I love to teach. My love of teaching sometimes puts me at odds with my colleagues, but I believe teaching is one of the most important things I do in my work. Why? Because good teaching can change minds, change lives, and hopefully change the world.
A common lament in academic circles is the burden of teaching classes. Many academics count down to the summer months or to sabbatical, in large part because then they can get back to their “real” work of research, writing, and publishing. There are many different reasons that academics dislike or actively avoid teaching, but a major factor is the cultural of academia. Universities and colleges are built on undergraduate teaching, but a large portion (in some places, the majority) of undergraduates are taught by contract or adjunct staff, individuals who have precarious employment, little academic status, and much larger teaching assignments than tenure-track or tenured faculty members. The work of teaching falls on these employees in which the university invests very little, and at my home university, the majority of contract academic teaching staff are women. The rise of the adjunct professor has been the subject of much discussion, but I would argue that the devaluing of teaching is a significant factor. It is rare to have an adjunct professor who exclusively does research.
Another influence to the devaluing of teaching is the reward systems within tenure-track academic positions. While in concept, my job breakdown is 40% research, 40% teaching, 20% service/administration, the reality is that being a good teacher will get me significantly less reward than being a productive researcher. This is perhaps most true in the early part of my career; being an exceptional teacher and a mediocre researcher will not get me tenure, while being a good researcher and a mediocre teacher will. Ironically, I spend significantly more of my job on teaching, especially between September and April, than I do on research. So why the disparity in reward? First, research brings prestige, external grant money, and raises the profile of a university. Being high profile often means more resources, especially from non-governmental sources.
In spite of all these factors, I am willing to admit how much I enjoy being in the classroom, engaging students, and sharing my enthusiasm for my chosen field of archaeology. I recognize that I am lucky to be able to teach from a position of stable employment and without a heavy course assignment. However, I see my teaching as being as, if not more, impactful in the world as my research. Every year, I teach between 100-150 students (and occasionally over 400). Over my career, that adds up. My research is pretty specialized. Even if I have a relatively successful publication, it is unlikely that 5000 people will ever read one of my articles. Yet in the classroom, I have a chance to influence so many more minds and in a much more direct way. The vast majority of my students won’t become archaeologists, but if I can show them a different way to think about the world and themselves, I have done the world a service. If I can expose them to new ideas and teach them to think critically about the barrage of information we are bombarded with in our global world, I will have done them a service. Teaching is powerful; more powerful than some of us in the academy are willing to admit. It should be a privilege to challenge our students to think, to learn, to engage, and to become better people through their experience in our classrooms. We need to recognize teaching as a responsibility and do it with care and awareness of our student’s whole selves.
September is always my favourite time of year. It is the time I get to go into a classroom with the goal of giving each student the opportunity to learn and change, even in a small way. The great anthropologist Margaret Mead said “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world.” My classroom is my chance to create that small group of thoughtful, committed citizens.