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’The Amateur Hour’ and the History and Future of Teaching and Learning

The Amateur Hour: A History of College Teaching in America by Jonathan Zimmerman

Published in October of 2020.

I started teaching full-time in the 1997-1998 academic year. The gig was a visiting assistant professor appointment in the Sociology and Anthropology Department at WVU. As far as non-tenure-track jobs go, this one was pretty good. The appointment was for three years and was renewable. I was finishing up my dissertation and was in Morgantown as a trailing spouse. We always knew we’d leave West Virginia for my wife’s medical residency. So not a bad way to start an academic career.

The job’s downside was that the person in my role was expected to carry much of the department’s intro to sociology load. I have no idea if this is still the case, as all the faculty have turned over since I left. For three years, I taught two or three large intro lecture courses per semester. The teaching load was 3/3. The job was mostly about teaching large classes – sometimes with enrollments of over 200 but mostly around 75 students – of intro to sociology.

What this meant was the least experienced person in the department – me – taught the most students. Having had no formal training in pedagogy or any teaching practices in grad school, I was left entirely to my own devices.

Reading Jonathan Zimmerman’s essential new book, The Amateur Hour: A History of College Teaching in America, brought back to me the feelings of those first days and months of my own college teaching with a surprising intensity. Amateur hour may be the best way to describe the classes that I ran and the lectures that I gave at the start of my academic career.

The book’s title is taken (with full credit and attribution) from a 1993 article in Liberal Education, “Higher Education’s Amateur Hour: Underpreparing the Future Professoriate” by my friend and colleague Randy Bass. Zimmerman’s use of Randy’s title is brilliant as The Amateur Hour is the best-titled book on higher ed to come out in a crowded 2020 field.

The Amateur Hour effectively utilizes a wide variety of primary sources (reports, letters, newspaper accounts, etc.) to document a crisis in higher education teaching and learning that is as old as higher education itself. Zimmerman shines a light on long-forgotten campus controversies and initiatives centered around the failures of student learning. It turns out that each academic generation is replaying the same educational crisis as the generations that preceded us. We were as worried about student engagement and the failure to build a relational learning model in 1821 and 1921 as we are worried today.

Unpacking a 384-year crisis in teaching and learning is enormously helpful in thinking about where we go from here. Today’s higher education challenges revolve around public funding cutbacks, demographic headwinds, and a bad case of the cost disease. We worry about the adjunctification of the faculty and the fragility of our tuition-dependent institutions. Rising student costs (and debt) and high-levels of attrition (low graduation rates) dominate conversations. We wonder how we might provide a personal, learner-centric, and relational type of higher education in an era of permanent scarcities.

The worries we now face around teaching and learning may be mild compared to what our academic forebears endured. Each generation has faced its own pedagogical crisis in its own time. The idealized vision of undergraduate learning from scholars in the context of small seminars has existed more in fantasy than in reality from higher education’s earliest days. Funds have always been inadequate to the need to pay professors to teach. Budgets that are inadequate to support quality pedagogy seem to be a feature of the university in any era. The reasons have shifted, from too few students able to pay too little tuition in the pre-industrial US to too many students and not enough professors in the post-WW2 GI Bill era.

The Amateur Hour documents not only a multi-generational shortage of resources for teaching (and hence the growth of lectures and adjuncts/teaching assistants) but also the roots of the long-standing bias towards research over teaching. From the early days of the research university, institutions have rewarded faculty in what can be measured (articles and books published) against what can’t be quantified (the quality of teaching and learning).

Calls to value excellent teachers in hiring, tenure, and promotion are as old as the colleges and universities in which professors teach and research. Efforts to shift away from a “publish or perish” mindset have failed at each iteration across the decades (now centuries) – a history that does not provide much optimism for those hoping to shift academic incentive structures towards teaching excellence.

Despite The Amateur Hour resonating deeply with my own turn as an amateur educator, I think there are good reasons to hope. The book spends some time covering the growth of centers for teaching and learning (Michigan founded the nation’s first CTL – the Center for Research on Learning and Teaching in 1962) but does not take the teaching and learning story into the present day.

If my co-author Eddie Maloney and I are right, we are authentically living through a renaissance in student learning. In The Amateur Hour narrative, the quality of the education delivered on campus is almost solely a function of the skill of the educator and the context (particular course enrollment size) in which teaching happens.

Today, the goal of advancing student learning is being institutionalized across many of the colleges and universities that make up the postsecondary ecosystem. Professors are increasingly able to collaborate with non-faculty educators such as instructional designers and educational developers in the design (and sometimes delivery) of courses. This shift from teaching as an individual to a team sport has its roots in the growth of online learning and has been diffusing to upgrades in gateway and foundational courses across the country.

Suppose we are smart about institutional investments and priorities post-COVID. In that case, we may even find a way to use what we’ve learned about teaching during a pandemic to advance all learning when the present public health crisis is finally done.

Thinking about the future of teaching and learning requires us to understand where we have come from. The Amateur Hour is the book to read now as we ponder our post-COVID higher education future.

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