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Women's History Month Spotlight

During Women’s History Month It’s Time to Remember That the Great Man Theory of Teaching Public Administration is Dead

By: Rosemary O'Leary

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The theme for Women’s History Month is “Celebrating Women Who Tell Our Stories.” Since many NAPA fellows teach public administration courses, some of you have urged me to tell the story of how I struggled with a male-dominated culture of university teaching and ended up a successful teacher. But first a bit of background: I come from a long line of feminists. My grandmother marched with the suffragettes in Washington DC as a teenager. My mother had seven children, went back to school to earn a PhD in psychology and worked as a therapist for decades. I have 5 spunky sisters. I went to all-girls schools where everyone was encouraged to excel. And yet, after earning my PhD, when it came time for me to shine as a university teacher, I struggled.

Consider the following scenario from my Ph.D. experience at the Maxwell School at Syracuse University many decades ago:

When public administration professor Richard Goldsmith (not his real name) entered the classroom, the students quivered. "There he is!" exclaimed a student in the back of the room. Goldsmith walked confidently toward the whiteboard and began to scribble furiously. Within five minutes, diagrams and formulas covered the board. In only minutes he had solved a problem that took the best students in the class three hours the night before to solve. One student could not maintain her decorum. "Professor," she exclaimed, "I never could have solved that problem!" Goldsmith regarded her with amusement. "Ha! Young woman," he replied, "if you could have solved it, you would be the professor and I the student."

This was the dominant model I had been presented with in my undergraduate, master's, law school, and Ph.D. programs: more than one hundred courses in higher education! To paint an even bleaker picture, out of those one hundred professors of higher education, only two were women. Even sadder is the fact that not one of those 100 teachers was a person of color.

There are many problems with this view of the ideal teacher. It conveyed to me subtle and not-so-subtle messages including:

  • The (white) male teacher as omniscient sage;
  • A focus on the teacher, as opposed to a focus on the learner;
  • The view that to be a great teacher one needed to prepare a perfect lecture that kept the students entertained; and
  • A view of the student as a passive knowledge sponge.

In my course evaluations the first semester I taught at Indiana University, there were numerous comments to the effect that "her hands were shaking so badly the first day of class she could barely hand out the syllabus,” undoubtedly from the pressure of trying to be a Great Man in the classroom. But it was halfway into the semester that true disaster struck. I had spent hours preparing a brilliant Great Man lecture on the impact of courts on public administration - the subject of my award-winning dissertation - only to find most of the class asleep fifteen minutes into my lecture. The crowning blow was when I realized that ALL the students in the front row were asleep.

I went home more depressed than I had ever been in my life. Clearly, university teaching was not for me. Out of desperation, I stayed up several nights trying to figure out how to engage the students. My intent at the time was not to become a great teacher or even a good teacher, but merely to survive in the classroom. This was war. I was desperate. I would try anything.

That is when I became a sort of “pedagogy guerrilla” quietly taking on the Great Man theory of teaching in order to forge my own identity as a university professor. Instead of preparing a lecture, I returned to class the next week with twenty-five prepared Socratic method questions for the students. I saw a glimmer of hope as a handful of students attempted to answer the questions. I found myself giving away the answers, however, when the silence between the questions and the answers grew too loud. The number of questions I prepared for class dwindled from twenty-five to twenty, then to fifteen and even ten. On some days I came into the classroom ready to engage the students in a discussion of the three most important ideas of the day.

As I experimented and tried new things, it finally hit me: It's about the students as great learners. It's not about me as a great teacher and it’s not about being a Great Man, Once I figured that out, working with students became hands down the most fun and rewarding part of my career.

Looking back, I realize that I created my own version of a “flipped classroom” before the term existed. Some of the ways of engaging students in active learning ­ particularly problem-based learning - that have worked for me include the following: Workgroups; case studies; role-playing simulations; analyses of real-world public organizations and real-world public managers; problem-solving essays; position papers; memos to themselves; and "elevator speeches”.

My classes are now approximately 85 percent interactive and 15 percent lecture. Contrary to the Great Man perspective, it is my belief that my job is not only to impart knowledge but more importantly to assist students in cultivating a critical thinking process that can be used throughout their lives. Because I teach students who will have careers in government, other facets of my job include encouraging the students to think creatively about solutions to pressing public policy problems, instilling in them a belief that they can make a difference in today's society, and conveying to them an enthusiasm about public service. It all boils down to four things: knowledge, critical thinking, creative thinking, and an enthusiasm about public service. These are the things I try to impart and cultivate in every class session. These goals can be met in a wide variety of ways.

So what? Who cares? What are the implications for Women’s History Month of my story and the broader paradigm shift in higher education away from the Great Man theory of teaching to a focus on student learning?

First, it is a wonderful relief to realize that no one has to be a Great Man to be a facilitator of active learning. This view of teaching accommodates all of us---every size, shape, and color, embracing a wide variety of talents, backgrounds, perspectives, and lived experiences.

Second, no one ever gets it right the first time they teach a public administration class. No one. It is an immense challenge to figure out the best way for students to learn, and it is wonderfully liberating to realize you are allowed to think creatively and refine your approach as you gain experience. I will confess that there have been a few times when I have returned to the classroom the day after a learning experiment, apologized to the students, and started over, addressing the same material, yet using another learning technique. And each semester is a clean slate and an opportunity to reconsider the learning environment.

Third, there is no excuse for poor teaching. With a focus on student learning, and the shift away from the Great Man theory of teaching, it means it is okay to ask for help. It is okay to borrow ideas from others (and it is important to share your ideas and teaching materials with others). It is okay that you're not the perfect entertainer in the classroom.

Beat poet Edward S. Burroughs once said, "a good poet borrows, a great poet steals." I would paraphrase that statement to read, "a good teacher borrows, a great teacher steals." We are all dedicated to ensuring “excellence in education and training for public service and to promote the ideal of public service” (the NASPAA mission). I have benefited from ideas stolen from several colleagues throughout the years, including NAPA Fellows Lisa (Bingham) Blomgren Amsler, A. James Barnes, Kirk Emerson, Patricia Ingraham, Tina Nabatchi, Jim Perry, and David Rosenbloom. And I have tried to give back by co-creating (with Catherine Gerard at the Maxwell School in 2007) E-PARCC: Free online teaching and learning materials on civic engagement, collaboration, and conflict resolution, used by hundreds of thousands around the world. E-PARCC thrives today. (

This story has a happy ending: I went on to win 11 teaching awards – 2 of them national. During Women’s History Month, let’s rejoice in the fact that the Great Man theory of teaching public administration is dead – something my feminist ancestors undoubtedly would celebrate!

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