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On Being a Double Agent

 Published on February 14, 2014 /  Written by /  9

When I was in graduate school working on my Ph.D. in English, I spent quite a few hours in the TA office, an expansive room in the basement of the English building, filled with cubicle partitions that barely demarcated the space allocated to each of the 20 desks. Each desk space was shared by two TAs, and the crowded condition led to lots of chatting, camaraderie, and general discussion, often on the topic of how our teaching was going. Most of us taught Freshman Composition, and the comp program was well-designed to generate growth in student writing. One of its strengths was the freedom it gave instructors to design their own assignments, and that group of TAs developed some amazing writing prompts and research projects.

Yet, a common trend in the TA office chatter was what to do in class on a given day. Unlike many of the TAs who were around 23 to 27 years old, straight out of undergraduate programs or master’s programs, I was older and had spent seven years teaching English in junior high and high school. To obtain my teaching license after earning a bachelor’s in English, I had taken pedagogy courses and national exams. During those seven years in a public school classroom, I had attended an almost interminable list of professional development workshops, and I worked closely with other educators to “hone my craft” of teaching. Listening to the discussions around me, I realized that I had some skills from those experiences that others were lacking.

My good friend James Andrew Miller planned a course with me. He is brilliant. But, while we planned, I was the one recommending things to do during class time. As the months passed, I frequently found myself as a consultant to other TAs an hour or so before they left to teach. They would ask me, “Hey, got any ideas for what I can do in class today? Any gimmicks?” Generally, I would counter by asking what they wanted to accomplish in class, and then I would draw on the memories of those long hours spent in workshops, match a strategy to the stated goal, and explain an approach to someone who was deeply intellectual but untrained in the intricacies of lesson planning. Since they kept returning for ideas, I assume my suggestions worked.

When I entered higher education as a university faculty member, I was reminded that most professors have little or no formal training in pedagogy. Most pick up their instructional habits based on their experiences as students. Professors whose own instructors lectured, tend to lecture.

My first faculty position was in an English department as a liaison to the college of education. I felt like a double agent. I taught a mix of pedagogy courses to future English and middle school teachers and traditional literature courses, like World Literature II, Norton Anthology and all. In general education literature courses, I continued to find that my pedagogical training yielded better results than doing what I’d seen professors do when I was a student. When I conducted informal course evaluations at the end of the semester, I found that student learned most from the activities I’d designed around content that seemed to dovetail with particular instructional strategies. For example, students consistently reported learning from the topographical maps and illustrations we created of “Kubla Khan,” even though it was one of the hardest works we read. The marriage of Coleridge’s representation of the poet’s mind as a Romantic landscape to techniques that appeal to visual learners seemed natural. In the education courses, future teachers seemed surprised that I expected them to analyze state standards, not copy and paste them into lesson plans. They assumed the critical thinking skills they used in their pure English courses had no place in the education building. They acclimated.

My role as a double agent wasn’t limited to interactions with students, either. In fact, faculty conversations were often the most difficult to navigate as a spy whose mission was nothing like espionage. Education faculty begged me to persuade English professors to adopt innovative strategies so that future 7-12 English teachers could see their content instruction modeled using twenty-first century research based pedagogy. English profs hoped I’d convince the education faculty to increase the rigor of their courses and require robust application of literary knowledge in their lesson plans. I believe they were both right.

College faculty — in all disciplines — should learn and implement more productive instructional strategies. They should do this because lecture is among the least effective instructional strategies, even really, really good lectures. I’ve heard some. The professor I took for Romantic Period Poetry doesn’t speak in sentences, like the rest of us; instead, he naturally speaks in MLA cited articles. I could listen to him for hours. I’m atypical, as are most college faculty. Most students need more active approaches. Unfortunately, many instructors have adopted substitutes that are not much more effective than lecture. There is the ubiquitous PowerPoint — which despite the fact that it is older than traditional undergraduate students — is often offered up by professors as proof that they integrate technology. Most classroom PowerPoint presentations accomplish little more than overhead projectors did thirty years ago. Prezi presentations look more high-tech and polished (and like PowerPoint presentations, they have the advantage of not staining the instructor’s forearm with Vis-A-Vis ink), but like PowerPoint presentations they keep students passive while the instructor runs the show.

Some progressive types claim to engage students in collaborative learning, without recognizing the distinction between collaborative learning and mere group work. Putting students into groups doesn’t automatically make them collaborators. Some might also see group work as lazy teaching, as if instead of preparing for class, the professor defaulted to “talk to your neighbors about that.” True collaborative learning, though, requires quality research and planning by the instructor. There are bodies of research on what makes collaborative learning work (Cooperative Learning for Higher Education Faculty; Collaborative Learning Techniques). Effective approaches include providing students structure for what they do in groups, developing methods for accountability (which isn’t always the same as a grade), and assessing individual learning, not through a group grade. Thus, students learn together, but are assessed independently.

When we look at where professors come from, we find that many of them have little formal preparation on how to teach. Graduate programs, which are the training grounds for future professors, are not geared toward pedagogy; in fact, pedagogy is usually an afterthought, sometimes even a shameful reminder that our heady intellectual endeavors come at the price of mundane teaching. The real work, after all, is research. This, too, was a frequent topic of discussion in the TA office. For many, teaching was the necessary evil, tolerated in exchange for access to research facilities.

If you talk to professors, you’ll find most of them consider themselves to be good teachers, even if they don’t regard teaching as highly as they value scholarship. For most, it is a point of pride and self-identity. A destructive syllogism follows: “Since I am good, and I didn’t need any pedagogical training, pedagogical training is unnecessary.” Devaluing formal training in teaching not only discredits colleges of education, but an entire field of theory and study. Researchers work to determine how humans learn best and to help teachers acquire skills using methods that have the highest impact on students, instead of methods that are the easiest for themselves. If we want to revolutionize the way post-secondary education approaches learning, we will need to consider ways to guide faculty in implementing sound methodology within the context of their disciplines.

Two possible entry points for faculty preparation exist: pedagogy courses integrated as part of graduate coursework, and induction programs for new faculty once they are hired. Either route should also be paired with enhanced approaches to evaluating faculty teaching. Graduate pedagogy courses for those preparing for higher education teaching careers should be rigorous and should require performance assessments through actual teaching. A good model for teaching performance assessment for k-12 teachers already exists through the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards, which evaluates teachers through the written and video artifacts they submit on their instruction. A similar performance-based approach, tailored to higher education expectations, could act as another gate to graduation, the way comprehensive exams already do. If we expect future professors to be good teachers, perhaps they should be required to demonstrate what they can do in a classroom before they become “doctor.”

Integrating pedagogical instruction into new faculty induction relocates the onus from graduate schools to higher education as employer. Initial training as new faculty arrive on campus would be a start, and some universities provide this, but unless that training is job-embedded and provides faculty with discipline-specific support in implementation, whatever is learned in an August workshop will be quickly forgotten in the rush of papers to grade, students to advise, and committee work. Faculty should continue to strengthen their teaching through research to discover better pedagogical approaches that are then applied in the classroom. The research/application/reflection process should be a critical component of teaching in faculty evaluation.

The necessary evaluation component, which can make or break tenure-track careers, should be informed by research in pedagogical theory, and should be performance based. Many institutions currently rely heavily on the course evaluations collected from students at the end of the semester, despite the fact that research on evaluations is conflicted, with some studies suggesting that professors’ scores represent students’ expected grades, not actual teaching performance (Grades and Ranking: When Tenure Affects Assessment; Student Ratings of Teaching Effectiveness: Student Engagement and Course Characteristics). Institutions and departments should develop tools and rubrics that measure college teaching according to local standards and expectations. Multiple trained observers should evaluate teaching in formal (scheduled) and informal (unscheduled) performance assessments. Good instruction can be measured, just as it can be taught, but the assessment process is complex and should be intentional, not an afterthought.

Either path — coursework or induction — will impact faculty teaching practices, and a combination of the two promises to transcend either singular approach, but the success of pedagogical changes in higher education will rest in implementation and accountability, just as in public education. The teaching leg of the promotion tripod should be built of materials besides student evaluations. Higher education administrators should be skilled in observing classes to determine whether the teaching is good. Sounds a little utopian and maybe dystopian to some, but it could work.

My students describe my classes as “challenging” and say they “learned more than they thought they could learn in one semester.” I push hard, and I still have time to get juniors and seniors to make things with Play-Doh in order to demonstrate the revision process of shaping something before smashing it down and starting again. I believe that the fact that I make time for Play-Doh (and it really takes just about ten minutes for the demonstration) results in greater learning. Hard and fun, challenging and engaging, difficult and enjoyable are not mutually exclusive terms for describing a class; instructional strategies are not “gimmicks”; and, there should be no double agents.

[Photo from i k o on Flickr; used under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.]

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9 Responses
  1. Hi Laura. I just read this post. I really enjoyed it. As a college instructor myself, I am constantly asking this question about what I can do in the classroom to truly engage my students. I appreciate your point regarding pedagogical training. I have engaged in it as much as possible given time limitations. I worry that in today’s educational environment there isn’t much understanding of what you are talking about here, and that “outcome” based tends to focus on the end goal and often neglects the process it takes to get there. You have given me food for thought. I will enjoy reading through some of your other posts.

    1. Laura Witherington

      Hey, Ted!
      I’m with you on “outcome based” instruction. It is way more complex than it sounds. I often have education candidates who want to throw a verb from a Bloom’s Taxonomy list (see this nice one: into an objective in a lesson plan and think they are done. We work a long time on task analysis, or determining what you really want students to know, understand, and be able to do within the context of the content. I pretty much geek out on the whole process, but as a researcher, I also find that my thought process for planning good instruction guides and informs scholarship.

  2. Liz Norvell

    Saw this posted on face book and had to read it. I no longer teach, but you may remember me from the many work shops I attended where you coordinated them. I loved this article. There is one other thing that I believe needs to be addressed: the evaluator of the teacher. Many of the principals who do the observations are PE coaches and many have a great understanding of the application of and the inclusion of activities to produce successful outcomes. Most administrators are not educated on pedagogy or on how to achieve activities that enhance the learning and are not merely forms of evaluation. For example, I taught speech and drama and spent 3 to 4 weeks on each unit that I prepared to teach. When I left my job, he informed me that he would be looking for a teacher who did not spend so much time on drama. He assumed every activity was a drama activity. The research for proper persuasion and the performance of said speech was “drama?” I don’t think so. I didn’t argue with him, but he was so wrong. Those activities that we did taught them so much more than just how to perform a task–it taught them the values associated with every task in life and the fact that they were fun, too, was just part of my plan. Education should be fun! Learning should be fun! Too many teachers forget that fact and think they must make sure the students have been taught the test material–not necessarily that they understand it. Big difference. Most administrators think that if kids are having fun in class they aren’t learning. Many teachers think the same way-although I believe teachers are more adaptable to change than are the administrators. Age may be a factor there. As you pointed out, “it was good enough for me so it’s good enough for my students.” Students no longer learn the same way–if they ever did, and there is not just one “box” for all children. Those “special education” teachers who did IEP’s had the right idea when they individualized all lessons. But they have 5-15 students a day, as opposed to 25-30 per period. Training for administrators needs to begin before too long, because many teachers in public schools already have changed their ways of teaching–some could do more, but that’s always true. A different mind set would be a part of that training. It would no longer have to be a method of determining who the “good” teachers are but a way to make all teachers into “good” teachers. The teachers would then have to have their minds altered to not feel threatened by the administrator who observes them–the best way of insuring that would be to make sure those evaluations were done by someone or many someones who are not eligible to make hiring/firing determinations. then the administrators should also be observed. Those administrators need to be trained differently as well. I am not the person for this job because I am too old, firstly, and secondly, I am so disillusioned with the public school program that I now home school my grandson, to keep him out of those places. I wish more parents home schooled their children. However, many cannot because of work or poor educations themselves. Home schooling may not be perfect but the ratio of one-to one teaching is beyond anything available in public or private schools. I want to commend you on this article and I hope that you will have a great influence on public education–at least in this area if not nationally.

    1. Laura Witherington


      Remember you very well from our DLI and KJHS days! Thanks for the thoughtful read and great response! As you mention, administrative capacity in implementing evaluations is key to their working. I, too, have seen this fail in public education for a variety of reasons: lack of time, lack of expertise, pressures from external entities (unions, the threat of legal action), concern over staffing gaps. All those are potential challenges in changing the evaluation system in higher ed, too. Still, there should be a better way to determine college faculty efficacy and impact on student learning.

  3. Chris Godsey

    “If we want to revolutionize the way post-secondary education approaches learning, we will need to consider ways to guide faculty in implementing sound methodology within the context of their disciplines.”

    I’ve been a pedagogically curious higher-ed writing teacher since the late 1990s. I’m now in the second semester of an Ed.D. in teaching and learning, and the learning-focused guidance described in that quote is a significant part of what I’m studying and hoping to do. I hope to do work that’s at least partially based in facilitating deep conversations about pedagogy among faculty, staff, students, administrators and other members of higher-ed communities, and studying the bits of culture that support and impede that dialogue. It’s always exciting to learn of other folks, especially outside education departments, who are thinking about, writing about, and doing that work.

    Thanks for such a thoughtful piece.

    1. Laura Witherington


      I commend your movement to the dark side of higher ed! Your background in writing will likely serve you well. I believe writing is the most difficult intellectual activity, and thus, the most difficult to teach. There are so many writing strategies and programs around, and many of them seem more like gimmicks than strategies to me. It takes a while to sort through them all.

      Good luck on convening diverse groups in higher ed on pedagogical topics! Lots of higher ed faculty are hungry for these discussions. I love finding like-minded, geek-minded colleagues.

  4. Nice post. I wonder how much the treatment of adjunct faculty (who only teach) is related to the belief that teaching is just something that anyone can do, that there is no craft (or status) to it.

    Teaching is like playing the piano. There’s never a point when you say that you can teach – you just keep at it, developing your skill, honing your craft, refining your style. As Kris Shaffer described in his open letter to students (, an old hand can show you a lot.

    1. Laura Witherington

      Great point, Bill. I think you are on to something important to the growing discussion on the treatment of adjuncts. Is the thought, “Adjuncts don’t deserve much because they ‘just’ teach. After all, they don’t have expectations for research”? When I consider resistance to increasing the pay of public school teachers, I attribute traditionally low salaries to the fact that this was (and still kind of is) a predominantly female employment pool. Although higher ed has been more historically male, I wonder if those biases about “teaching” seep over.

      I like Kris Shaffer’s article, too! Such great prose, and bet his students know they are getting something good in his classes. I disagree (a little) with the idea that “Teaching is not performance.” While I agree it is not entertainment and shouldn’t be limited to strutting and fretting on the stage, there is performance involved, both in the sense of dramatic performance and in the sense of performing an action.

      1. I agree with you about teaching as performance. I think that Kris made the mistake you point out, thinking that performance means entertainment, a sadly common mistake.

        In addition to being a teacher I am a professional musician, and performance for me means an awareness of both the impact I am having on my audience and their reaction and response to me. This awareness necessitates a fluid approach on stage verging on improvisation. I have found that the same thing happens in a classroom – I have to constantly adjust to what is really happening in the room, using an awareness that must work side by side with my pedagogical understanding and plans.

        For me, performance awareness in the classroom lies at the heart of what is dryly referred to as classroom management.

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