More Advice for the Untenured Conservative Humanist

Mark Bauerlein

Editor’s note: This article was originally published by First Things on June 17, 2016 and is reprinted with permission.

This is the second installment of an advice column for religious and social conservatives preparing for the three parts of tenure review in the humanities: RESEARCH, TEACHING, and SERVICE. The first column, on RESEARCH, may be found here.

As I observed in this space last week, religious and social conservatives anticipating tenure review in the humanities cannot afford to diminish the importance of TEACHING as much as liberals and Leftists and libertarians can. (I include libertarians because they fall on the left on gender and sexuality issues, which appear to count for more among academics at the present time than economic issues do. Libertarians don’t bear nearly the stigma that religious and social conservatives do.) Religious and social conservatives need to demonstrate better-than-average classroom performance and strong student evaluations if they hope to receive tenure.

Your tenure committee is unlikely to investigate your teaching record carefully. But they will take reports from one or two senior professors who have visited your classes. And they will note the scores students have given you on course evaluations, plus any comments students have passed along in advising sessions with other professors or as gossip (“You suggest, Professor Mentor, that I take Romanticism with Professor X next Fall, but I had him this year and he was terrible”).

The result in the tenure meeting is an impression: strong, okay, weak. Your goal is to seem strong enough to remove teaching as a contributor of doubt, to get it off the table, to make the associate and full professors think, “Nothing here to discuss further.”

That requires students to respect you and colleagues to believe that you work hard in your courses. You don't have to be a brilliant, entertaining lecturer; you don't have to come up with innovative pedagogies; you don't have to take a particular attitude toward teaching (sage-on-the-stage, the flipped classroom, etc.). The general effect is what matters. Do students and colleagues believe that you make an honest effort? Diligence counts more than geniality, preparation more than genius. If students and the few colleagues who pay close attention to your teaching infer that your in-class labors are the fruit of many hours of out-of-class planning, then you have already succeeded—almost.

You see, your conscientiousness creates a problem: It carries over to your students. The prep work you do burdens students with prep work of their own. The more knowledge you bring into the room, the more students have to learn. You want students to assimilate what you present, and so you assess them with tests, papers, and homework tasks. The more work you do, the more work they will have to do, and some will resent it. Most importantly, grades will fall. And if grades fall, evaluation scores will, too. If you can't find a way to make students understand that their bad grades are their own fault, you will take the blame. And here other factors may become involved and increase tensions—for instance, liberal students’ taking offense at your religious or social conservatism (which you haven't advertised but haven't concealed, either). Halfway through the semester, you may find the atmosphere in class poisoned by two or three disgruntled students.

There is a way to avoid this.

Know that your grades cannot be significantly different from the grades other professors give. If your class average is B- and the rest of the department’s is B+, you must adjust your yardstick. That sounds like a cheap compromise, yes, and you want to uphold academic standards. But when it comes to the standards of the institution you occupy, you must conform. The general range of expectations set by experienced colleagues is your target. Find that out early in your career and adapt to it. Be neither too high nor too low.

The challenge then becomes how to keep your academic scruples.

This brings us to further steps in teaching success. When I teach freshman writing classes and upper-division English classes, the first batch of papers contain several C-grade results. For many undergraduates, this is a shock. When I return the papers, students go straight to the last page, and their faces scrunch up in dismay. They haven't seen a C on a piece of their writing since, well, ever. Emory University, where I teach, is a selective institution with lots of high-achieving, AP-English, professional-ambition kids. They don't get Cs.

It's a critical moment. The atmosphere could turn hostile, confusing, estranged. But it doesn't. I give the students a minute to take in the grades and note that I haven't written any comments. I have only circled the trouble spots and left them without explanation. After a moment, I say:

“Anyone who earned a B or less needs to come see me in my office. I'm going to pass around a sign-up sheet right now. I want to talk with each one of you for twenty minutes. Bring your paper. We will go over it together, sentence by sentence.”

When I speak, the focus shifts. This grade is not an end point. It will be the subject of a one-on-one discussion; or rather, the writing will be the subject, not the letter grade. When the student arrives, I will select a sentence and observe, “Do you see that modifier—it's too far from the thing it modifies—and that verb—it's a cliché. That makes it a D sentence. Let's revise it right now into an A sentence.” We make the fix and proceed. The student realizes that the C grade makes sense.

I then say, “You write too many of these faulty sentences. So here's what we're going to do. You will bring me your rough draft on the next paper and we will do the same thing we've done here. And we'll do it again and again until you internalize better writing habits.”

Emory kids are eager, and they respond well and head up toward the A level. The final grades pretty much mirror the university average in the humanities, but students have to work hard to earn them, doing more drafts and spending editing time with me. The process also delivers a clear message to the students: “This prof is willing to give me individual attention—he takes my writing seriously—he cares.”

This is one way to maintain some standards against institutional pressures to lower them. Several years ago, the director of the National Survey for Student Engagement, George Kuh, described an “unseemly bargain, what I call the ‘disengagement compact': ‘I’ll leave you alone if you leave me alone.' That is, I won’t make you work too hard (read a lot, write a lot) so that I won’t have to grade as many papers or explain why you are not performing well.”

Individual face-time helps preclude that compact. It requires more hours of contact, probably many more than your senior colleagues put in. But the exertions will deepen the students' engagement and make their experience of your teaching a more meaningful one. Over the years, I have learned that you can be very tough and critical with students if they believe you are devoted to their improvement.

Senior colleagues will notice, too. Word gets around; they see your office door open, with a student or two waiting outside; they hear you conversing with them. The impression they form will carry over to the tenure meeting. Some of your colleagues will mistrust your beliefs, but they will have to acknowledge your commitment.

Mark Bauerlein is senior editor of First Things.

This article is the second in a three-part series. The first installment is here and the final installment in this series is SERVICE.

Image: Heidi teaching by scott feldstein // CC BY

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