement and as the entry into world-wide community of marvelous colleagues.
It would be easy to explain this transformation entirely as a personal progression. But the historian in me resists telling this story in narrowly biographical terms. If my experience changed, it was because the broader world within which I worked was transformed and because new possibilities emerged. When I began teaching, there was neither an intellectual nor an institutional context in which a broader vision of teaching could emerge. In 1971 the rich pedagogical resources, theoretical frameworks, and social networks that we can now experience on a daily basis would have been as impossible to imagine as Wikipedia or GPS. In the midst of a world that constantly foregrounds the noisy crises around us, it is worth pausing for a moment to consider the ways in which decades of quiet reforms have created a much more nurturing and productive world both for students and for those who teach them.
I first entered a classroom as a teacher on August 30, 1971, without having had even one minute of training. Amazingly enough, my notes from that class have survived, and, to give my earlier self some credit, I did raise questions about how to go about doing the reading and about the students’ relationship to the texts that they were experiencing – themes that would reappear in my work in later decades.
But it is clear that I still imagined that good teaching was the result of getting the content straight, presenting it in an agreeable manner, and some ill-defined concern for students’ welfare. If it worked, it was largely the result of one’s personal gifts; if it did not, there was no place to turn for help.
It had been made quite clear to me at my arrival at the university that teaching was a purely personal commitment and that appearing to invest too much energy in it was a path to professional suicide. Thus, the classroom was a lonely space, in which my failures had to be hidden from colleagues and my successes were celebrated alone.
It was also a frustrating space, in which the available tools were too often inadequate for the task at hand. At that point in my development as a teacher, I had two instructional tools at my disposal – lecture and discussion – and only very limited visions of how to conduct either. When students had difficulty in mastering the material, my only option was to continue the conversation with that portion of the class that had been sufficiently “pre-educated” to follow what I was saying and to hope that the rest were getting something out of the experience. The limitations of my pedagogical toolbox inadvertently produced yet another round of insult and injury for those students who had previously been denied access to the intellectual tools needed for understanding what I was trying to teach. But such reinforcement of preexisting inequalities was standard practice in the academia of 1971 and was actually honored in the name of maintaining the standards and traditions of our calling. (Confessions of a D Student, Part 1))
This impoverished pedagogical landscape has been utterly transformed by five decades of cultural work by thousands of scholars of teaching and learning, educational researchers, and professionals in teaching centers. We now have at our disposal a rich storehouse of strategies, insights, and theoretical models that can provide guidance, when learning is not progressing in a classroom – a resource whose value became all the more visible in the early months of the pandemic, as instructors were confronted with the challenge of rapidly switching to online learning . (Decoding Online Learning) Moreover, as local, disciplinary, and international communities of scholars of teaching and learning emerged, the life-depleting isolation that had engulfed the serious college teacher in the world of 1971 began to dissipate. And, while the professional rewards for doing SoTL are not yet what they should be, there is a growing career niche for such work within academia.
These changes in the broader ecosystem of teaching have transformed learning difficulties in the classroom into an occasion for an exciting shared intellectual exploration that is most clearly visible on a micro level. To capture this experience, I would like to share the evolution of a short module from a course on culture and society in late 19th century Paris that I teach yearly in my university’s Intensive Freshman Seminar Program. By 2016, when this account begins, I had already offered this course in this format at least nine times. If the world of SoTL had not come into existence, I might have had no choice but to make yet another mind-numbing march through the proverbial yellowing lecture notes. By contrast, today each iteration of the course is an opportunity to play with new strategies for drawing more students into the learning process.
Using the Decoding the Discipline’s approach and, more specifically, the work of the History Learning Project [See notes at bottom of the page.], I had identified the key obstacles to learning that prevented some of my students from succeeding in the course. Then, I created modules that modeled, gave practice on, and assessed student success at some of the key mental operations that they had to master to get past these obstacles.
Specific content was integrated into this framework. On the day in question, we studied Haussmannization, the radical reorganization of the urban geography of Paris in the 1850s and 1860s. But the real purpose of this lesson was to model for students the process of recognizing how various groups in a particular era could bring very different perspectives to contemporary events. Students were given a variety of primary and secondary sources on the topic, and learning teams presented the reactions of different groups to the changes initiated by Napoleon III and his prefect, the Baron Haussmann.
By this point I was satisfied that the structure that I had created was helping students understand how various groups could view these developments through the lens of different interests and value systems. But it occurred to me that I had not taken full advantage of the fact that there was a range of reactions to these developments among the students themselves. Having now at my disposal a vastly wider range of teaching tactics than would have been imaginable in 1971, I quickly hit upon one that would supply my needs – the opinion line.
Therefore, on an August morning in 2016, I surprised my students by asking them to follow me from the classroom out into the hallway. I marked out a space and suggested that they think of it as a series of points ranging from 1 to 10. At “1” the policies of Haussmann represented the worst imaginable evils that could have been inflicted on Paris in this period; at “10” Haussmann was the savior of the city, who deserve the greatest honor for his accomplishments. The students were then asked to find the spot of that continuum that most clearly represented their own reaction to what we had been studying – with the proviso that they could shift their position if anything they heard caused them to change their opinion. I asked students at various points along the line to explain why they had chosen to stand where they were, and a very lively discussion ensued.
After several iterations I was quite happy with the module. Like any really effective teaching technique it achieved several goals. The experience deepened students’ understanding of the process of recognizing different perspectives. But it simultaneously gave them a chance to explore and express their own values and assumptions and to take part in a reasoned discussion in which some participants visibly changed their positions in response to the arguments of others – an experience that has sadly become rare in our time. Moreover, on the level of classroom dynamics, the exercise provided a reset for the students, who returned to class energized and ready to plunge into to whatever came next.
I was, however, still looking for ways to deepen the learning experience. One of the mental operations that I had modeled earlier in the course was the ability to recognize how the decision to foreground or ignore particular phenomena in the creation of a text or image radically affected responses to it. I realized that I could add a new element to the opinion line exercise that would reinforce this learning.
Therefore, after the exercise described above had taken place, I asked the students to move to the place on the line where they would have chosen, if they had only been concerned about the encouragement of business and the economy. I repeated this process with a focus on a series of other issues — the movement of the poor to slums in the suburbs, the maintenance of traditions and monuments from the past, or the protection of existing neighborhood communities. As the students explained why they changed their positions when different concerns were foregrounded, it was clear that they were developing a deeper understanding of the way in which the choice of focus shaped one’s conclusion. At the same time, they were becoming more aware of the personal values that had led them to stand in a particular place in the initial part of the exercise.
Due to COVID the first week of the course was now taught online, and it seemed at first that the Haussmannization exercise might be impossible to reproduce. But consultation with the teaching community around me quickly led me to Jamboard, which allowed students to move post-it notes with their names on them to various position on a shared screen. The transition to a digital framework went so smoothly that I used the same technique later in the course to allow the students to process their feelings about the coexistence of the world of art, leisure, and consumerism that bloomed in this period with the abject poverty of a large portion of the Parisian population.
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I hope that the description above captures the extent to which course development had become fun in a way that would have unimaginable in 1971. But the scholarship of teaching and learning has also allowed me to achieve the goals which led me into the classroom in the first place. Like so many instructors, I began teaching with a passionate commitment to helping my students learn and a conviction that higher education had a crucial role in responding to the problems that were facing our world. But I lacked both a vision of how to realize the possibilities that existed in the classroom and a model for a career that placed that work at the core of my professional development.
I now walk into a class, confident in the knowledge that I have a broad vision of the potential learning challenges my students may face and a wide range of techniques for responding to their needs. I am part of a rich international community of scholars of teaching and learning with whom I am sharing new understandings of how to bring more students into the learning process, and this work is yielding the kinds of professional rewards that I could once attain only from more traditional disciplinary research.
At 77, I am more excited by teaching than ever, and I feel that my learning curve is still pointing upward. But, as I indicated at its beginning, the point of this essay is not to share a bit of autobiography, but rather to celebrate the possibilities that have come into being over the past half century. Across the planet college teachers are discovering this path and its rewards. And their embodiment of this new role of teacher/scholar can provide a much-needed service to humanity.
There is obviously much to be done. Most importantly, we must make SoTL a more integral part of the training and the reward system of everyone who has responsibility for guiding learning in a college setting. But for now, we can take a moment to marvel at the fact that today at least some new teachers begin their careers without ever having to pass through the stage of the isolated classroom, ineffective lectures, and fumbled discussions and that fewer students who will not have to suffer through the efforts of their instructors to reinvent pedagogy entirely on their own.
David Pace, “Decoding the Ivory Tower,” February, 2021
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- Shopkow, Leah. 2010. “What ‘Decoding the Disciplines’ Has to Offer ‘Threshold Concepts.’” Threshold Concepts and Transformational Learning, edited by Jan H. F. Meyer, Ray Land, and Catherine Baillie, 317–32. Rotterdam: Sense Publications.
- Shopkow, Leah. 2013. “From Bottlenecks to Epistemology: Changing the Conversation about History in Colleges and Universities.” In Changing the Conversation about Higher Education, edited by Robert J. Thompson, Robert, 15–37. Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield.
- Shopkow, Leah, Arlene Díaz, Joan Middendorf, and David Pace. 2013. “The History Learning Project ‘Decodes’ a Discipline: The Union of Research and Teaching in SoTL in and Across the Disciplines.” The Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in and Across the Disciplines, edited by Kathleen McKinney, Kathleen, 93–113. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.