Ibbotson-Sindelar: Teaching mediocrity

We celebrate shopping period because it allows us to avoid bad teachers, but the peril of a Yale education isn’t bad teaching — it’s mediocre teaching. Yale has collected exceptionally bright minds in each discipline, and yet the majority of professors are merely acceptable teachers. We excuse their shortcomings with the adage that good researchers don’t make good teachers, but our professors are not born incapable. Structurally, Yale encourages mediocre teaching. I don’t claim that all professors are mediocre, only that those who have become good do so on their own initiative, not with support from Yale.

Many blame Yale’s tenure system, which seems to promote professors based on their research merits alone with only a perfunctory glance towards teacher evaluations. Yet equally as important, Yale does nothing to train its faculty in the art of teaching. Teacher preparation programs do exist — Yale has one for undergraduates — but professors aren’t required to take them. Yale seems to think that because professors are knowledgeable, they are capable of effectively passing that knowledge along.

According to this theory, the interested intellectual student should be engaged by the material itself and doesn’t need the entertainment of exemplary teaching. We would do well to consider that understanding is inextricably linked to the act of transmission. Good teachers don’t just entertain us, they provide a framework for engaging with knowledge.

And yet, while Yale deserves blame, we students cannot be exonerated through Yale’s guilt. Yale has provided some means for redress, and we have a responsibility to take advantage of it. One of Yale’s great triumphs is the online evaluation system. It allows us to speak to each other, and even more importantly, to speak back to our professors. Unfortunately, the evaluations we write for each other are often meager; worse, I discovered that the same applies to those we write for professors. Reading through instructor evaluations for a class my suitemate TAed, I learned only that the professor was “great.”

I fear these curt evaluations are indicative of Yale students’ generally passive acceptance of mediocre teaching. If we were truly driven to change our school, evaluations would be more than hurried scrawl at the end of each semester. They should be something we think about throughout the year, perhaps by keeping a section in our notebooks for critiques of each class. When we take professors’ responsibility towards us lightly, it should be no surprise that they do so as well.

After three years surrounded by Yalies, I know we have the capacity for deep insight and critical thought; we think critically about the books we read and the papers we write. Why don’t we exercise the same critical attitude toward teaching?

The reason, I think, is that students regard teaching as a fixed and almost innate skill, as if people are born short or tall and professors are born good or bad teachers. Under this assumption, it is ethically wrong to criticize teachers; it would be like criticizing a short basketball player — you don’t want him on your team, but you don’t blame him. This assumption is wrong. Teaching is an art, and like all arts, with effort it can be improved. If teachers turned their critical eye towards teaching with the same zeal they turn it toward research, the classroom would be fundamentally different.

We have to shift our ethical framework from one that is complicit in the failure of our teachers, to one that is morally indignant toward the state of teaching at Yale. If we were paying top-dollar for any other service — be it medical or legal — and it were just passable, we would be angry. This seems to be the attitude of students in our professional schools. They are learning for a purpose, so when professors stymie their learning they feel cheated — we undergraduates just feel disappointed. Instead, we too should believe we have a right to good teaching.

But if we have a right to criticize, then we equally have a responsibility to help teachers become better. Yale could be a university of exceptional teaching, not merely mediocre. If we find the standard of teaching unacceptable, we have to voice our opinions openly. If we don’t give constructive comments, we tacitly approve of the status quo. Professors must work to acquire the skill of teaching, but they won’t unless we make it an expectation and a demand.

We need to tell teachers that we take our classes seriously, and that likewise we expect teachers to fully commit to the dissemination, and not just the acquisition, of knowledge.

Tyler Ibbotson-Sindelar is a senior in Branford College. His column runs on alternate Wednesdays. Contact him at tyler.ibbotson-sindelar@yale.edu.