I Am Larry David: Are You Qualified to Teach Edition

Following the comments on Adam’s recent post, “Relationship Learning,” I felt compelled to tell this story.

I long while back, shortly after I began my Ph.D. program at Drew, I had a student formally challenge my ability to teach an introduction course to the adminstration of Laughable Community College, mainly because the student was caught plagiarizing twice in my course.  The dean took this complaint from the student quite seriously–I have stories about this dean to share another time–and she went through my file.  As it happens, no one asked me to provide transcripts to prove that I in fact have a master’s degree from the University of Chicago.  So she summoned me to her office and acted as if I was in big trouble, and they were going to withhold my pay for the summer course I was then teaching until I could provide an official graduate transcript.  She assured me that this had nothing to do with quality of instruction, but “we must take concerns about the faculty’s reputation seriously.”

Fair enough, I don’t have a problem sending transcripts.

So the transcripts came a week or two later, and I was again requested to meet to her office.

The conversation was strange.  She went though the transcript, quarter by quarter, occasionally commenting on the course titles.  “I see you only had a B- in Koine Greek.  What’s ‘Koine,’ by the way?”  “What is this, ‘The Form of the Fragment’ course?”  I would say, “That was this guy named David Tracy,” etc., and we’d keep going.

In the end, the problem was that there was no “Introduction to Religion” anywhere on the graduate transcript.  This apparently was a problem, because, as Jason mentioned in Adam’s post, I needed to have “Introduction to Religion” somewhere on my transcript to be officially “qualified to teach.”  She then mentioned that, for example, I could teach “‘Koine’ Greek, whatever that really is,” in the eyes of LCC administrative policy.  (I’m not really qualified to teach Koine Greek, to be sure.)

So then I had to send an undergraduate transcript, and I was beginning to get worried that I wasn’t going to be paid for the summer course I was teaching.

Saint Vincent College transcripts came and I was asked to see the dean again.  Of course, I never had a course called “Introduction to Religion,” but I did have a course called “Exploring Religious Meaning,” which was the required course for all Saint Vincent students, and all students at St. Vincent took a minimum of three courses to graduate.  I had a minor in religion.  The dean asked if I could request a syllabus for a course nearly ten years ago.  I aksed her what it is she really wanted to see on the transcript or syllabus that would make someone “qualified” to teach religion, since clearly having a master’s degree from Chicago didn’t really qualify me but instead a the specific content of a single course that I took when I was eighteen years old would be the issue.

The dean then started asking if I’d like to teach courses in sociology and political science and other courses because she saw these courses on my college transcript.  “You took a lot of different courses,” she said.  Saint Vincent had an unusually large and diverse core curriculum.  “But I’m not really qualified to teach an Introduction to Anthropology course,” I said, “I took one course.”

She replied:  “But here, I have evidence that you’re qualified to teach these courses.  And we have trouble keeping sociology adjuncts for our growing criminal justice program.”  The next semester I was offered to teach a Freshman Composition course, since I surely had something comparable on my undergraduate transcript.  I taught it, and it actually went really well.  The students had to pass a writing test at the end that was judged by a panel of tenured professors to ensure the quality of students passing the class, and I had a nearly 100% pass rate for my students, which was unheard of at the college.  I taught that class several times, with a 100% pass rate on numerous occasions and never less than 90% pass.  It probably helped that I took a class on the teaching of writing for the humanities at Chicago, but in the eyes of most colleges, I’m not qualified to teach a Freshman writing class.

But when they had a faculty opening for the teaching of writing, I asked the department chair whether I would be considered if I applied, and he said, “you must have an M.A. or Ph.D. in English.”  But I was successfully teaching the course, likely with a higher pass rate than other faculty, allegedly on the basis of having taken a basic writing class in college when I was eighteen years old.

Looking back on this, years later, I wonder if much of these kinds of moves in higher education are the result of individuals from the “guild” of “Education” imposing their discipline’s way of viewing the world upon the rest of the humanities?

6 thoughts on “I Am Larry David: Are You Qualified to Teach Edition

  1. Excellent post, Chris.

    In the case down here, and I suspect that it’s the same there, and requirement comes from the accrediting agency. In Texas in particular, they are often “name matching” graduate courses to what one may teach with little regard to the fact that … having a degree in religion, philosophy, or history should indicate that one can teach introductory courses in it almost no matter what one’s specialization. And, as you point out, it might not even matter what courses one actually has because ability and performance are not the same thing as a credential. Anyone in, say, the corporate IT world knows that a Microsoft certification does not make one an ace technologist.

  2. In their defense, I think part of the problem is the educational “arms race” oft discussed. Every institution wants to win the reputation and numbers game, but only a small number are likely to “win,” while the rest succeed only in emptying their pockets and convincing themselves of “winning!” The more we focus on metrics, the more we are beholden to what is not the practice of education, but the measurement of education, which is closely tied to quantifying reputation, quantified outcomes, etc.

  3. I wondered why so many resumes I’ve seen lately start by boldly announcing the attainment of a Sun Java technology certification, whatever the hell that is, instead of getting to work. It must be something like this.

  4. Ray,

    Java is a high-level programming language commonly used for web software, since it is not hardware specific and therefore may easily be run on many different kinds of computers and processors. It is ubiquitous. Sun is the name of the company that holds the patent to Java. Having attained certification in Java likely indicates at least basic abilities in creating web programs, and is no small thing, though without knowing much about the certification procedure its a safe bet to say that anyone with a computer science degree has at least that level of knowledge.

    Getting back on topic, there is a significant difference between getting certified in a skill that is uncontroversially or objectively demonstrable. Educative ability is much less clear-cut.

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