I was talking with a group of honors students at a large public university. This was several years ago. They were telling me how deeply unchallenged they felt by most of their classes. They liked their honors courses, of which they took one a semester, but the others were largely abysmal. The material was superficial; the assignments were mostly busywork; the classes asked for little in the way of writing. Teachers were disengaged to the point of negligence. One, in a literature course, would start each class by turning on a tape of a poet reading their work, then fall asleep until it was over. Another, an adjunct who was in the process of transitioning to a job outside the university, either canceled class or didn’t show up more than half of the time. Most of college felt to him, one student said, like “an inferior version of high school.”

I have been writing about higher education for the last 15 years — after teaching 15 years in colleges myself — and over that time, I have visited more than 60 schools, in all regions and of all institutional types, sometimes for several weeks at a time. I have sat in on classes, talked with professors and deans, met with many, many students, and heard, over email, from scores of parents and alumni. And I have been consistently struck by the incompetence, the sheer intellectual nullity, of so much of college teaching in this country.

A professor at the University of Virginia told me that she doesn’t “believe in preparing in advance.” A parent reported observing a communications class at Tulane where the students were learning PowerPoint. A new graduate of the University of Washington explained that curiosity had been actively discouraged by her professors, who didn’t ask for much and didn’t understand why a student would have a problem with that. Instructors often seem content, in my experience, to merely fill the time. Incapable of engaging their students in rigorous dialogue, they resort to superficial questions that lead nowhere. Students sit in stupefied silence, waiting for the boredom to end. At more than one school, “great” teachers whose classes I was encouraged to observe turned out to be decent at best — a sign of just how low the bar is.

We’ve been having the same problems, for the same reasons, with the same failed solutions, since the emergence of the modern research university and the introduction of mass public higher education.

For a long time, I assumed that all this was a recent phenomenon. Grade inflation, falling standards in K-12, rising expectations for research productivity, the ongoing shift to adjuncts and other contingent faculty: These and other factors, I believed, had been degrading undergraduate instruction over the last few decades. Then I read “The Amateur Hour” (2020), by Jonathan Zimmerman, the first history of college teaching in America. It turns out, according to Zimmerman, a historian of education at the University of Pennsylvania, that we’ve been having the same problems, for the same reasons, with the same failed solutions, since the emergence of the modern research university and the introduction of mass public higher education in the late 19th century. (Things weren’t great before then, either, but for different reasons.) College teaching in America not only stinks, in other words; it’s always stunk.

Generation after generation, as Zimmerman explains, we’ve had professors neglecting instruction; enormous lecture courses (and tedious discussion sections); contingent and underqualified faculty; students feeling disengaged and cheated; proclamations that we must do better; resistance from faculty to supervision, evaluation or change (coupled with disdain for popular teachers as mere performers); innovations, often based on new technology and/or new psychological theories, rolled out with large claims, loud fanfare and lots of foundation funding; and no improvement ever.

Before there were adjuncts, there were (and still are) graduate teaching assistants, leading not only discussion sections but their own courses. Before we had online instruction (the worth of which was demonstrated during the pandemic), we had instruction by closed-circuit television and Skinnerian “teaching machines.” The lecture came in in the late 19th century, with class sizes steadily rising with successive enrollment booms. By 1930, as the college population more than quintupled between the world wars, some lectures were topping 1,000. Institutions kept up with the surge of students by waiving credentialing requirements. As of 1926, merely one-third of faculty had Ph.D.s and nearly one-quarter had only bachelor’s degrees; in 1948, amid another postwar boom, the numbers were one-eighth and one-third.

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Already by the 1920s, students were fed up. In 1922, the National Student Forum, a gathering of undergraduate leaders, issued a blistering declaration. “To put it baldly,” it read, “a great deal of college is just so many hours of deadly boredom.” The statement signaled the beginning of a decade of student rebellion at schools from coast to coast. It was then that the teaching evaluation was invented: by students, for students, collected in course guides that were published by students (and only much later co-opted, and taken private, by self-protective institutions). Another wave of protest followed in the 1960s. Both the Port Huron Statement of 1962 and the Berkeley Free Speech Movement of 1964, the twin beginnings of the larger student movement, included outrage at the state of college teaching as part of their larger indictments. When Richard Nixon appointed a commission to investigate the causes of the decade’s campus turmoil, it pointed, above all, not to the war in Vietnam, but to the shoddy state of undergraduate instruction. 

And still nothing changed.

The reason nothing changed can be stated in three words: the research model. Ever since the rise of the modern university, with its apparatus of Ph.D.s, peer review, academic journals and associations, and tenure procedures, faculty have been incentivized to do a single thing and a single thing only: create knowledge. Comb the archives, do the fieldwork, beaver away in the lab. Bring in grants, present at conferences, win awards. Research, write, publish. Period. Anything else is professional suicide.

And teaching, done right, takes time — a lot of time. So does learning how. If you teach too well, in fact, it’s actually a strike against you, because it raises the suspicion that you aren’t focusing single-mindedly enough on your “work” (your “real” work). “Winning the campus teaching award,” said Ernest Boyer, late president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, “is the kiss of death when it comes to tenure.” He wasn’t kidding. Zimmerman notes a trio of prizewinners at Stanford who were denied tenure in the 1970s, then another trio at the University of Pennsylvania in the 1980s.

Nor is this all. Academics are never taught how to teach in the first place. Pedagogy forms no part (or, at best, a perfunctory part) of doctoral programs. Basically, you’re expected to figure it out on your own. This may sound incredible to those with no experience in the academy, who might reasonably note that teaching is part of the job. But it is the point of Zimmerman’s title, “The Amateur Hour.” “Our scholarship is a professional enterprise,” he writes. “But when it comes to teaching, we’re solo operators. We are flying by the seat of our pants.” Of course, his title has another sense, as well: Most professors are inept at it.

“To put it baldly, a great deal of college is just so many hours of deadly boredom.”

Why does any of this matter? It matters because people are paying a lot, or borrowing a lot, to go to college. It matters because a huge proportion of them are not finishing — 60 percent of undergraduates fail to complete their degree in four years, a stunning statistic — and a major reason is that they are disengaged. Their professors are remote; their classes leave them cold. It matters because the students who drop out are disproportionately poor and working-class, Black and Latino, and members of the first generation in their family to go to college. The quality of undergraduate instruction, in other words, isn’t just a value-for-your-money issue. It is also an equity issue, a democracy issue.

It matters because it’s such a wasted opportunity. Good teaching changes lives. College, as it exists uniquely in the United States, is a remarkable institution, one that we should never take for granted. The very fact that we refer to it as “college,” not “university,” as elsewhere, gestures toward its status as a site of transformation, not simply utility. In other countries, students concentrate exclusively in a single subject — when you study physics in France, or sociology in Israel, that’s all you study — with no room to explore, discover, grow. Here, you go in one thing, and you can come out on your way to being almost anything you want: a doctor, a diplomat, a journalist, a geoscientist. Possibility: the American idea. 

But you need to be inspired; you need to be kindled. And that is what good teaching does. It is not entertainment, as it is often portrayed as in the media — a chemistry professor lighting things on fire, a philosopher waving his arms around. Good teachers make you feel smarter. They mobilize your powers. They arouse your curiosity — your desire to investigate the suspicion that there is more going on in the world than you know about. They speak through the material, soul to soul. “Anything real gets taught,” writes the artist Jordan Wolfson in “Painting and Consciousness,” “by pointing towards it and guiding [the student] to locate it inwardly, within themselves.”

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Can teaching itself be taught? That is the question on which pedagogical reform has often foundered in the academy. You either have it, goes the thinking — personality, charisma — or you don’t. And there is truth to that. Great teaching, certainly — the art of teaching, let us say — cannot be taught (though it can be modeled). But good teaching, better teaching — the craft of teaching — is a different matter.

That is the premise of the one organization that seems to have finally begun to make a dent in this age-old disaster. The Association of College and University Educators (ACUE), which was launched in 2014, began in conversations between Matthew Goldstein, former chancellor of the City University of New York; Eduardo Padrón, president emeritus of Miami Dade College; Jeffrey Leeds, an education investor; and Jonathan Gyurko, an adjunct professor at Teachers College, Columbia University, and former official at the New York City Department of Education. Other founders included Elmira Mangum, past president of Florida A&M, and Andy Stern, president emeritus of the Service Employees International Union, which represents a lot of adjuncts.

Goldstein is credited with having brought CUNY back after decades of drift, including introducing a program of intensive advising, now widely emulated, that significantly raised completion rates at the system’s community colleges. Padrón made Miami Dade, one of the largest institutions in the country, a national model for successful completion among first-generation students. Still, said Gyurko, now the ACUE’s president, the organization’s founders felt that “despite all the things we were doing to help students succeed, graduation rates were still not where they should be. We came to the conclusion that so much of student success work was happening outside of class.” “Student success,” a term of art, has become a cause in higher ed of late — an effort, as the sector comes under growing pressure to justify its cost, if not its very existence, to redress those abysmal completion rates. But, Gyurko explained, the movement focuses on everything except the classroom. “We’ll do advising, or we’ll buy big-data analytics systems that predict who’s going to succeed or fail. Well, diagnosis is one thing. How do you treat the diagnosis?”

The ACUE’s answer is better teaching. If you want students to succeed, you need to help professors succeed. This might seem obvious, but apparently it needs to be pointed out to presidents and provosts, whose “student success cabinets” typically include a bunch of bureaucrats from student affairs but seldom anyone who’s actually involved in the enterprise of instruction. Yet “students spend more time with professors, more intentionally, more consistently, than with any other college professional,” Gyurko said. Indeed, “for the majority of today’s students” — the ones at community colleges and four-year commuter schools, not public flagships or selective private institutions — the classroom “is their college experience. Think of the students who are driving to a college parking lot, rushing into class, then getting back in their car to go to their job or back to their family. Or the online student, logging on and off. Class is it. It is showtime, our chance to make a difference. And it better be the best it can be.”

If you teach too well, in fact, it’s actually a strike against you, because it raises the suspicion that you aren’t focusing single-mindedly enough on your “work” (your “real” work).

Starting with presidents and provosts has been key to ACUE’s approach. It’s not that institutions haven’t been trying to improve the quality of teaching in recent decades (they are always, at least intermittently, trying), but the conventional way to do so has been to establish a teaching center, a place where instructors can go, if they want, for workshops and other resources. The problem is the “want”: most don’t, and those who do, who care enough about their teaching to try to improve it, are probably already pretty good, just because they care. So how do you make people care? Buy-in from leaders is key. So are incentives: raising teaching’s prestige, awarding stipends for pedagogical training, allowing the latter to satisfy requirements for continuing education that are written into employment contracts and collective bargaining agreements.

But the biggest key is providing training that actually works. The ACUE’s model focuses on craft, the nuts and bolts of competent instruction. Faculty are introduced to evidence-based best practices in 25 core areas, everything from preparing a syllabus to leading a first day to facilitating discussion to providing feedback. Crucially, the program runs in parallel with whatever classes participants are teaching at the time. Week by week, they learn techniques, implement them, refine them, get feedback from facilitators, and reflect with peers on what they’ve done. This last is also crucial: instead of learning one by one, faculty go through the training as a group, which means that the experience not only builds their individual skills, it also develops a culture of teaching within the institution, a community of mindful practitioners.

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To date, over 26,000 individuals, across more than 450 campuses, have completed the ACUE’s training, receiving a certification, endorsed by the American Council on Education, that is starting to be recognized in promotion and tenure. Eighteen independent studies have found that the program leads to significant gains in student learning, retention and completion. It also enables instructors to feel, at last, like they know what they’re doing. “Faculty with many years of experience,” Gyurko said, “have found these evidence-based practices just as relevant and useful as novice instructors. We’ve heard, ‘I’ve had the best class discussions of my career, because finally I know how to plan a conversation, develop a taxonomy of different kinds of questions, and facilitate student-to-student interaction.’” And once you learn the craft of teaching, you have the freedom to explore the art — to be not just good but, if it’s in you, great.

The ACUE’s ultimate goal is to create a nationwide movement to elevate instruction to an equal place with research in higher education. The first schools to adopt its training tended to be ones with the most disadvantaged students and therefore the lowest graduation rates: community colleges, open-access public universities, under-resourced privates. State flagships think that they can solve the problem on their own; elite private institutions do not think they have a problem. Both are wrong, and the former, at least, are starting to recognize as much. In the last few years, the ACUE has signed up public university systems in California, Texas and New York, among other states, and is now partnering with the National Association of System Heads, whose institutions enroll some 75 percent of four-year public college students. This June, ACUE co-hosted its first-ever national college teaching conference, attracting over 500 leaders, researchers, professors and advocates.

One of the opening panelists was Jonathan Zimmerman. “ACUE represents the most promising development in college teaching of the past half-century,” he told me, “because it’s providing credentials as well as training. The one thing we know — from a century or more of failed reform efforts — is that moral exhortation won’t cut it. There has to be a material incentive. The ACUE model points us towards a day when you’ll have to demonstrate competence in the classroom in order to stay there.”

“It’s an 800-year-old problem,” Gyurko said, but “the headline here is joy. It just feels so much better to be able to awaken minds, connect with students in ways that you’ve never done before, to finally feel you have the skills to do your job. That’s the stuff of one’s professional identity. It gives me hope, combined with all the pressure on higher education, that this is teaching’s moment.” 

William Deresiewicz is an award-winning essayist and author of “Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life.”

This story appears in the September issue of Deseret Magazine. Learn more about how to subscribe.