Why Senior Faculty Should Teach First-Year Students


Why aren’t we insisting that students be introduced to the discipline by those who know it best? Pawning these courses off on overworked junior faculty who are so busy grading they have no time to eat lunch, let alone publish or—worse yet—on adjunct faculty who are paid slave wages and have no benefits is unconscionable.

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A friend with a son in his first year at a major university asked me one day why her son had so many freshman classes with graduate students and adjuncts. “Why do they do that?” she asked. “My son is just starting out. I want him to love learning. He needs a sure hand, not a graduate student wet behind the ears in his or her first semester teaching. Is this what I’m paying these high tuition bills for?”

“Well, university provosts and deans at major research universities sometimes don’t value undergraduate teaching in ‘core courses,’” I tried to explain. “They want ‘prestige’ professors, and ‘prestige’ professors prefer to teach graduate courses in the area they are researching for their next book. When senior faculty teach an introductory-level course, it is often a matter of ‘taking one for the team.’ And if you keep asking the same person year after year to ‘take one for the team,’ eventually he or she will find another team, especially if ‘taking one for the team’ is widely understood to mean that you are a less important scholar, as it too often is.”

Reconsidering the Standard Practice

Perhaps it is time we reconsider the standard practice of assigning first-year undergraduate “core” courses to junior faculty or adjuncts and reserving specialized “upper division” courses to senior faculty. Do we really think a student’s first explorations in a discipline should be guided by a relative beginner with a single graduate seminar on “Shakespeare’s Gender Politics” or “Kant and German Idealism”?

Who can bring vast learning together into a comprehensive picture? Who can make prudential judgments about the status of the current scholarship? Who can communicate the fruit of long reflection? Who can “see the big picture” and examine the fundamental questions that animate human lives in and through particular works? Who, the by way, should take regular occasions to restate their high-level research in order to make it accessible to educated plain persons? Senior faculty.

What should junior faculty do? My answer is that, early on, they should teach upper-division courses in the areas of their expertise and in the areas in which they intend to publish. In other words, they should be allowed to do what senior faculty do now, because their continued employment depends on it, whereas the senior faculty’s does not.

I am not proposing that senior faculty should never be teaching upper-division courses. In fact, evidence and experience suggest that the mastery we desire for our most proficient students requires the mentoring of senior faculty. The question isn’t whether senior faculty should ever teach upper-level courses; it is whether they should never teach introductory-level “core” courses. It seems likely that many senior faculty members are hesitant about teaching introductory-level courses because their institutions simply don’t value it. What is a great introductory lecturer worth? Less than a person with four books?

Reconsidering the Value of the Oft-Derided Lecture

What do Étienne Gilson’s The Unity of Philosophical Experience, William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience, Jacques Maritain’s Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry, and Alasdair MacIntyre’s Three Rival Versions of Moral Inquiry all have in common? Answer: They were first delivered as public lectures.

There has been talk recently whether the lecture has outlived its usefulness and should be abandoned in college and university teaching. I was at a week-long seminar on college teaching several years back on interactive teaching methods. At one point, one of the organizers asked the question: “What classes do you remember the most? Which were especially significant to you?” I thought back and realized that, although I was inspired early on by some superb Socratic seminars, I also learned a tremendous amount from some excellent lecturers. I also, I might add, suffered through bad, half-hearted lectures and some truly terrible attempts at being “interactive.” But the comprehensive perspective the great lectures gave me was invaluable. And the deep-dive lectures, delivered with passion and grace, drew me more deeply into the discipline and the love of learning.

As for often-scorned classroom lecture, I notice that a commercial enterprise known as “The Teaching Company,” which sells recorded lectures by the dozens, has been very successful. Why would that be? Might this indicate that people learn from and come to love good, well-prepared, well-delivered lectures that communicate a firm grasp of the material and a deep love for the subject matter?

When I first traveled to Oxford years ago to visit a friend pursuing a D.Phil., I asked him about classes and lectures. “No, no, no,” he told me; “here, you are reading for a degree. You meet with a tutor regularly to go over your work. There are University lectures which students can attend,” he explained, “but they are usually done by major scholars who have the broad learning and ability to synthesize an immense amount of material and draw it all into a comprehensive narrative. It can be quite breathtaking,” he admitted, “depending upon who does it.”

At the famous Collège de France, each professor gives public lectures where attendance is free and open to anyone. Those by Michel Foucault were major events in Parisian intellectual life and were often delivered to a packed lecture hall. I have a student who wanted to study Heidegger on the side to prepare for graduate school, so I sent him off to listen to the podcasts of Hubert Dreyfus’s class on Heidegger at UC Berkeley. He learned more that way than I could have taught him.

Experience and the Socratic Style

And yet the gifts of senior faculty are not expressed only in grand, comprehensive lectures. I had the good fortune early in my college education to be in a class with a master of the Socratic style of questioning. Students had to be prepared, and they had to “think on their feet.” It was exhilarating—and often exhausting. It didn’t occur to me at the time how it must have been for the professor. As a professor now myself, I realize the preparation needed to run such a class and how often the discussion goes off into directions you never imagined. You too have to be prepared, and you have to be able to “think on your feet.”

My first day of teaching was in a high school classroom. I was terrified, but the experience was tremendously energizing. I thought, “I could do this for hours,” which was a good thing, because in a high school, you have to teach for hours. And then you go grade papers and prepare for the next day for even more hours. I remember thinking often during that first year: “This is something you need to do for thirty years before you really get the hang of it.” Part of the challenge had to do with the selection of materials and how to present them; but another even more complicated issue had to do with recognizing students’ signs—knowing when to challenge them more or back off, realizing when a line of questioning was going in a bad direction and I should have been screaming to myself: “Abort! Abort!” or when a tiny tweak in another direction would have produced a real “Aha” moment. Some people may have these virtues naturally, but for most of us, it requires experience and time. A good mentor would help shorten the learning curve, but too few institutions provide them.

Senior Faculty Experts in Undergraduate Teaching

Thankfully, there are prominent examples of senior faculty who still chose to teach underclassmen. Alasdair MacIntyre is now retired, but during his final few years of teaching, he only taught first-year undergraduates, although he certainly wasn’t required to do so. Ralph McInerny, another senior professor at Notre Dame, also taught undergraduates an introductory course on the thought of Aquinas until his retirement.

Further afield, I had a friend who as an undergraduate studied intensive Greek over the summer with Seth Bernadete, the renowned classicist and philosopher. I had a hard time imagining Bernadete, author of Herodotean Inquiries, Socrates’ Second Sailing, The Rhetoric and Morality of Philosophy, The Bow and the Lyre: A Platonic Reading of the Odyssey, and Plato’s Laws: The Discovery of Being going over Greek verbs and uses of the ablative with relative beginners. But he did. And it inspired my friend to become a classicist.

Mark Van Doren, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and scholar, was a legendary undergraduate teacher for forty years at Columbia University. He is said to have inspired a generation of influential writers and thinkers including Thomas Merton, John Berryman, Whittaker Chambers, and Beat Generation writers such as Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. Whether or not that is true, I know he inspired a professor of mine who studied Shakespeare with him when he was an undergraduate at Columbia. He would tell stories about him the way Socrates’ friends seem to have told stories about Socrates.

We might wonder whether this devotion to teaching core general education courses was a generational thing, from an age that has passed. And yet, Michael Sandel teaches a course on Justice to non-majors at Harvard. J. Budziszewski, author of the monumental Cambridge University Press Commentary on Thomas Aquinas’s Treatise on Law and about a dozen other major books on the natural law, teaches courses to non-majors at the University of Texas. Are these people out of their minds? According to the standard academic pecking order, it would seem so.

But as I tell parents, I wouldn’t send my teenager to a “great” university where they have famous faculty that my son or daughter will never see, precisely because their “prestige” means they never have to darken the doorstep of an undergraduate classroom. I would look for a university with first-rate scholars who teach because they love it.

Failure of the Guilds

Of course, there are junior faculty who do a superb job of teaching introductory-level “core” courses, as there are also superb adjunct faculty who teach as well or better than regular faculty. There is no magic in having senior faculty teach these courses if they haven’t the requisite skills or desire to do so. But students recognize when they have been relegated to second-class status. And a graduate student or adjunct professor tells them they have been.

My concern is for how we get our entering students involved and interested in the humanities. Palming these courses off on overworked junior faculty who are so busy grading they have no time to eat lunch, let alone publish or—worse yet—on adjunct faculty who are paid slave wages and have no benefits, a practice that every regular faculty member in the country should be striking to prevent, is unconscionable.

These are failures not only of the universities, but also of the guilds. Guilds were created to (a) ensure quality of the product, and (b) protect all the members of the guild from apprentice to master. The massive educational guilds with their thousands of members—the Modern Language Association, the American Philosophical Association, the American Academy of Religion—are doing too little to ensure that those in the apprentice stages of the guild are being protected and mentored as they develop. Why do we still have thousands of adjuncts in the country and too few full-time faculty positions? Why haven’t the guilds insisted that this practice of slave labor must stop? Why haven’t senior faculty put their prestige on the line to protect those who have no influence in the academy?

Why aren’t we insisting that students be introduced to the discipline by those who know it best? If the guild does not foster such senior introductory-level teachers and does not force colleges and universities to value them, then the humanities will continue their precipitous decline.

Randall B. Smith is the Scanlan Endowed Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas, where he teaches the core class on moral theology, “Christ and the Moral Life.” He is also the author of Reading the Sermons of Thomas Aquinas: A Beginner’s Guide (Emmaus, 2016) and the forthcoming Principia: Aquinas, Bonaventure, and the Culture of Preaching and Prologues at Paris. He is currently at work on an introductory text on moral theology.

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