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IN MY OPINION

Teaching is our comfort zone

Teaching about what we know feels less risky than putting our ideas ‘out there’ for criticism.

By DOUGLAS H. PARKER | JAN 20 2015

I am a retired university English professor and administrator. During my professional life, my most fulfilling moments were those when I was in the classroom talking to students about my subject and encouraging them , even the most diffident, to believe that they had important contributions to make to my class.

Building student confidence is an important part of the teaching enterprise, or so I believe at least. Teaching can be incredibly fulfilling; helping to shape minds and develop critical acumen in students allow the teacher to feel that she or he is doing something enormously important, as indeed it is. But teaching is also enjoyable and fulfilling because it serves as a professor’s comfort zone. Despite attempts that all good teachers make to encourage their students to feel that classrooms are democratic spaces, both professors, and especially students, know that this is largely a chimera simply because professors know more than students. After all, professors profess and they can’t profess successfully if they know less than those to whom they are professing.

Students are especially aware of this crucial and inevitable inequality almost on a daily basis: they submit work that their more knowledgeable teachers grade; they write tests and final exams graded by their professors, and their success in any course hinges on the decision that the professor makes about their performance. Despite some of the griping we’ve all heard from our colleagues about large classes, and mountainous loads of marking (to say nothing about time spent preparing lessons), teaching is where professors feel most comfortable because, baldly put, teaching is where professors probably feel least challenged and most at ease. It is their quintessential comfort zone.

Research and publication feel far less comfortable. In a sense, research leading to publication reverses the student-professor relationship that obtains in the classroom paradigm. With research, the scholar becomes the student, and his or her enlightened and learned audience the professor who sits in judgment. The researcher produces a piece of work and submits it for possible publication to a journal’s editorial board, whose job includes judging the worthiness and integrity of submissions it receives.

For the researcher that’s a very risky business. The scholar who puts himself or herself “out there” is in a very vulnerable position, as vulnerable as an undergraduate student who submits an essay as part of a course assignment. The work might be deemed worthy of publication or not. Putting control into others’ hands takes the suppliant out of their comfort zone. Even if a journal decides that a submission is worthy of publication, there is nothing to guarantee that the published work won’t be attacked by other scholars who find flaws with it. So the publication track is, by its very nature, potentially ego-deflating. As a consequence, those who are risk-averse often are not prepared to roll those dice and endure scholarly dark nights of the soul.

There are, of course, other reasons why professors don’t engage in scholarship and publication. Some are on teaching tracks and therefore off the hook; others, new profs in particular, must focus their attention on courses they have not taught in the past since they have no past to draw on. But I am convinced that what I have called the comfort zone of teaching in many instances militates against the perilous move towards scholarship and publication. Tenure and promotion committees are often criticized for putting too much emphasis on publication and page-counting rather than on teaching, despite what promotion criteria say about the importance of teaching and its inherent equivalence to publication. But the reason for this may be that promotion committees recognize, implicitly perhaps, that the challenges associated with scholarship and publication give it a leg-up on the relatively less risky, but no less important, domain of teaching.

Before retirement, Dr. Parker was professor of English department at Laurentian University, where he had also served as its English vice-president academic. Read his other opinion piece that he wrote for University Affairs: Teaching university courses in India.

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  1. Chris Buddle / January 21, 2015 at 3:43 pm

    I must disagree: teaching, if done correctly and with ambition, enthusiasm and a dedication to student engagement is far, far away from a “comfort zone”. (some) Universities may not ‘value’ teaching to the same degree as research, but I don’t think it has anything to do with the ‘ease’ of the job. I think it has to do with money and research funding. And, perhaps because everyone knows that metrics used for evaluation of teaching are sometimes problematic and flawed. It seems the community is more accepting of metrics associated with research output.

    Every day I talk to my colleagues about teaching, and I’ve never got a sense that they feel it ‘comfortable’. Quite the opposite – many are integrating active learning and experiential learning, and taking a stab at integrating technology and novel ways to increase student engagement. These activiteis are incredibly risky, especially because they may not equate with in increase in teaching scores.Furthermore many Profs are hired based on research excellence rather than teaching ability, and when placed in a classroom, many wish to be in the ‘comfort zone’ of research. After all, the system actually trains professors to be researchers; it doesn’t train us to be teachers.

    If a Professor slips into a ‘comfort zone’ with teaching, this is perhaps an indication that a change is needed, and perhaps indicates a stagnation in terms of teaching approach, style and/or the content itself.

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