Some Takeaways from a History of College Teaching

Antique illustration of Amherst college classroom. Credit:

I’m a historian, and I do a fair amount of pedagogical research. But one thing I’m not is a historian of college-level teaching, which makes Jonathan Zimmerman’s recent work, The Amateur Hour: A History of College Teaching in America, such a delight. What follows here isn’t a formal review of the book; rather, it’s a collection of observations that struck me as particularly important or interesting and that may spur readers of The Teaching Professor to explore Zimmerman on their own. To wit:

College faculty are poorly prepared for the classroom. Zimmerman begins by telling his own story of receiving a prestigious teaching award while at New York University. To the author’s consternation, his dean’s introductory speech, instead of emphasizing classroom successes, extolled Zimmerman’s research accomplishments. It occurred to him that, at base, we don’t really know what good teaching is because “we don’t have shared standards or even vocabularies” about it (x). And we don’t do much in the way of training graduate students and professors to do it. Despite our impressive degrees and lengthy CVs, “we’re amateurs” when it comes to teaching (x).

Attempts to fundamentally overhaul the preparation of college teachers have regularly failed. Even though many faculty, like Zimmerman, would readily admit to their poor training for the realities of the classroom, efforts to address deficiencies have often been met with suspicion. Take the case of graduate schools that implemented actual degrees in college teaching in the 1940s. Candidates in these programs were, of necessity, broadly trained relative to their traditional grad-level peers. That may have been such programs’ undoing: colleges and universities continued to prefer hiring the research-oriented doctorate, even though the latter degree’s pedagogical shortcomings were well known. Besides, the thinking went, teaching how to teach was the territory of K–12 educators, not higher ed. Infusing graduate programs with classroom training was thus the only workable alternative, but most grad students were (and perhaps still are) unconvinced of this approach’s utility. Zimmerman sums up the mindset: “Anyone could see that research mattered and teaching did not” (137), a theme that permeates the book.

“Growth mindset” applies to students but not to their professors. Faculty have long managed to dodge the issue of meaningfully measuring their classroom effectiveness by invoking such personal qualities as “charisma” or “personality”—inherently murky terms—as the key ingredients to good teaching. This results in an interesting paradox: whereas it’s long been assumed that an effective professor can unlock students’ minds and even change their ways of thinking, it’s been equally assumed that teachers either “have it” or they don’t when it comes to instructional abilities. In other words, what we call a “fixed mindset” has attached to professors’ talents as teachers, whereas a “growth mindset” applies to their learners. That’s a tough one to wriggle out of.

There was a time when instructors’ breadth of knowledge was valued more than depth. Whether their abilities were fixed or not, professors of yore were marked by astonishing ranges of knowledge that would be unthinkable today. Before he became the nation’s president, James Garfield (Williams College class of 1856) taught English grammar, Latin, Greek, history, math, philosophy, rhetoric, and geology at Western Reserve Eclectic Institute (now Hiram College). Not to be outdone, Northwestern’s Oliver March gave classes in botany, geology, Greek, logic, mineralogy, physics, and zoology during his long career spanning 1862–1912. Field fluidity was such that an unnamed Latin professor at Williams College simply changed his focus to mathematics after his grammar manuscript went up in flames.

Desperate times have called for desperate faculty measures. Maybe it’s because I’m in the humanities, where positions are scarce and layoffs, even whole department closures, are now frighteningly common. But it wasn’t always this way. Enrollments at institutions rose post–World War I and continued doing so after 1945. Colleges and universities had by then become accustomed to hiring only PhDs, of which there were suddenly too few. Cost-effective mass lectures could go only so far in alleviating the labor shortage. By the 1960s, institutions were “willing to take any warm body” (163) and put it in front of a lecture hall. This included recruiting high school teachers, relaxing the doctorate prerequisite, and opening the faculty doors more widely to women and people of color. But conditions changed by the mid-1970s, when declining enrollments led to a return to the preference for PhD-credentialed faculty, sending jobseekers scrambling. More recent market fluctuations have been addressed by a surge in adjuncts and part-timers, who join the ranks of teaching assistants as heavily exploited instructors.

Are you an eccentric professor? If so, you’re in good company because college teaching has sometimes careened into the weird—even the dangerous—over the years. Things got especially strange in the 1960s as fundamental questions over professor-student power differentials came to the fore. One instructor was so averse to asserting dominance over his learners that he insisted everyone meet under a table as a way of leveling the playing field. Students at Hampshire College raised concerns about classes that could proceed for weeks on end without the professors even revealing what the courses were about. Self-grading, even the ditching of grades altogether, were tested, though these met with enough resistance from faculty and students alike that they failed to achieve a foothold. But it wasn’t just the 1960s. More than a century earlier, Henry David Thoreau marveled at the pyrotechnics of his Harvard chemistry professor, John Webster. “Skyrocket Jack,” as he was known, once detonated a copper vessel with such force that shrapnel hit the (mercifully unoccupied) back row of the lecture hall. In such perilous conditions, students under tables would actually have made sense.

If no one’s found the perfect way to teach, it’s not for lack of trying. Rote memorization and recitation were common in 19th-century classrooms, even for subjects like math and even when students had no idea what they were reciting, as happened with foreign languages. Lecturing also became popular, though this was often of necessity to deal with ever-increasing class sizes and too few instructors to teach them. Princeton even tried copying the Oxbridge preceptor system in the early 20th century. But there’s been no magic bullet. As one might expect, students detested recitations, and they predictably tuned out once their turn on the hot seat ended. Lecturing was (and is) a mode that is simultaneously loved and loathed by undergrads and instructors alike. And the preceptor experiment? Those positions were chronically underpaid and overworked, and the intimacy they were supposed to foster with their charges quickly fell by the wayside as preceptors reverted to traditional lecturing. If there’s a bright side, it’s that F. Scott Fitzgerald hated his preceptor so much that he based his first book, This Side of Paradise (1920), on the poor, pathetic figure.

The search for the next college teaching “killer app” is ongoing. Would Covid-era distance-learning push higher ed into better, more cost-effective realms of education delivery? I heard a lot of that during the pandemic, but most people I know, faculty and students both, were thrilled to finally log off of Zoom and return to traditional face-to-face learning. This wasn’t the first time that supposedly disruptive technologies (remember the MOOC craze?) failed to overhaul the academy. Great optimism accompanied television in the 1950s as a delivery vehicle for college education, promising a more personal connection between instructor and learner. TV teaching stars like NYU’s Floyd Zulli (comparative literature) and Harvard’s Frederick Mosteller (statistics) were recruited and beamed out to truly massive audiences, sometimes numbering over 100,000. As always, the results were decidedly mixed. B. F. Skinner’s “teaching machines,” which promised immediate and targeted feedback to learners, were likewise heralded as the wave of the future by some. But direct measures of their impact on learning were disappointing, as were many students’ reactions to the impersonality of machine-based instruction. In these and other cases, reports on the death of more traditional modes of college teaching, problematic as the latter may be, have been rather premature.

Despite all the difficulties, one might point to areas of “progress” in college-level education. In 1962, the first center for the study of higher ed teaching was established at the University of Michigan. Its founding director, Wilbert McKeachie, continued documenting best practices, his Teaching Tips going through multiple editions and being issued to faculty at various institutions. By the 1990s, the scholarship of teaching and learning (SOTL) movement, buoyed by the work of Ernst Boyer, posited that educational issues could (and should) be studied with the same rigor and evidence-based techniques as traditional research. Moreover, such research merited equivalence with disciplinary inquiry, though faculty and institutional acceptance of that proposition has been spotty.

* * *

Despite such progress, many old questions still haven’t been answered to everyone’s satisfaction: Are ostensibly “good teachers” actually effective educators, or are they just talented performers? Should we shift our focus from the seemingly impossible task of trying to define quality professors and focus instead on student learning? Does being a good teacher, however defined, even matter at many institutions, or is research the key to professional success? Ultimately, Zimmerman can’t really say, as such simple questions may elicit intractable answers. His book impressed on me that there’s precious little new in the realm of higher ed teaching and the problems in its wake. But it’s the posing of basic questions, and appreciating the long history of what’s come before us, that just might lead to improvements, incremental though they may be.


Zimmerman, Jonathan (2020). The Amateur Hour: A History of College Teaching in America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Pete Burkholder, PhD, is professor of history at Fairleigh Dickinson University, where he served as founding chair of the faculty teaching development program from 2009 to 2017. He is on the editorial board of The Teaching Professor, is a consulting editor for College Teaching, and serves on the national advisory board of the Society for History Education.

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