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College Quarterly
Winter 2012 - Volume 15 Number 1
McKeachie's Teaching Tips, 13th edition
Marilla Svinicki & Wilbert J. McKeachie
Belmont CA: Wadsworth CENGAGE Learning, 2011
Reviewed by Howard A. Doughty

I swore I'd never review a book like this, or at least never review it favourably. I changed my mind, but for no good reason. There was, however, a bad reason. The bad reason was that I won it as a "door prize" at a faculty meeting that sought to reward people for attending. I took it home and, against my better judgement, I read it. I rarely win door prizes, so perhaps I was responding to what some people call "karma," or maybe I was the victim of a trickster's mischief.

If it was a trickster, the first trick was to imagine that there is something very special about a volume like this, that it says something valuable that isn't said in other places—perhaps for half the price or, given the subject matter, for free. After all, "tips" are pretty informal things. They are sometimes shared, as they should be, among friends, or among self-selected groups of like-minded people engaged in a common project. Some people (I am among them) think that we learn skills best when we think we need to, and that we learn most profoundly when we are instructed by people with whom we share experiences and whom we trust. McKeachie's Teaching Tips tries to provide support to people who think they need to know something about how to teach. It tries to be your friend.

Though framed as a "self-help" volume, McKeachie's Teaching Tips reads more like an Army Manual … or maybe a Boy Scouts instruction kit or a training package designed for new recruits in a life insurance company's sales force. Friendship is hard to fake.

Obviously, however, there is a vast market for such publications. I am sure that there are dozens, hundreds or maybe thousands of "helpful hints" packages out there. Some are "in-house" documents intended to help train new (or retrain old) teachers in matters such as curriculum development, evaluation techniques, classroom management and so on. Others may be generated by various government departments, educational associations and public-private partnerships through which massive publishing companies insinuate themselves into curriculum development programs, show teachers how to use their software and carry away lucrative contracts for subject materials that are guaranteed not to upset the authorities. A few come from "for-profit" corporations without the benefit of connections with college administrators and teacher trainers. A few more can be gleaned from the Internet by searching for fairly obvious "key words."

Wilbert J. McKeachie seems to have locked into the process. With thirteen editions in and out of print, a book like this may not make millions of dollars for its author or joint authors, but it certainly must make for a healthy annuity. I commend him for his entrepreneurship. And who knows? He might even be sincere about wanting to be your BFF (at least as far as teaching techniques are concerned). I've met quite a few people who run instructional workshops and programs for teachers. The most successful among them exude enthusiasm. Some even resemble Amway sales reps or ambitious Wal-Mart associates.

Here's the problem; or, maybe, the solution. Programs that try to teach people how to teach carry with them inherent limitations. One is that they proffer "one-size-fits-all" formulae. Among the worst are those which include an escape hatch for eccentrics and include a small chapter on how not to behave as though one size fits all. However much lip service is given to diversity and the notion that we must accommodate different "learning styles," it all comes down to some basic issues that teaching coaches typically teach. In the process, much is not so much lost as never acquired.

Here's an alternative approach. Whenever I put my mind to matters of pedagogy (or andragogy, if you prefer), I try to separate issues according to an organizational hierarchy. In doing so, I try to follow a method made fairly famous by Bertrand Russell about a century ago, when he developed his "theory of logical types." Applied to colleges and college education, the distinction among logical types would mean that we should examine teaching and learning at different levels and from different perspectives. For simplicity's sake, I choose to label these as "micro," "meso" and "macro" levels of analysis.

In the study of education, the micro-level refers most obviously to the classroom, face-to-face student-teacher relations, individual grading and so on. It also deals with how to deal with students who spit on the floor, or on the teacher.

One step up is to the meso or middling level. It involves overall departmental, college or, where appropriate, oversight agencies such as government policies and procedures, boards of govenors and the like. At issue are relevant questions of elusive matters such as "social responsibilities," "institutional accountability," and relationships among colleges and universities across state or provincial systems however they may be defined. Meso-analysis sometimes worries about "teaching with technology" and figuring out how to get and give "feedback" above the local workplace level. The meso-level generally concerns how to bring classroom ideas into harmony with various "mission statements" and whatever subsidiary rules and procedures emanate therefrom.

Then, there is the macro-level, which is the only genuinely interesting platform for anyone whose principal concern is education as an instrument for maintaining social stability or promoting social change. Macro matters include topics of national or even global importance. It can involve questons such as: What is college education for? Who runs it and why? What human interests does it serve? How is it affected by and how, in return, does it affect the economy, politics and culture?

Currenly, a great deal of the discussion relates higher education to an increasingly competitive globalized economic environment. By these lights education, narrowly defined as job training or job preparation must try to anticipate labour market trends and design "just-in-time" curricula to meet these emerging needs. This is a mug's game—but a popular one since the economy is changing so quickly that last year's mistakes are forgotten in the rush to make new ones. The push is to increase the vocational relevance of curricula. 1 The predominant motivation for educational change today is fear—fear of being left behind, of missing the boat, of having an obsolete labour force just when the structure of work and the economy is transformed by some technological innovation or the news that some people are willing to work longer, cheaper and dirtier in some remote part of the globe.

Although most corporate rhetoric celebrates large macro-level ambitions, the training of teachers rarely rises above the level of the classroom. McKeachie's Teaching Tips is concerned almost exclusively with micro-level education. Such is the nature of the beast.

Here's what the thirteenth edition puts forward: twenty-three safely contained chapters in which we get to learn how to "write objectives," encourage "active learning" even in large classes, and make "group learning" seem to work. It also plays around with concepts such as motivational theory, cultural diversity and "the ethics of teaching and learning." No gerbil trainer got handier instructions.

I'm serious! This is a very good book for the kind of book that it is. It does all that is necessary to turn last year's compliant student into this year's successful novice teacher. It should be snapped up by any college Human Resources Department, Professional Development Office or Centre for Teaching and Learning eager to inculcate its corporate culture into the personality and pedagogy of its "contingent" faculty.

Some may say that I'm being unfair or unkind. No such luck! As someone once said and as many more have repeated: "There's no such thing as bad publicity!"

In my wildest narcissistic delusions, I don't imagine that the ongoing success of the thirteenth edition of McKeachie's Teaching Tips is apt to be influenced by what I've said here. It's sales will suffer neither temporary nor permanent damage. In the contemporary college world of job-oriented education and training, nothing could.

 

Endnotes

1. At the time when the high-tech hype was nearing its apogee, Stanford University published a prescient report that clearly demonstrated that the technological advances promised by computerization and automation would not yield the intellectually challenging, personally satisfying and lucrative employment promised by post-industrial prophets like Daniel Bell, but would usher in a new wave of McJobs, with fast-food servers and nurses' aides leading the way. Contrary to official wisdom then and since, vocational training was the last thing students needed. A broad background in the liberal arts was far more "relevant" since it would allow them to understand more fully why they were chronically underemployed. See: Hugh M. Levin and Russell W. Rumsberger, "The Educational Implications of High Technology," IFG Project Report 83-A4 (Stanford: Institute for Research on Higher Educational Finance and Governance," 1983; and "Low-Skill Future of High Tech," Technology Review 86(6), August/September, 1983. At about the same time (and ever since), David Livingstone was been tracking education-employment issues. See David W. Livingstone, Class, Ideologies and Educational Futures (Sussex, UK: Falmer Press, 1983).


Howard A. Doughty, teaches political economy at Seneca College in Toronto. He can be reached at howard_doughty@post.com

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