books book reviews

books on teaching and academia

reviewed by T. Nelson


The Art and Craft of College Teaching: A guide for New Professors and Graduate Students 2e

by Robert Rotenberg
Routledge, 2010/2016, 397 pages
reviewed by T. Nelson

T he biggest mistake in my life was not accepting a faculty position at a well known American university. I didn't want to teach. Instead, I wanted to focus exclusively on research.

Then, fifteen years later, after our research institute was run into the ground by mismanagement, and I was once again faced with the prospect of teaching students, I was shocked at how education had changed. In some schools, undergraduates have to be given toys and encouraged to play games to keep them interested. Medical students rarely show up for class, preferring to blast through a video of your lecture while watching reruns of The Office on their cell phones. Professors are so intimidated by student evaluations, which determine their career survival, that some just give every student an A.

So I didn't have high expectations for this book; in fact, I rather approached the subject with a feeling of dread. I was bowled over by how useful it was, not just for teaching, but for understanding how humans develop intellectually.

Rotenberg's theme is that effective teaching is a skill that takes a long time to learn. His strategy throughout the book is based on the King and Kitchener reflective judgment model of mental development[1] as elaborated by Wolcott and Lynch.[2] In this model, students start out with ‘dualistic thinking’, characterized by:

  1. Jumping to conclusions.
  2. Not recognizing their own biases, but quick to accuse others of bias.
  3. Ignoring counter-evidence and contradictions.
  4. Selecting evidence based on pre-judgment.
  5. Arguing against opponent's position using opinions.
  6. Equating personal opinion with evidence.

Sound familiar? We've all seen students stuck in this stage. They will remain there unless they are adequately taught. These students can be quite confident and aggressive, but most, if adequately taught, progress to a more mature stage in which they learn to effectively address the priorities and limitations of the subject.

In the second stage, students are overwhelmed by the discovery that there are such things as different viewpoints, and actually become more wishy-washy. In stage three, they start to become more systematic and analytical, making an effort to evaluate the limitations and strategic issues of a problem. A few undergraduates make it to stage four, where they become able to interpret a whole body of knowledge systematically and to generate new information.

Thus, the job of the teacher is to facilitate the intellectual growth of the student. We might ask why this does not happen for all students. Are there certain topics that by their very nature inhibit intellectual growth? Or do educators in different fields differ dramatically in their level of skill?

The answer to that is unclear. But there are several strategies, which Rotenberg explains with consummate teaching skill, for encouraging this growth, the general idea being to convert declarative knowledge to procedural knowledge (as I discussed a bit here).

Rotenberg is not just giving us his opinions here; the entire book is filled with specific recom­mend­ations, based on empirical research, for how to teach them to become mature, knowledge-seeking adults who seek out challenging books and ideas and engage with them constructively and enthusiastically.

That is the goal of a good teacher. Teaching well can create a generation of sophisticated adults imbued with intellectual and personal integrity. Teaching badly creates a disrespect for ideas. That's something I had never consid­ered. I must admit I still would rather do research than teach. But it may be that we can't have one without the other.

may 07, 2019; edited may 08, 2019

1. King PM, Kitchener K (1994). Developing Reflective Judgment: Understanding and promoting intellectual growth and critical thinking in adolescents and adults.

2. Wolcott SK, Lynch CL (1997). Critical thinking in the accounting classroom: a reflective judgment developmental process perspective. Accounting Education 2(1), 59–78.


Tenure Hacks: The 12 Secrets of Making Tenure

by Russell James
Self-published, 2014, 145 pages
reviewed by T. Nelson

I t's been so long since I was an assistant professor that I almost forgot how naïve new faculty members are. Some think research is all about curing diseases and helping mankind. They think if they're outstanding teachers they will get tenure and be happy and fulfilled.

Oh, the bitter, cynical laughter. If they wanted you to cure diseases, they'd write that down somewhere. Universities only care about one thing: money.

Some of that comes from tuition, but as James says, when they tell you that teaching and service are critical, they're lying. What they really value is government money that comes from grants.

James says you must pick some topic that will make you the world's expert. You have three, not six, years to climb to the top. Everything you do must be to add to your CV, because the other 490 pages in your tenure binder will never be read by anybody.

PC writing style, but great advice. My university even recommends this book, along with:

But my advice is to stay far away: universities are totally corrupt these days and are horrible places to work.

His hack for getting good student evaluations is worthy of Machiavelli himself. I love it.

mar 07, 2020


Essential Skills for a Medical Teacher: An introduction to teaching and learning in medicine 2e

by R.M. Harden and J. M. Laidlaw
Elsevier, 2017, 288 pages
reviewed by T. Nelson

M edical students only care about one thing: passing their boards. They are not interested in anything else, and in my experience if you try to teach it they won't even bother coming to class.

One thing they love, though, is mnemonics. So Harden and Laidlaw give us lots of 'em, like FAIR (feedback, activity, individualisation, and relevance), which are, they say, the four principles of learning; and the SPICES model (student-centred, presentation-based, integrated, community-based, elective-driven, and systematic). They also give us lots of acronyms, like OBE (outcome-based education), WBL (work-based learning), LICs (longitudinal integrated clerkships), MCQs (multiple-choice questions), SEQ (short essay questions), STEEM (surgery theatre educational environment measure), and many, many more. The discussion is mostly abstract, with lots of bullet points and few specifics.

For instance, on “Delivering a good lecture”, their advice is: “Study the learning outcomes for the course. Based on these, consider how the lecture fits into the curriculum.” You should also, they say, find out what the students already know, establish what the other lectures cover, and what the venue is and what equipment is to be used.

From this I got the distinct impression that this book must be part of some course that medical school faculty are required to read. But it was written by administrators, and it shows.

may 07, 2019