Maryellen Weimer’s recent post in Faculty Focus challenges the long held belief that pedagogy is unique to each discipline–as she summarizes, “Unless you know the content, you can’t know how to teach it.” She outlines the many downsides to approaching the scholarship of teaching and learning in this way: reinventing the wheel, lack of interdisciplinary conversation and collaboration, limited evidence of the efficacy of different methods across disciplines.
That our attitudes about teaching are as siloed as our disciplines is not altogether surprising, and points to what I see as a larger problem that persists in the academy. Though part-time, non-tenure track faculty are now the norm rather than the exception, teaching in higher education is still preferred to those with academic expertise, rather than teaching experience, in a particular discipline. Indeed, while many adjunct instructors and learning designers bring to the classroom a wider breadth of experience and pedagogical knowledge than their tenured counterparts, their rate of pay and relative status within the institution is rather pitiful. Meanwhile, tenured faculty with highly specialized content knowledge are assumed to have teaching ability by some innate capacity rather than through experience, training or skill. So privileged is content knowledge in higher education that we tend to overlook pedagogy as an academic discipline in its own right.
As a scholar in the field of education and a pedagogy pedant, I am tempted to take offense to this attitude. How ridiculous to assume that rigorous academic training in a particular area and many years spent as a student would prepare someone to know the first thing about teaching. That is akin to assuming that because I have eaten food my entire life and spent time in close proximity to those who prepare it, I am well suited to be a chef. Our cultural attitudes in the academy belie the fact that good teaching requires training in a particular skill set and dedicated time to hone one’s ability. We believe that anyone can do it or, worse, it’s for those who can’t do anything else (See: “Those who can’t, teach.”)
So I’m tempted to take offense, but I would be dishonest not to admit to my own contrary bias. As a self-defined educator, I have asserted that the subject doesn’t matter, that true educators can teach anything. To a certain extent, and to many of the points in Weimer’s post, this is true. Knowledge and skill in the realms of student engagement, classroom management, course design and communication transcend disciplines and with them, one can make a profound impact in any classroom. But, having taught subjects outside my wheelhouse, spent long nights and weekends learning a topic to teach it the next day, struggling to grasp concepts enough to untangle them for students, and unable to answer complex questions, I know that content knowledge can only help. A full understanding of how a discipline is scaffolded, of what learners really need to know, and of a field’s threshold concepts can only come with deep familiarity. There is a depth of knowledge and passion for a topic that emanates from a highly trained content expert that I can only hope to emulate, and that flows from me when I am teaching inside my own realm.
We need equal footing for pedagogical content knowledge and knowledge in other disciplines. We need a restructuring of the academic hierarchy to place value evenly across this spectrum. We need true partnership between scholars across academic disciplines, and for pedagogy to be among them. In our current construct, adjuncts and learning designers need to be granted baseline credibility (and status, and pay) to contribute in ways that their content-expert counterparts cannot. We need acknowledgement from both sides that what is best for students is depth of knowledge and experience, both in what is being taught and how. All together now: for the students, for the future, for the world. We’ve got work to do.