Why It Matters that Education is NOT Most Faculty’s Subject Matter

It’s natural that we’d like others to care about the things we care about.  In an educational setting, conveying that enthusiasm for our subject matter is a big part of effective teaching. For many people working in teaching and learning centers, subjects such as pedagogy and educational technology are our bread and butter.  But for most faculty, education is not their subject matter; their formal training is in other substantive fields.  Consequently, there can be a disconnect between how education people (with M.Ed’s, Ed.D’s, and Ph.D.’s in education) think about teaching and how the rest of the campus does. This difference has some implications for faculty development–especially when it is being done by people with education backgrounds.

This realization comes from having spent the last couple of years housed in a unit focused on teaching and learning. (Granted, ALT Lab is not your typical teaching center, so all of this comes with a caveat.)  It hasn’t been a huge leap for me, since I’ve long been interested in issues of pedagogy but my own Ph.D. is in sociology, not education, and most of my career on campus has been spent in a sociology department, not a teaching and learning center.  I make no claims to being deeply familiar with the scholarship on teaching and learning. I’ve mostly dealt with the sociology of education in a peripheral manner in the context of inequality, where sociologists point out that educational systems are tilted dramatically in favor of those with privilege, reinforcing inequality and providing an ideological justification for it. So my education background is limited to a seminar on teaching in grad school, a career of learn-by-doing experimentation with various pedagogies, and a gig writing sociology texts (in some cases working with a commercial publisher). Now, in a unit focused on educational innovation and faculty development, it’s been fascinating to learn a bit about the educational subculture.  

Early on, it dawned on me that the position of education people is unusually simple: they teach about teaching and learning; their research is about teaching and learning. This kind of fully integrated academic identity is an anomaly on university campuses.  Most faculty are trained in and do research about a substantive field that has very little, if anything, to do with teaching or education. Biologists, chemists, engineers, historians, social workers, etc. read research and do work in their respective subject matters.  When they teach, they are teaching about those topics, not about education. Sure, they might produce the occasional publication based on how they teach their subject matter, but their focus is the substance of that subject area, not the teaching of it.  Their career trajectories (at least at research universities) are heavily dependent on their work in their subject areas; teaching comes a distant second and can easily be seen as taking away time and energy from their primary research areas. (Yes, that’s a problem, but that’s a topic for another day.)  Even when faculty care deeply about teaching, they typically care because of the subject matter, not because of teaching generically.  Education is not their subject matter.

Recognizing this difference of orientation is relevant for those of us doing faculty development work, regardless of our own backgrounds.  My two cents?

  1. Cut faculty some slack–a lot of it.  Educational folks often expect other faculty to care deeply about teaching, pedagogy, and educational technology.  Why wouldn’t they?  This is their subject matter; the thing that interests them, what they studied, were hired to do, and will be evaluated and promoted (or not) on.  But that’s simply not the case for other faculty. Yes, most faculty are teachers but teaching is not the subject matter they study, so we shouldn’t expect it to the focus of their professional work. They want to use pedagogical techniques and technologies, not to study them.  You can’t expect them to care deeply about the scholarship on teaching and learning or new educational technologies in the same way you do.
  2. Get comfortable being (a little) prescriptive. People in teaching and learning centers need to get comfortable suggesting solutions.  This comes up all the time as faculty ask, “What should I do?  What do you suggest?”  Where I work, we’re very hesitant to be definitive in our prescriptions–and rightly so; faculty need to decide what makes sense for them.  But we need to take ownership of education’s knowledge claims and draw upon our experience working with other faculty to make some prescriptions and to suggest some strategies, techniques, and technologies that are more likely to be successful–all the while listening to the goals and concerns of faculty.  
  3. Keep things simple and provide support.  Most faculty don’t want (or have the time) to study pedagogy or spend significant time learning new technologies–both of which can seem daunting. (Remember, they’re busy enough keeping up with their own fields.)  In working with faculty, we should try to keep things simple, lowering the bar to participation and providing ongoing support, as needed.   We need to develop mechanisms to get them up and running quickly, efficiently, and with as little effort at possible.  Over time, faculty need to become mostly self-sufficient, but they need support to get started on that journey.

None of this is easy…or new.  But it seems worthy of a reminder.