Lost in today’s nonstop hand-wringing about the endangered species of higher education is the importance of teaching and learning mutually between students and professors across ages and ranks. The fact is that we cannot understand faculty teaching and student learning without our reciprocal learning as faculty from often implicit, informal, even indirect teaching by our students.
Unfortunately, however, while top-down, one-way instruction—from the faculty member to the student only—has long been with us, the transition to online and hybrid teaching has exacerbated that approach instead. The result is that we increasingly hear about the isolation of today’s students—especially, but not only, undergraduate students. Some have never spoken privately with a professor or met with an adviser. We also hear consistently that almost all students need and miss those kinds of relationships.
Of course, this trend predated the pandemic. As a result of economies of scale, higher rates of growth in student numbers than faculty members and both faculty and student convenience, large lecture courses—challenges to academic relationships, broadly defined, between student and faculty members across ranks and generations—have never diminished. In fact, in my own and my colleagues’ and students’ estimations, such challenges have grown consistently since the late 1970s and seem to have worsened lately. Although I haven’t seen any systematic data, I’ve observed a shift away from closely supervised “discussion” or “quiz” sections taught by graduate students as part of large lecture courses and students’ preparation. The steady transfer of first-year and second-year instruction from tenure-track and full-time faculty to full-time and especially part-time “sessional lecturers” has accentuated the problem.
Thus, the experiences and results of teaching and learning have doubtlessly worsened over time, with inadequate responses from faculty members, deans, student life officials and chief academic officers. Rhetorical concern abounds; action does not follow. Often, students only fill the seats, or Zoom windows, and pay more and more of the costs.
While I am careful not to romanticize or overgeneralize, we seem to have lost sight of the fundamentally different landscape of learning and teaching realities for many students like myself and faculty members—although certainly never all—that existed in the 1960s and at least the first half of the 1970s. I’ve found no quantitative data, but not only I but also my older as well as younger colleagues and former students all concur there was an educational universe in which mutual, reciprocal, collective, interactive teaching and learning were not unusual. It occurred on an everyday basis in both large and small but meaningful ways. It often demonstrated itself in a general attitude toward learning: for example, my best professors would regularly respond to a provocative student question by saying, “I don’t know the answer, but let’s talk together about how we might discover one, or more.”
Back in those days, many professors were supportive of those of us who were campus free speech, civil rights and antiwar activists, and they were often more inquisitive than I find many faculty members to be today. For instance, I remember as an undergraduate a lengthy conversation with a European historian with whom I was completing an independent study course about the wisdom of bringing a child into the world of the late 1960s. His first son was just born, and he was eager to chat one-on-one with a 20-year-old about my world and his son’s world. That was only one example of frequent informal student-faculty mutual interactions I had.
In graduate school, the centerpiece of education was my adviser’s bimonthly research project meeting with his own and other interested graduate students, research staff members and local and visiting scholars. We were all equal participants with opportunities to present our research and to constructively and respectfully criticize each other’s. He often presented his own work in progress, typically in the form of working papers. We students, for our part, presented our thesis, dissertation chapter or conference presentation drafts. The professor’s seminar-style leadership and always supportive and respectful criticism became models for my own career.
One Sustains the Other
I recognize that many large universities don’t have the resources or the compact size of that graduate student–only department. I myself had to struggle to adapt my ideals and models derived from late-1960s and 1970s educational experiences as I taught throughout the following decades at three different large universities.
At the first institution, teaching lecture courses with little support, I used film, fiction and diverse readings, along with group projects, to excite and involve my undergraduate students. Especially in my first years as a full-time professor, my students significantly helped teach me to be an effective teacher—formally and informally, actively and passively. They taught me what techniques and materials worked best and, in particular, how to be clearer and more concise.
It was easier, of course, with graduate students. I had the unusually stimulating opportunity to co-teach interdisciplinary graduate seminars on three occasions. Especially compelling were the ways that we professors respectfully questioned, sometimes challenging each other about the perspectives of own disciplines as well as our own interpretations—modeling practices that our students then adopted.
One of those seminars, taught in the evening with class members alternatively preparing a meal, ended with the production of a cookbook that we shared among ourselves. It combined each of our own recipes with comments on the historical origins and changes in ingredients and modes of preparation of different dishes—it was, in other words, an interdisciplinary extension of the course itself.
Also memorable was an experimental seminar in public history and humanities that I taught in a graduate program in the humanities. The students were a highly self-selected group of midcareer professionals who used the opportunity to explore possible public extensions of their positions in both nonprofit and for-profit organizations. It was unusually stimulating and rewarding for all of us due to the degree of intellectual, professional and personal exchange—along with respectful questioning, sharing and mutual support—that developed quickly. This linked concrete job tasks with intellectual questions, including how best to draw on and integrate historical perspectives and critical skills. I learned an enormous amount about my adult working students’ job tasks and challenges.
In my second university, I was assigned large lecture courses in U.S. history with no teaching assistants. Forced to use electronically scored, multiple-choice exams for the only time in almost 50 years of teaching, I supplemented them by assigning carefully supervised group projects that led to jointly drafted short papers. My goal was to oversee class members’ learning actively and collectively, compensating for the large lecture and multiple-choice constraints. It gave me the mutual faculty-student relationships that I hold central to meaningful and long-lasting learning. Students in the required course valued the projects and the group experience.
On one occasion, members of a history and English graduate seminar on the history and literature of children and youth all presented their term papers in the form of a session at the annual meeting of the Texas Association for American Studies. The assignment required each student to identify a specific primary source and to critically examine its strengths and weaknesses, uses and abuses. We won an award for best session. I cannot describe how much we all learned mutually, collaboratively and reciprocally. Students and professor taught each other across interests, fields of study and both specific and general applications of their learning.
In my third and final university, where I held joint professorships in English and history, I was able to bring together students from across the mega-university from a wide array of disciplines, including the humanities, arts education, social sciences and health sciences. The students actively taught each other—and me.
For example, many joined the GradSem of our universitywide interdisciplinary initiative [email protected], a monthly student-led interdisciplinary seminar at which my project associate and I were the only nonstudents. A small committee led the larger group in selecting topics. The self-selected master’s and doctoral students from several dozen different departments collaborated intensively in selecting questions and topics. Typically, one or two students began the discussion. The students also met with visiting speakers that the program regularly brought to campus from around the world, as well as interacted with faculty and other researchers in interdisciplinary working groups.
Among the most memorable and moving events across the almost 14 years the group functioned was our International Graduate Student Literacy Studies Conference in 2009. Coordinated by student program co-chairs and program committees, we assembled several hundred students from five countries. This was also the occasion of the 30th anniversary of my book The Literacy Myth: Literacy and Social Structure in the Nineteenth-Century City. Having doctoral students from around the world respond to my first book was an extraordinary opportunity for my own learning and reflection. This combined with moving from one session to the next, chatting and exchanging ideas with students from around the world in open spaces.
All of us as professors can create more opportunities to maximize our own learning through our teaching. In so many ways, I could not have sustained my career without the regular mutual, reciprocal, collaborative, interactive teaching and learning between me and my students. Each sustained the other. We must reconstruct those emphases and give them a larger place across our campuses. The future of learning and teaching depend on it.