The Decline of College Teaching That Never Was

A history of American college teaching, adapted from The Amateur Hour by Jonathan Zimmerman

Academics and the public have been complaining about teaching in American universities for over a century (turns out I’m a bit late to the party). The criticisms from within and outside the ivory tower that professors are “too soft” on students, grade inflation is rampant, and students aren’t learning anything are unoriginal and date back to at least the 19th century.

Even when lectures first began gaining popularity at universities, professors were claiming that such a method was inferior to more traditional styles of recitation – whereby students were cold called to orally recite texts verbatim and were then publicly graded in front of their peers (that’s one way to get them to read). In reality, complaints about teaching are as old as our teaching methods. And that is really to say that teaching in American colleges and universities has evolved very little relative to the rest of higher education.

In The Amateur Hour: A History of College Teaching in America, historian Jonathan Zimmerman shows how college teaching has “languished for too long under the dead hand of tradition” (p. 284). It’s remarkable, really, just how little progress has been made on pedagogy relative to the huge changes higher education institutions have undergone since the 19th century.

The lecture style we’re intimately familiar with arose in the late 19th century. The “modern” version of the lecture system (where course “sections” originated) arose over a century ago. Even remote learning (originally via TV broadcasts) is not new and was first introduced in the 1950’s!

Across time, higher education has dramatically changed, especially so during the cold war era where enrollment boomed, the modern research university came into prominence, and community colleges proliferated. Teaching methods, however, have been more resistant to change. Overtime college classrooms went from recitation, to lectures, to seminars; in the modern era we also deliver courses online, but this has been more a change in modality than method.

Below is a summary of teaching across each era as presented by Zimmerman in The Amateur Hour. His book is excellent, and here I give just a skeleton summary. I highly recommend picking up a copy for yourself!


19th Century (1800’s)

The modal method across the 19th century was recitation. Students attended recitations multiple times a day for 5-6 days per week. The goal was pure memorization with little emphasis on meaning. Professors would cold call students who were expected to verbatim recite the text. Often students were publicly graded in front of their peers.

As the century progressed, lectures by senior professors became more common, especially for upperclassmen students. As the dawn of the new century came nearer, the lecture became increasingly specialized and expanded for more students.

Progressive Era (1900 – 1920’s)

The lecture system that we are most familiar with today, especially at public research universities, came into its modern form in the early 20th century. The lecture system was comprised of large lectures by professors with multiple, smaller sections for quizzing and recitation (this is why many of us still teach “sections” of a course today).

The early 20th century also saw the rise of the “scholar” begin, whereby the output of scholars became increasingly important to one’s career. Though, many pointed out that good scholars don’t necessarily make good teachers! This is the time when complaints about teaching and learning became prominent. Notably, the lecture was opined to allow students to “loaf” in class. During this time, discussion style courses where students were asked to interpret an analyze text began to increase.

Interwar Era (1920’s-1940’s)

The interwar era ushered in the mass lecture where 100’s of students would cram into a room to listen to a professor. Higher education was experiencing an enrollment boom in this time, and mass lectures were the solution to a teacher shortage.

With increased enrollment came greater student diversity, and with that came complaints from professors (that we still hear today) that there are students that just “shouldn’t be in college”. Student’s in this time also began pushing back on professors, claiming that lectures were boring. From this, the student evaluation was born to evaluate teaching, and remains the primary method by which teaching is evaluated today. Other innovations that we recognize today also originate in this time period, including comprehensive exams, capstone experiences, and honors programs.

Cold War Era (1940’s-1990’s)

Mass lecturing continues as the modal method of teaching as higher education experiences a post-war enrollment boom of veterans. Although discussion style courses were the “approved method” of teaching, lectures were relied upon as 1000’s of students overcrowded lecture halls.

The cold war era prompted a lot of change in higher education. The research university came into prominence, and with it, the over-emphasis on professor research for promotion. Mass testing favoring recall (i.e., multiple choice exams) became standard in the classroom given the student to faculty ratio.

There were some positive pedagogical advancements during this time, with “faculty development” entering the professional lexicon in the 1970’s, and teaching supervision became a normative aspect of PhD training. Higher education also underwent big changes in the 1960’s, with community colleges increasing rapidly, and federal student loans becoming widely available. Remote learning via TV broadcasts in the early cold war period would foreshadow the internet age innovations to come.

Internet Age (1990’s – present)

The internet age is truly an age of hybrid methods: lectures remain normative for lower-division courses, whereas seminar style courses are normative for upper-division and graduate courses. Other “teaching” methods include no teacher at all! EdTech has taken off in the past two decades where students self-pace through online materials and pre-recorded videos. Some universities are now entirely online. No human interaction required.

The internet age has been witness to myriad changes, most notably the increased student diversity as educational access expands, and the proliferation of credentials, certificates, and degree programs to serve different post-secondary education needs. There have been pedagogical downsides, however, in that teaching is increasingly disincentivized relative to research at universities, and adjunctification has taken over the teaching profession (a trend that actually began in the 1980’s).

On a positive note pedagogy is getting better. Research on pedagogy begin in the interwar era, but the internet age has taken the evidence and put it into practice. Active teaching has robust positive results for students, and pedagogical innovations across institutions are easily shared thanks to internet communication. I hope pedagogy continues to improve and teaching excellence is incentivized equally to research.

So, when does the next pedagogical epoch begin? Or has it already? What do you think?

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