28.4.05

COLLEGE FOR THE AIMLESS. Blogs for Industry has linked to my comments on the New York Times visit to Arizona, as well as to a J. D. Velleman post at Left2Right with additional observations, and a lively bull-session in progress. Professor Velleman's summation notes that there is plenty of blame for the troubles to go around.
By and large, professors are given adequate resources for their research, and their success or failure at research lies largely within their own hands. But they are often asked to teach oversized classes filled with under-prepared and unmotivated students. The Times article mentions lecture courses with 500 students and discussion sections with 60. Engaging an audience of 500 people two or three times a week requires a combination of gifts that is very rare in any walk of life. It's even harder when one-fifth of the audience falls into the category of the "disengaged" -- especially if their disengagement takes the form of a hangover. Faced with this challenge, even the most dedicated teacher will have trouble feeling successful or finding satisfaction in his work. If the lecturer wishes that he were back in the lab or the library, the reason may not be that he doesn't want to teach; it may simply be that he doesn't want to teach like this. I know plenty of people who chose an academic career because they had an aspiration to teach, but I don't know anyone whose dream was to lecture 500 students.
True enough. That sort of performance is more akin to acting, with great ad-libbing ability. "Adequate resources to do research" varies as well: watch for new variants on "productivity rules" that envision greater reliance on external funding for research, with less successful proposal-writers doing additional teaching.

The Times article rightly points out that students would be more engaged if more were demanded of them. But here is where matters get complicated. Sensitive to complaints about the quality of teaching, universities require professors to be evaluated by their students at the end of every course, and these evaluations now play a role in tenure, promotion, and merit pay. But the evaluations are just consumer-satisfaction questionnaires, which generally reveal how much the students liked the course but not how much they learned. And professors suspect, with some justification, that giving low grades harms their evaluations.

Now, I am not making excuses for teachers who expect too little or grade too leniently. There is plenty of the blame to go around here, as they say, and some of it surely belongs with the professors. My point is that measures designed to bring accountability to education can sometimes backfire. If consumer-satisfaction questionnaires encourage professors to be lenient, and leniency encourages students to be disengaged, and disengaged students discourage professors from investing time and effort in their teaching, then "accountability" hasn't benefited anyone. (If universities really want to improve teaching, they will have to develop better methods of evaluating instruction. But that's a topic for another day.)

I wonder how much of that "consumer satisfaction" language is in the eyes of the professor. My usual spiel before turning the class over to the student who will supervise the evaluation is that the scores and comments will have little or no effect on my pay; and if people wish to grouse, it helps to offer concrete suggestions that I will consider rather than simply to vent. I would note also that there is more to improving teaching than better evaluation methods. The cattle-call class at Grant Seeking U is part of a poor climate for teaching and learning. A professor quoted in Profscam (a book that might have been the Uncle Tom's Cabin for higher education in light of the pursuit of academic abuses that has ensued) criticized the practice of distinguished teaching awards as akin to creating a desert, then giving an award for Druid of the Year, rather than growing forests.

Here is a more general point. All of the actors in this story -- students, professors, administrators, state legislators -- are operating within a dysfunctional system. If professors seem to be less interested in teaching than they once were, we might consider why they feel that way, and how institutional structures might be contributing to the problem. We might ask the same question about students who are less interested in learning than university students once were. Of course, it's easier to conclude that the students are drunken fools and the professors are self-seeking hypocrites. But that's not where the solution lies.

I know one thing for sure: continuing to cut state appropriations for higher education is not going to make that 500-student class any smaller.

It might. I expect to see trustees, somewhere, saying Enough to legislative micromanagement, then defying legislative mandates in order to bring production in line with capacity, perhaps by restricting enrollment and raising tuitions. The dysfunction has been a long time in coming.

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