A Two Way Street
Professor B. has concerns: "Is anyone else bothered that our primary feedback on our work comes from children? I'm talking, of course, about course evaluations. But if you think about it for a minute, it's true: most jobs, you complete a project, someone tells you good job (or should). Moreover, the people who observe and evaluate your work are peers and superiors. In academia, the people who observe and evaluate you on a day-to-day basis are distracted 18-year olds who don't understand what your job actually is." The flipside of this, of course, is that when some of us were college students we found it a bit troubling that the people who were supposed to be teaching us are distracted people of various ages who don't regard teaching undergraduates as their real job. An awful lot about the American system of higher education is, in fact, mighty odd and tends to just go unequestioned because that's the way it's done. But why should students (and their parents) pay good money to be taught by people who were not hired on the basis of their teaching skills and who don't primarily seek professional fulfillment through teaching well?
March 1, 2005 | Permalink
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Tracked on Mar 1, 2005 3:18:08 PM
MY, I have a dare for you: tell Brad Delong that. I double dare you.
Posted by: Dan the Man | Mar 1, 2005 1:02:10 PM
Mainly because they don't go for the education? You'll learn more at countless small liberal arts colleges than you would at Harvard in most cases. But most people go for the degree and what it represents rather than an education. So in that sense it is important for the students to have an outstanding reputation of their faculty and that reputation comes from research and not teaching.
Posted by: Rob | Mar 1, 2005 1:07:05 PM
Precisely. College degrees (with the exception of certain fields) are just meaningless acknowledgements of an arbitrary educational ritual, a rubber stamp on the passport of life.
But try getting a good job without one. Just try.
Posted by: Matt G. | Mar 1, 2005 1:09:22 PM
Actually, I disagree with this and the constant bullshit that there should be better teaching because that's what universities are really about. In fact, I disagree with a liberal arts education.
You get taught in high school. That's where you learn to think. Then you should go to college and learn a discipline, a field. Your professors' job is to create knowledge, and secondarily, to promote another generation of people who will create knowledge. If you're not into that, you can vegetate through college and blame it on bad teaching, then become an investment banker.
Posted by: Marshall | Mar 1, 2005 1:10:37 PM
You get taught in high school. That's where you learn to think.
Marshall, how long has it been since you were in high school? Or any branch of public education in the United States, for that matter?
Posted by: Matt G. | Mar 1, 2005 1:15:41 PM
There was precious little teaching people to think going on at my (public) high school, and it was considered one of the good ones. I learned to think thanks in large part to my liberal arts education at college, and I'm grateful for it. I'm also grateful for the teachers who showed the kind of dedication to their craft that they listened to their students and took constructive feedback. What an arrogant approach to teaching - "In academia, the people who observe and evaluate you on a day-to-day basis are distracted 18-year olds who don't understand what your job actually is." Thanks, but my Mom was a teacher for all of my 18 years growing up, and in fact I handled her course evaluation tabulations through high school. Which meant that a) I knew what I was dealing with when I did a course review and b) I knew that a good teacher examines her evaluations. I'm amazed that a University is the only service provider that sees fit to dismiss its customers as too dumb to deserve good service. That's a losing attitiude for sure.
Posted by: weboy | Mar 1, 2005 1:19:32 PM
Bad professors suck, but looking back, I feel like I got smarter even in those classes taught by bad professors. I may not have learned the actual course material all that well, but you still learn something just by way of the fact that you're exercising your brain struggling to keep up with your classmates and figure stuff out for yourself.
Posted by: JP | Mar 1, 2005 1:20:48 PM
bit troubling that the people who were supposed to be teaching us are distracted people of various ages who don't regard teaching undergraduates as their real job
I wholly agree with your concern here; this is a problem, and we'd be better served if college instructors in general took undergraduate education more seriously. But this is hardly the "flipside" of Prof. B's concerns; if anything, it's another symptom of it. You're both talking about how the institution in question devalues undergraduate teaching--first, by creating incentives and structures that encourage this activity to be secondary, and second, by not bothering to come up with a serious way to evaluate performance at it.
I graduated from high school almost three years ago now. Admittedly, my school was very good. I realize that high schools are often disastrously bad, but they should be made better! This is a problem that can be solved. College should be an academic experience, not a 'liberal arts' self-congratulatory bubble bath.
JP, I agree. If you're not getting the material from bad teachers, you can learn it yourself. That's the big tool in your toolbox when you go to college (or should be).
Posted by: Marshall | Mar 1, 2005 1:25:56 PM
Fascinating. I occasionally meet people who claim to have learned to think in high school, instead of learning despite it. I can only say that they must have gone to very different schools than the ones I went to.
Posted by: Matt G. | Mar 1, 2005 1:31:14 PM
The problem of reliability was asked a long time ago when universities began to rely on student course evaluations. It was found that in the aggregate student evaluations do a very good job of measuring the quality of a course and its teaching. There are always a few evaluations in a class that don't track with the majority and the majority can fluctuate some from year to year, but overall the practice works and is helpful to faculty.
The best teaching is always done by professors who are themselves dedicated learners. Their peer-level research might be removed from the survey courses they give, but this isn't always or necessarily the case, and research and synthetic ability are essential to teaching a course at any level. Research and teaching at their best are never truly separated.
Posted by: David Billington | Mar 1, 2005 1:38:53 PM
As an academic, I'll make some specific observations without wading (yet) into the broader debate:
1) "Is anyone else bothered that our primary feedback on our work comes from children?"
Well yes to an extent. But I am also heartened by the fact that, when evaluating for promotion, many universities (including my own) solicit letters from students long past (who are out in the world - grad school, work etc). These former students are, in my opinion, excellent judges of how well my course prepared them for the path their life took. This helps provide a much broader form of evaluation that I feel is actually quite reasonable in many ways so long both its value and limitations are recognized.
2) "The flipside of this, of course, is that when some of us were college students we found it a bit troubling that the people who were supposed to be teaching us are distracted people of various ages who don't regard teaching undergraduates as their real job."
IMHO, this is a question of the priorities of the institution in question. If, when being evaluated for promotion, your teaching plays a significant role, then any decent academic will devote time and energy to making his/her teaching better. If you agree that MY's observation constitutes a problem for universities then one should advocate for university policy that forces a different promotion optimization on faculty members - one that values teaching more highly. This is, in my experience what "small liberal arts colleges" do and "major research universities" don't (necessarily) do. If high school students realized the difference, I bet many of them would make appropriate choices about their collegiate education.
3) A pet peeve: why are so many arguments about university level education phrased in terms of market economics (I pay for service X and you are/aren't providing it)? This strikes me as a bad model to use for education as it will further bend university education to the whim of the "market" - in this case those 18 year olds who want to get through college. Isn't this precisely backwards? Isn't one of the missions of a university to provide an guided environment for these young minds to flourish and explore the dark corners of their chosen field(s)? Why should someone who, at that point, doesn't know a field get to guide their own education in said field?
Posted by: Scott Pauls | Mar 1, 2005 1:39:55 PM
Yeah, so the point is that college isn't mainly about learning stuff, it's about learning how to learn stuff. And that can happen whether you have good professors or bad ones. Really, the most important factor is the quality of your fellow students.
Posted by: JP | Mar 1, 2005 1:40:12 PM
"But why should students (and their parents) pay good money to be taught by people who were not hired on the basis of their teaching skills and who don't primarily seek professional fulfillment through teaching well?"
In a lot of cases (as noted above) most universities have missions that include things other than teaching. So people get hired on the basis of a rather more complex skill set than whether they can teach well. The "creation of knowledge" point is an extremely valid and important one.
And, in a lot of cases, universities establish reward structures that do not particularly reward attention to teaching well, only to teaching "well enough" not to create problems.
And the major problems occur at the "best"--most prestigious--universities. My guess (based on listening to a lot of people talk over a fair number of years) is that what passes for "acceptable" teaching in places like Harvard or Yale of UC Berkeley would get you fired at some other places--high quality, liberal arts institutions around the country, often in less interesting places, but wonderful places to learn. (List on request.)
Posted by: Donald A. Coffin | Mar 1, 2005 1:42:32 PM
But I am also heartened by the fact that, when evaluating for promotion, many universities (including my own) solicit letters from students long past (who are out in the world - grad school, work etc).
This is interesting. I wonder if this would be useful in evaluating high school teachers. Given the unreliability of test scores and so forth.
Posted by: JP | Mar 1, 2005 1:42:57 PM
I think Rob's right-- some academic environments are better for undergraduate learning than others, and research universities are usually pretty bad precisely because the faculty tends to consider teaching undergrads an annoyance rather than a vocation or a calling. I haven't seen any graduates of small, highly-ranked private schools at a real intellectual disadvantage when compared to Ivy Leaguers, but in graduate schools I've seen a fair number of the same Ivy Leaguers end up on teaching probation because they had such lousy examples as undergrads.
Posted by: latts | Mar 1, 2005 1:43:07 PM
Marshall, why so contemptuous of Liberal Arts education? Have you run across scads of youngsters unable to work or productively contribute? I loved the liberal arts model and I think it offers quite a lot to its students. And nobody is forcing you to go to Sarah Lawrence - there are plenty of stuffy, career oriented options for those who prefer. So why the hating?
Posted by: Mavis Beacon | Mar 1, 2005 1:44:43 PM
Um, quite frankly, bullshit.
People in fields outside academia aren't judged by "peers and superiors" against some Platonic criteria of excellence. They are judged by peers and superiors based on how well they do their jobs, which for most folks working in the private sector involves pleasing some revenue-paying constituency.
Toy companies don't tell toy designers: "Well, your new product concept was a bomb with actual children and didn't sell worth a damn but we found it to be aesthetically pleasing according to our own tastes so therefore we're giving you a big raise."
I understand the frustration that academics have in trying to please 18 year olds who quite frequently fill out course evaluations based on childish, silly criteria. But what's the alternative? No course evaluations at all? You can bitch about how market forces are corrupting the purity of academia all you want but that doesn't change the fact that the families of those snotty 18 year old kids in your classes are making massive sacrifices to pay your salary. Most middle class parents with kids in private colleges worry all the fucking time about how they're going to continue to pay tuition without torpedoing their own retirement savings (A worry that parents of the alumni of Dalton presumably don't have, BTW.). And a big chunk of the "immature" students themselves are working all summer and possibly part-time during the year, plus taking on massive loan debt to sit in your classroom. How dare you suggest that its wrong for them to have a say in whether or not you are retained?
I've been hearing these beefs about student evaluations for years. And I know that there are certainly cases where good professors are penalized for being demanding or for teaching difficult subjects, and bad professors are rewarded for being pushovers. But when I was in college student evaluations were actually a pretty accurate reflection of teaching quality. There were plenty of "tough" profs with stellar eval scores and plenty of "easy" profs that got terrible evaluations. In fact, in many cases being tough caused students to respect a professor more (assuming of course, that he or she came across as being a true master of the subject).
But the pervasive myth of the complete perniciousness of student evaluations kept the bad professors from ever looking themselves in the mirror and saying: "You know what, maybe I am a shitty teacher. Maybe I should (gasp) change the way I deliver material to improve?" After all, the low scores were probably just because the students don't know any better.
Posted by: sd | Mar 1, 2005 1:46:45 PM
I agree that something is amiss here, but I'm not sure how to fix it. Certainly, going to a liberal arts college is not the answer. I attended a very highly regarded liberal arts college, and received a pretty poor education (despite working quite hard and seeking out what were rumored to be hard classes). The problem is that professors whose primary intellectual outlet is teaching rather than research tend to make very poor undergraduate teachers because a lot of undergraduate teaching isn't terribly intellectually rewarding. (It's rewarding in other ways.) So, at the insititution I attended, most professors had long since gotten bored teaching the basic nuts-and-bolts stuff that every undergraduate needs, and instead were teaching courses in things like film or popular culture, regardless of their training. Or, if they weren't doing that, they were treating all classes, and not just upper-level ones, as graduate seminars, which in practice meant that the professors would turn over the teaching of the class to the most obnoxious students in it.
My impressions about undergraduate education at the graduate school I attended (also very highly regarded) was that the lower level courses were absolutely terrible, basically devoid of intellectual content, but that the quality of the education received in the other classes easily surpassed what was being provided at my undergraduate institution (despite the two schools having basically equivalent reputations as undergraduate institutions).
Posted by: pjs | Mar 1, 2005 1:49:28 PM
"This is interesting. I wonder if this would be useful in evaluating high school teachers. Given the unreliability of test scores and so forth."
How about, in addition to that, letting the instructors of first year collegiate courses evaluate the high school teachers that sent their students to them?
This is not merely vindictive on my part - I truly believe that there is a large disconnect between college and high school ideas of what "good preparation" means.
latts: I would argue that grad school is precisely where one can see the drawbacks to the "small liberal arts education" vs "research univeristy education". Those students from the latter category who work hard to reach grad level classes and research experience as undergrads have a huge leg up on students from the former category who often haven't reached advanced courses in the subject because they cannot be offered due to limitations in faculty, money etc. Of course, that's not saying that those students don't do well, but the enter a program needing to catch up a bit which presents yet another hurdle in the path to the completion of the degree. (of course a caveat: this is not a universally true statement, there are plenty of exceptions on both sides)
Posted by: Scott Pauls | Mar 1, 2005 1:52:30 PM
One more thought. Based on my experience, it seems that the salient factor so far as whether or not an elite educational institution consistently provides a first rate undergraduate education isn't whether or not it's a research university or a teaching college, but whether or not it has an undergraduate culture of intellectual seriousness. It seems to me that (on average) students who attended the University of Chicago, Swarthmore, Reed, MIT or schools like that end up with better educations than students who attended Princeton, Amherst, Williams, Stanford, etc.
The problem is that not all high powered students want to attend an institution with that kind of academic culture, and I can't say that they're necessary wrong about that. People go to Harvard, Princeton, Amherst, etc. in order to receive a certain kind of experience, an experience that includes, but is not limited to, a particular kind of academic one. I suspect, however, that that aspect of those institutions is a relic of our pre-meritocratic past.
Posted by: pjs | Mar 1, 2005 2:04:13 PM
I'm calling BS, Matt. The idea that teaching plays no role in hiring is just flat-out wrong at 98% of the universities. It's a major part of both recruiting and tenuring at most schools.
But I'll also note that Prof. B exaggerates when she says that no adults evaluate her teaching. I'm had scads of colleagues attend my classes on the road to tenure.
And I'll add that enrollments play _far_ greater role in evaluating teaching at large schools than evaluations. Deans look at credit hours, and they dole out both salaries and faculty lines partly with enrollments in mind.
Posted by: AWC | Mar 1, 2005 2:10:52 PM
The flipside of this, of course, is that when some of us were college students we found it a bit troubling that the people who were supposed to be teaching us are distracted people of various ages who don't regard teaching undergraduates as their real job.
Those of us who went to research universities -- which certainly includes Matt and I, though mine far less prestigious than his -- have no grounds for complaint about this, since we certainly had the opportunity to go to the vast number of less-research focussed institutions where teaching is much more the primary job of the instructors.
We consciously chose institutions where the instructors were presumably more expert, despite having a greater focus outside of the classroom. And if we didn't like it, well, its not like its hard to transfer out of a school like Matt's Harvard or even my UC Davis.
Posted by: cmdicely | Mar 1, 2005 2:13:57 PM
Mavis: I'm not contemptuous of the liberal arts model; I just think that it should be in force in high school, not college. College is the time to start your academic career, and that means choosing a discipline and learning it.
Scott: I agree that phrasing academic grievances in the form of "I'm not getting value for my money" is not constructive; however, sd points out that that tendency arises from the simple fact that college costs a shitload, and people make sacrifices to get there.
sd: It's entirely justified to have one mode of evaluation in business and one in academia. An endeavor concerned with making a profit should evaluate on that basis; an endeavor concerned with creating knowledge should evaluate on that basis. The 'value-for-money' formulation is bad for academia because knowledge simply cannot be given a value. I realize that as an economist I will probably be evicted from the ancestral edifice for that comment, but it's true. Economic formulations are appropriate (at best) to issues of material wellbeing--the fact that knowledge has value doesn't mean it's constructive to attach a particular value to some knowledge.
Posted by: Marshall | Mar 1, 2005 2:16:26 PM
Wasn't there an old European system where a lecturer announced his lecture time and subject, and students paid admission at the door? And this was Herr Professor's main source of income, with additional income coming from book and paper sales?
Let's get medieval.
Posted by: bob mcmanus | Mar 1, 2005 2:18:09 PM
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