Well, as someone who’s in the process of getting a PhD, with a view to becoming a college professor, i must admit that the absence of teacher training is something that i think about from time to time. To tell you the truth, i think that there are plenty of college professors who would benefit from some formal training in education and pedagogy.
I remember the first time i was ever given a class. I had only finished my own undergraduate degree the year before, and i was hired by my college as a TA in a US History survey course and a Media History course. I walked into the classroom on that first day with no experience and no training at all, and had to basically wing it from there. And, despite the fact that i put in lots of work and did my level best to make the class as interesting and informative as possible, i know there were occasions where i wasn’t very effective.
Even in grad school, where you are meant to get teaching experience, this generally just consists of being thrown into a class. Sure, most professors have weekly meetings with their TAs to go over that week’s lessons, but these meetings usually cover issues of content rather than questions of pedagogical strategy and effective teaching.
While this might all sound pretty bad, i will say that plenty of very good teachers emerge out of such a system. First of all, i’m firmly convinced that one’s effectiveness as a teacher is often directly proportional to one’s enthusiasm and desire to do the job right. Students can sense immediately when a teacher just isn’t interested, and it turns them off learning. And a keen, enthusiastic teacher, one who is committed to giving his or her students a good education, will often turn out to be an excellent teacher even without formal educational training.
Also, particularly for those who are keen and committed, the quality of teaching can also improve dramatically with experience. And, in my experience, this is especially true once you get an opportunity to run your own course, rather than just working as a TA on some professor’s course. Last Spring i taught a course all by myself for the first time, on American intellectual history from the Puritans to the Civil War. The process of designing a course, assigning texts, and preparing lectures and discussion topics every week actually helped to make me a better teacher. Having thought the whole course through as a coherent entity, i was better prepared each week and i had a better sense of where everything fit in and what its significance was.
Another thing that improves with experience is confidence, and it’s amazing how this can, in turn, improve the classroom experience for both teacher and student. I’ve never been especially reticent or shy in public, but now that i have quite a bit of experience in a teaching role, i think that i’m much better at helping to direct classroom discussion and push students to learn than i was before. I’m no longer using half my brain to teach and the other half to worry about my own performance; it just all comes a bit more naturally.
I don’t claim to be some fantastic examplar. I know that there are areas where my teaching could improve, and i’ll continue to work on those. But i also know that i’ve improved a lot since i started. I had confirmation from my professor about this a while ago. About two and a half years back, she asked me to give a guest lecture to one of her undergraduate classes on American conservatism since World War II. At the time, she seemed happy enough, and said that i had done a good job. Last semester, she asked me to reprise the lecture, and afterwards she said that it was amazing how much more confident i was, and how much better my command of the material and of the classroom was. “Night and day” was the term she used when comparing my first effort with my second.
As Colibri says, for many professor teaching actually isn’t considered a primary part of their job. Sure, universities all pay lip service to the issue of teaching, and give out awards for teaching excellence, and advertise their great commitment to teaching in the handbook. But the fact is that when tenure and promotion decisions are being made, in many schools teaching is about the least important aspect of the decision-making process. This obviously varies from college to college; for example, liberal arts colleges sometimes place less emphasis on research and publication than big research universities do, and these liberal arts colleges also often devote more attention to the issue of teaching.
Also, in my experience, there are some professors who would be happy never to see a student. I have met grad students who have told me that their ultimate dream would be to land a job where they could do nothing but spend every day doing research in the archives and writing books, without ever having to teach a class. I think that’s a rather unfortunate attitude. Personally, i think that the opportunity to teach on a regular basis is one of the attractions of academia.