Talk About Teaching: Prayer vs Action: Heeding the Coach, by Jacob Abel


Prayer vs Action: Heeding the Coach

by Jacob M. Abel

Our university is in the process of redefining itself and, to its credit, rededicating itself to the improvement of undergraduate teaching and learning. The statement of institutional goals, Agenda for Excellence (1), and the preliminary report of the 21st Century Project (2) tell us of the aspirations of the administration and of a familiar and wonderful group of faculty ,whom I have come to think of as the " usual suspects." You know who they are: Peter and Ingrid and Bob L. and Bob G. and Ann and others. They are the self-exploited committed, who are and have been the constant, indefatigable core of every effort to improve undergraduate education that has been mounted for nearly 25 years.

The new documents contain passages that have the warm familiar ring of a standard prayer found in any liturgy. They ask for all of the unarguable goods: heal the sick, feed the hungry, clothe the poor and it can be offered idealistically without wondering whether the deity being addressed is really listening. Much of what has been enunciated of late is indistinguishable from the "prayers" that followed the 1971 Conference on Undergraduate Education (3) or the 1985 Investing in Penn's Future (4) and many similar reports of committees and councils, boards and conferences, workshops and retreats that shared the same objective. What we must ask ourselves now is: "Why, if we have proclaimed the same noble goal for more than a quarter of a century, are we still aspiring to accomplish some of the same, seemingly feasible objectives, from essentially the same starting points?"

I learned the answer from an excellent teacher and I'll let you in on it.

When I was young and in my prime, I used to frequent the Ringe squash courts where I played clumsily and lost gracefully to an interdisciplinary array of opponents from all over the academic map. I was always impressed by a prominent list of commandments that Coach Al Molloy had posted there, a lesson in block letters. One commandment was: "Never change a winning strategy" and another was "Always change a losing strategy." Simple but so wise! The coach's advice answers the question posed above. We have been pursuing a losing strategy, evidence our continuing failure to attain our goals. And unless we change it, this year's prayers will go unanswered as did their predecessors.

In this space I can suggest two elements of the failed strategy that must be changed.

Continuity Pays

Every report on our subject calls for changing the reward system so that excellent contributions to undergraduate learning are rewarded and recognized in the way that research accomplishment is. The failed strategy has been sporadic and inconstant efforts by Provosts to implement such a policy. In a good year, some professors received salary increments that reflected their excellent teaching--and in a bad year, that well dried up first. Cynicism has been the fruit of this feeble commitment. The second element of the failed strategy has been the well- intentioned but misguided proliferation of awards for teaching that are conferred annually. This effort at providing an incentive fails on two levels. First, it is a one-shot, ne'er-to-be-repeated recognition: a certificate, a check, and your name on the wall of a room that has no plumbing. And, this device fails because it underscores the subordinacy of teaching to research and in plain economic terms, over time, its value is trivial. If teaching is to be rewarded, I like the reward that keeps on rewarding--a salary increment. The much-publicized one-shotters allow department chairs and deans to think that they have done the job of recognition while ignoring the contribution of the teacher when raises are set.

The changed strategy must embed, irrevocably, a policy of rewarding teaching excellence with salary increments. The raise pool, every year, must contain a portion designated for this purpose. Moreover, there is good reason to suggest that this part of the reward system be administered centrally or that, at least, the deans be held strictly accountable for the implementation of the policy.

What Are You Here For?

The second component of the failed strategy that I would change is the weak presence of the faculty in the admissions process. It is interesting to note that the 21st Century Project report is silent on the subject of admissions while the Dean of Admissions in his portion of the State of the University report to Council (5) gingerly invited more participation of the faculty in the admissions process. Admissions has become a vastly technical, professionalized, perhaps commercialized undertaking during the period of our failed attempts to improve undergraduate education. Is this merely coincidence or did we lose something valuable and unquantifiable while the admissions numbers were climbing so astonishingly well? If faculty think that it is infra dig to become involved with the admissions process, let me suggest that it is no great honor to be confronted by growing evidence that one's students are not here for the reasons we hope had inspired them to come. Not even the youngest professor attended a school that was like the Penn of today, even if that school was Penn. Teaching occurs in a cultural context. What students are like, what shaped them intellectually, morally, influences how they learn and must influence how we teach. When these societal forces change rapidly, it is intensely difficult for the faculty to respond in ways that preserve the integrity and quality of their teaching. It becomes more important, now, at such a time of rapid change, that the students who choose Penn have the most accurate image of what they will encounter in the classroom.

The new design will not work unless there is a congruence of values and expectations between the faculty and its students. Whether a student comes to Penn for certification or an education depends on how well those values and expectations are communicated during the admissions process. The voice of the faculty needs to be heard in that discussion.

1 Almanac November 21/28, 1995
2 Almanac May 25, 1995
3 Almanac April 11, 1972
4 Almanac January 17, 1985
5 Almanac November 14, 1995

The Talk About Teaching series was developed by the Lindback Society and the College of Arts and Sciences.

Dr. Abel is a professor of mechanical engineering and applied mechanics who won the Lindback Award for Distinguished Teaching in 1975.