Class Notes

Self-Justification

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Teachers and universities should focus on their students, not on themselves

By Paula Marantz Cohen


 

Many of us university professors feel a need to prove that we deserve our jobs and that our students are getting their money’s worth. To that end, we may over-prepare for our classes, develop too-detailed syllabi, and assign great heaps of work. I’ve been there, so I understand it’s a formula for bad teaching.

These days it’s hard not to teach without some sense of guilt and insecurity: our students are paying a fortune for their education with no guarantee of a job when they graduate. Despite our own lengthy and costly training, we are fallible and sometimes ignorant in areas where we should be knowledgeable. Still, we should not try too hard to excuse or hide our inadequacies. Self-justification invariably us to focus on ourselves rather than our students.

The culture of assessment is a function of the same sort of insecurity that produces bad teaching. It is about self-justification—institutional self-justification. It is destructive by placing the focus not on the student but on the institution or system, and trying to make it invulnerable to criticism. As school administrations swell in size, as lobbies and political groups become involved and clamor for accountability, it is no wonder that school administrators feel pressed to justify the value of their positions and their salaries. And so an emerging industry now supplies elaborate templates for assessment. It tries to turn what should be driven by student needs, which can vary widely and require a certain degree of trust in individuals, into generalized evidence that everyone is trying very hard. And all this self-justification tends to stifle rather than inspire learning.

Paula Marantz Cohen is a distinguished professor of English at Drexel University and the author of the novels Jane Austen in Scarsdale or Love, Death and the SATs and What Alice Knew: A Most Curious Tale of Henry James and Jack the Ripper. Her new novel, Suzanne Davis Gets a Life, will be published this spring.

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