The Revolt of the College Teachers

The Revolt of the College Teachers

 [For some time two concerns have hovered in the back of my consciousness: the total inability of contemporary culture to generate visions of a positive future and the absence of any practical plan within the community of scholars of teaching and learning to actually bring about the kind of revolution in attitudes that would be necessary for our work to be fully implemented.  These ruminations came to nothing until earlier this month, when, amidst a series of very fruitful conversations about pedagogical change at the annual meetings of the American Historical Association, the following story leapt into my mind unbidden.  By the time that my plane touched down in Indianapolis, most of this future “history” had been written. Like all such utopian visions, it is less a prediction of the future or a detailed guide to action, than a call to imagine a different set of possibilities than those that have been imposed upon us by the existing order. 

NB This was written with the educational system in the United States in mind, but I expect much of what follows is of relevance elsewhere. I strongly encourage those doing the scholarship of teaching and learning in other national contexts to imagine what a successful “Revolt of the College Teachers” might look like in  their nation.  I will be happy to link any such future “history” of SoTL to this blog. ]

 “In dreams begins responsibility.”
William Butler Yeats, Epigraph to Responsibility and Other Poems

When the Revolt of the College Teachers began, it seemed to come out of nowhere.  But, as time passed, it became increasingly clear to historians that the entire movement could be seen as a natural outcome of slow economic and social forces, linked to the evolution of higher education.

As part of the broader transition to mature capitalism, traditional university professors, focused primarily on local issues within their guild, were superseded by academic entrepreneurs, whose success was determined to an ever larger extent by their ability to produce intellectual commodities that could be exchanged for rewards, both in their local institutions and in the larger world of academia.  This shift had some very desirable effects, because it opened the universities up to groups who had been excluded, but who now could demonstrate their value in the broader and, generally more anonymous, world of journals and book publishers.  But this shift from use value to exchange value also created divisions among faculty that helped lay the foundation for the teacher’s rebellion.

This new cosmopolitanism led rather automatically to the devaluation of work directed towards local needs, particularly teaching.  The faculty member who invested time or energy in responding to such institutional concerns came up short when competing for rewards or recognition against colleagues who had instead devoted effort to producing externally reviewed books and articles.

Institutions survived because a significant number of their faculty retained some of the values of the traditional university and because many college teachers were unable to ignore the pressing needs of their students or of their societies.  But, since the psychological or financial support for such work was dwarfed by the rewards of those who invested in the broader academic marketplace, this inequality produced great bitterness.  This bad feeling was exacerbated by the fact that women were on average less able to ignore the needs of those around them, and, thus, suffered more from the domination of the cosmopolitan over the local. [See “Amoebas, Sexual Reproduction, and a History Department.”]

The institutional structure might have been able to control these divisions, but outside forces put more and more pressure on the system.  Advanced capitalism needed educated workers, and higher education was faced with the challenge of educating masses of students, who lacked the pre-education of their counterparts in the era of small, elite institutions.  At the same time political systems were devaluing everything public, which led to diminished financial support for public universities, and both state and private institutions faced rising costs because of factors such as information technology, medical care, and greatly inflated salaries for top administrators and celebrity researchers.  The obvious response was to institutionalize the growing inequality among faculty by creating a new class of poorly paid adjunct faculty, an academic lumpenproletariat that lacked job security and was generally frozen out of the decision-making structure of their institutions.

All this, of course, is the view from 10,000 feet, and, while these general economic and social transformations laid the deeper foundations for the revolt, other factors had to be in play to spark a revolution.  Ironically, it was the movement of teaching, itself, away from the local into the realm of the cosmopolitan that provided the catalyst that set off the organized reaction against the existing system.  As long as teaching remained a local, artisanal craft, dedicated to continuing the practices of the past, it lacked the ability to generate a sustained movement that could bring about systematic institutional change.  But, as the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL) began to create national and international trading zones for the sharing of ideas about teaching, those who took advantage of the new tools produced by this larger community began to realize that they had a form of expertise that was vital for their students’ learning. The chasm between their own increasingly sophisticated understanding of pedagogy and the utter ignorance of many of their highly favored colleagues helped dissolve the sense of shame and inferiority that the dominant ideological structure had imposed on them. (See “The Shame Factories of Academia.”)

At the same time the growing sense of a world in crisis linked the efforts of faculty to mitigate injustice within their own institutions to a larger crusade to strengthen democracy and mitigate economic and social inequality.  It became increasingly clear that ineffective teaching did not produce citizens able to function in an increasingly complex world or allow those who had been denied a decent education in the K-12 system a chance to catch up with more privileged elite students.  The struggle to reform higher education became linked to issues such as climate change, economic oppression, and the preservation of democracy.  As a result, a powerful movement calling for a revolution in academia was born.

Faculty, who had previously been cowed by the coercive discourse of academic research capitalism, now felt empowered to turn faculty meetings into rhetorical battlefields. They never questioned the value of research, for they, themselves, loved the work of their disciplines and most of them happily contributed to it.  But they did challenge the academic monoculture that only valued one kind of work and ignored the other responsibilities of their institutions. And, in the process, they forced many of their colleagues to recognize the contradiction between their personal political commitments to equality and democracy and their institution’s failure to use the tools of SoTL to open a pathway to success and fulfillment for more disadvantaged students or to prepare new generations with the skills needed to functional politically in an age of on-line trickery.

Tenure track teachers formed alliances with adjunct faculty to demand a decent life, job security, and a role in decision-making for all those who contributed to the key educational mission of their university. PhD students, inspired by their instructor’s new advocacy for teaching, began to demand that the SoTL be made an integral part of their training, and all three groups made it clear that, while they would continue to show up for their classes, they would do nothing to contribute to their institutions’ efforts to recruit or retain more students or to respond to new curricular needs, until such work was fully recognized and honored.

The insurgents were encouraged, when they discovered how many of their colleagues had always been uneasy with the existing system but had found it difficult to express their doubts, even to themselves, under the old ideological regime.  Once the injustice, dysfunction, and prejudicial impact of the system on faculty, students, and society had been laid bare, many of them added their voices to the movement.  On every campus the calls for change were echoed by students, who rallied in support of the new movement. And throughout academia there were enlightened administrators who began to recognize that the demands of the pro-teaching crusade might actually help them navigate some of the crises that beset their institutions.

These revolts began spontaneously in a handful of institutions, but the SoTL network, that had been created to spread new ideas about pedagogy, now served to spread ideas about revolution worldwide.  Each institution had its own particular challenges, and the revolt took a number of different forms.  But, as the sense of new possibilities spread, the call for fundamental change reverberated across academia.

The struggle quickly moved beyond the departmental level, as universities were challenged to set more equitable procedures for recognizing and rewarding accomplishment in teaching and for bringing adjunct faculty into the culture of the institution. Networks of faculty in the same field pressured their disciplinary organizations to call upon departments to affirm the importance of teaching in all personnel decisions, to redefine the role of adjunct faculty, and to introduce pedagogical training in all Ph.D. programs.  And most of these bodies eventually affirmed the principle that all those teaching in higher education should be expected to have at least a rudimentary understanding of the basic pedagogical scholarship in their fields, just as they needed a grounding in its research methods and current consensus in their disciplines.

Resistance was fierce from many colleagues, who were unwilling to accept or even to imagine that the academic culture that they had always known could be changed.  So, in many situations, the reformers had to seek allies among the outside stakeholders of their institutions.  Fortunately, those in public institutions found that the general populace and their elected representatives were overwhelmingly in support of augmenting the role of teaching, and among private universities it was easy to appeal for support from alumnae and donors.  In fact, once the battle had become a subject of public awareness, it quickly became clear that only way to obtain increased funding was to give in to the demands of the pedagogical insurgents.

It took time, and there were failures as well as successes.  Many of those who taught in the universities that were most renowned for their research remained woefully ignorant of the pedagogical literature in their field.  Yet, these backward institutions generally surrendered to the pressures from their discipline to make training in the scholarship of teaching and learning a part of Ph.D. programs, and, over time, as more new faculty began their careers with a grounding in SoTL, signs of change emerged even in the uppermost levels of the ivory tower.

When, after a decade of constant struggle, the collective attention of academia began to shift to other concerns, life in high education had been transformed.  In most institutions work in teaching was recognized and rewarded on the same level as other faculty responsibilities, and adjunct faculty were given a seat at the table for all decision-making concerning teaching and learning.  The contribution of Ph.D. students to university’s teaching mission was acknowledged, and the creation of new faculty learning communities, not only allowed the sharing of pedagogical insights, but also increased collegiality.  Finally, and most importantly, ever increasing numbers of undergraduates were being provided with the tools they needed for professional success, effective citizenship, and personal fulfillment.

While it would be an exaggeration to claim all of this had no negative impact on the amount of research being produced, it turned out that the old notion of a zero sum game between research and teaching had always been greatly exaggerated.  Faculty, who began their careers already armed with a deeper understanding of teaching and learning, often found that the knowledge that they brought with them into the classroom actually allowed them to devote time to their research with fewer distractions than had many of their counterparts in earlier generations.  The improvement in teaching, particularly at the lower levels, led to greater retention of students and, the positive press generated by the success of the Teachers’ Revolt greatly improved the image of higher education and increased the willingness of both private donors and taxpayers] to offer support. All of this strengthened the university’s financial resources, and departments were more able to retain faculty and, in some cases, even to expand.  And, finally, the shift towards a more just and collaborative culture in academia improved faculty morale, minimized conflict and resentment and, thus, created a more harmonious environment for both teaching and research.

Much remains to be done. But many of the youngest members of our departments are now quite unaware that a great imbalance of teaching and research ever existed. They have never known a world in which the collective responsibility for educating future generations was not equitably shared and in which students were treated by so many as an unpleasant afterthought.

David Pace, January 2020

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This Post Has One Comment

  1. Gene Arnholt

    Thank you! I think Rodgers and Hammerstein had it right.

    You gotta have a dream.
    If you don’t have a dream,
    How you gonna have a dream come true?

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