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Looking to the Future: Reflections on Andrew Delbanco’s “College”

Posted by on Wednesday, September 25, 2013 in Commentary.

by Derek Bruff, CFT Director

This year’s Commons Reading is Andrew Delbanco’s College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be. Our first-year undergraduates have been reading the book and discussing it in their Vanderbilt Visions sections, and Andrew Delbanco himself will give a talk at Langford Auditorium on October 14th. Since I wanted to be able to participate in campus conversations about the book, I read it over the summer, and I thought I might share a few reflections here.

I was impressed by the connections Delbanco draws between college’s past and present, but I found his vision of liberal education a bit lacking. He argues persuasively that college, and the humanities in particular, should help students understand the past and how it has shaped their present. And he sees college as a place where young people are inspired to make a positive difference in the world. However, as I wrote on my personal blog back in July:

I think Delbanco misses the potential for college to prepare students to build, create, and solve problems of interest to themselves and others. Our world faces significant challenges–global warming, waning resources, public health–and we need bright, informed people equipped to help us address those challenges. Colleges and universities are places where this equipping can happen.

I see a particular role for liberal education in this process. The hard problems that our students will face require the kind of integrative thinking–thinking across disciplines and contexts–that effective liberal education fosters. We should be helping our students learn to solve tough problems in the courses we teach (an idea we’re emphasizing in our “Students as Producers” theme this year) and to integrate what they learn across courses and connect that learning to the rest of their lives. Many of our students are well motivated to take on this challenging work. Our job is often to create opportunities for them to engage in this work and to provide support and feedback to them as they struggle. This function of liberal education and the pedagogical activities that support it aren’t identified explicitly in Delbanco’s book, which is why I think his vision for college falls a little short.

More compelling is the solution Delbanco suggests in his final chapter for the challenges liberal education faces today, perhaps the boldest statement of the book: “Therefore, the obvious thing to do is to try to produce more teachers who care about teaching” (p. 166). He points to the ways graduate education is structured in research universities:

“The problem is not that universities are centers of research, but rather it’s the way they use college teaching to subsidize the training of researchers. Our universities admit graduate students on the basis of scholarly promise, then assign them, in exchange for stipendiary support, and often with minimal preparation, to teach undergraduate discussion classes in, say, English or history, or sections of introductory science or math courses” (p.167).

Thanks to the work of faculty, administrators, and the staff here at the CFT, this is fortunately not the case in many departments and programs at Vanderbilt. Delbanco mentions English and history, two departments at Vanderbilt that have had strong support for graduate student teaching for many years. In English, doctoral students teach their own courses, serving as instructors of record and having wide latitude in course design. They are provided training and support from within the department and, starting this year, from the Writing Studio, as well. Over in the history department, all doctoral students are required to complete “The Art and Craft of Teaching History,” a full-credit graduate course taught by senior faculty in the department. Sociology also has a graduate course on teaching, and French professor Virginia Scott teaches a course called “Foreign Language Teaching and Learning” that’s cross-listed for all language departments at Vanderbilt. There are also courses on teaching taught occasionally in Physics & Astronomy and Biomedical Engineering.

It is not the case that every department and program at Vanderbilt provides doctoral students with both opportunities to teach and professional development activities aimed at developing their teaching skills. The Center for Teaching cannot provide the former for graduate students, but we can and do provide the latter. From our August orientation for new teaching assistants to our very popular Certificate in College Teaching program to the specialized workshops for grad students we provide at the request of departments and programs, we offer Vanderbilt’s graduate students opportunities to encounter the literature on teaching and learning and leverage the results of that research to be more effective teachers. Teaching isn’t, as Delbanco describes it, a “mystery” (p. 50). It is a skill that can be learned and developed and refined over time, no matter where one is in one’s teaching career.

Research indicates that there is often a mismatch between the professional goals that faculty have for their doctoral students on the one hand and the doctoral students’ career aspirations and job market realities on the other hand. Many graduate students desire to and, indeed, must take faculty positions at colleges and universities that emphasize teaching first and foremost. Unfortunately, not all research university faculty value or even understand such career paths. (See Paths to the Professoriate: Strategies for Enriching the Preparation of Future Faculty, edited by Donald Wulff and Ann Austin (Jossey-Bass, 2004), for a summary of this research.) Delbanco speaks to this mismatch when he writes, “It is high time that PhD programs take seriously their obligation to provide ‘student-centered’ doctoral education–in the sense of preparing scholars to be teachers too” (p. 169). The Center for Teaching can help in this preparation in many ways, but our students’ needs are best served when their departments and programs, like English and history and others at Vanderbilt, take active roles in preparing them for the teaching roles in their future careers.

Image: “Another Road through an Endless Valley,” Trey Ratcliff, Flickr (CC)

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