Philosophy of Teaching: Postulate #12

12. The necessary posture of the teacher is duty. His first obligation is to the student and not the institution that employs him.


The word “duty” might lead one to conclude that teaching is always undertaken in a spirit of reluctance, one that can only be overcome by a sense of duty. Let’s face it: Americans talk far more about their rights than they do their duties. “Duty” is beginning to take on an antique, archaic cast. But when I speak of the duty of a teacher, I do not mean to imply a grudging acceptance of a mere necessity. I mean duty in the sense of vocation–a calling–that either emerges before the acquisition of a body of knowledge–that is, something to teach–or it can come along with an earnest interest in a subject from which there are few options for securing a livelihood other than teaching. History is one such subject.

It is widely believed that professors at “research” universities are far more interested in their reputation as scholars than as teachers, that hiring, promotion, and tenure decisions made at such institutions take teaching effectiveness as a given and consider the production of “scholarship” to be of far greater importance. Statistically, this is probably true, but not by much. There are many, many world-class scholars in all fields who are known by their students and former students as superb, world-class teachers. That is, they take their duty to their students seriously, prepare for lectures and other classroom activities assiduously, and offer as much help as they can to students–all while building impressive reputations as working researchers and scholars in their fields. Teaching and “scholarship” need not be at odds, and I have had many professors during my years as a student whose courses were deeply enriched by whatever book or article they were writing for publication.

At Southern Oregon University, the mix of teaching versus research and scholarship are reversed from that of the so-called research universities. Teaching plays a far greater role in the professional lives of the instructors and professors at SOU, but we are also required to engage in research, publishing, and other forms of professional “scholarship,” just in a smaller proportion than might be required by a member of the faculty of, say, the University of Oregon.

The important thing to remember, at whatever university one finds oneself at, is that a teacher’s first obligation is to the student and not to the university that employs him or her. It has happened, and it will continue to happen, that when asked I have advised SOU students to attend a different university–that SOU could not serve them as well as some other institution, for whatever reasons. As an employee of Southern Oregon University I should be working to encourage as many students to come here as possible–enrollment figures plays an important role in the calculation of SOU’s budget. But as a teacher, my first obligation is to my students, and when there might arise a conflict between those two obligations, students will come out on top every time.