There is no one right way to educate — but some ways are decisively better than others. This reality is all too evident to Yalies who quickly learn that plenty of classes at Yale are not well-taught. Although people learn in different ways, there is a feature common to Yale’s best classes — the professor has a distinct and disciplined pedagogy. In other words, they know how to educate.
Ironically, it was my college seminar instructor who reminded me of this, not a Ph.D.-gilded, tenure-track, household-name professor. Although many Yalies rate college seminars highly for their unconventional content and class dynamics, this seminar ticks those boxes while also achieving a standard of academic rigor equal to any Yale College class. The class is a gem for a single reason: The teacher has an evidence-based, feedback-driven method.
First, he treats seminar participation seriously and actively jockeys discussion using the Socratic method. This avoids the pitfalls we have come to associate with sections and seminars at Yale. His “b.s. meter” means b.s. answers are respectfully but quickly shot down. His rigorous tracking system means “section assholes” never dominate. His meticulous time management means there is more quality discussion and less of the kid who only asks silly questions to get a good participation grade.
Second, he carefully structures every class. He always begins with a review of last week’s material, responding to the most pressing questions we posed, before giving a short lecture to introduce unfamiliar concepts. Before him is a sheet with our names and faces, which becomes a hodgepodge of notes on our participation. He meticulously chooses a different student every class to kick off the discussion. From there, the seminar evolves into an impassioned back-and-forth between him and the students.
Third, his objective is never to make the class or the grading challenging for the sake of it. On day one, he stipulated that the class was neither meant to be too hard nor too easy for us. Before each meeting, students answer handpicked questions related to his readings. The readings themselves are often short, but the emphasis is always on reasonable depth rather than overambitious breadth. For difficult readings with unfamiliar mathematical calculations, he personally emails us with a series of step-by-step instructions.
Finally, this instructor embraces his own fallibility and always seeks feedback on his pedagogy. This includes anonymous midsemester feedback. Even on a day-to-day basis, he emphasizes he is open to being proven wrong and spearheads discussions about how to optimize class. From trivial issues like ideal exam dates to essential ones like how to structure his data sets, he always attempts to make our lives easier.
Some of these steps seem blatantly obvious. Many professors at least do some of these things. But very few, if any, do all. This is certainly a teacher who is very committed to teaching and his students. But more importantly, it is someone who believes education is a discipline to be learned and recognizes the need for focused and reflective pedagogy.
Too many Yale professors refuse to intervene in awry seminar discussions or ramble in a way that detracts from the flow of the class. Too many Yale professors don’t structure their classes clinically and “wing it,” only to run out of time or miss critical questions students should have wrestled with. Too many Yale professors make their classes difficult to avoid the “gut” moniker; their classes become a game of just-in-time romance with infinite assignment deadlines and mechanical absorption rather than consistent weekly understanding of the class content. Too many Yale professors are reluctant to learn from their students or use student reviews for concrete improvements in their classes and teaching style.
This is not a blanket critique of Yale professors, many of whom I love and admire. It is a critique of the idea that all professors are automatically educators. Teaching is a skill that must be learned, like the professor’s subject of instruction itself. If it were up to me, I would require every professor to have an education degree to match their diamond-studded Ph.D.s.
But for now, I ask that Yale recognizes the value of educating educators. Here is what it can do. Send observers to classes to provide real-time feedback. Provide instructors with education research and suggest ways to implement those techniques. Work with departments to connect professors with different teaching styles and abilities and encourage them to learn from each other. Coordinate pedagogy across both professors and teaching fellows to ensure sections measurably empower students. Beyond blanket end-of-semester reviews, seek student critique about specific pedagogical tools such as preclass quizzes, flipped classrooms and lecture speed.
Let’s transform this company of scholars and society of friends into a company of educators and a society of friends.
Arvin Anoop is a junior in Jonathan Edwards College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .