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Probably the best-known fact about The Higher Learning in America by Thorstein Veblen (1857-1929) is that the author’s original subtitle for it was “A Study in Total Depravity.” By the time the book finally appeared in print in 1918, the wording had been changed to “A Memorandum on the Conduct of Universities by Business Men,” which gives the reader a clearer sense of the contents, albeit at a considerable loss in piquancy.
The “memorandum” nonetheless displayed Veblen’s knack for turning a phrase that twisted the knife. He attacked the “bootless meddling” of governing boards and the “skilled malpractice and malversion” of the presidents they appointed. These “captains of erudition” (a play on the then-recent expression “captains of industry”) understood the value of a dollar and of publicity, but not much else. To their way of thinking, good public relations meant “tawdry, spectacular pageantry and a straining after showy magnitude.” And worse, they molded higher education in their own likeness.
“The school becomes primarily a bureaucratic organization,” writes Veblen, “and the first and unremitting duties of the staff are those of official management and accountancy. The further qualifications requisite to the members of the academic staff will be such as make for vendibility, volubility, tactical effrontery [and] conspicuous conformity to the popular taste in all matters of opinion, usage and conventions.” The cumulative, long-term effect on the life of the mind? “A substitution of salesmanlike proficiency -- a balancing of bargains in staple credits -- in the place of scientific capacity and addiction to study.”
Veblen was more than a satirist and scold, brimming over with vitriol and bile. That final expression, for example -- “addiction to study” -- could only have been coined by someone who had experienced what it names, and his critique of the university includes a serious effort to understand its nature and history. But Veblen’s problems with the field of higher education in his day were both substantial and dogged, and even the most analytical portions seem driven by sublimated anger.
In the 1890s and early 1900s, he was a professor at the University of Chicago and then at Stanford University, but in each case he left under a cloud of scandal. Besides his religious disbelief and his acerbic (if not misanthropic) disposition, there were the rumors about his animal magnetism -- which, it was said, irresistibly pulled colleagues’ wives into bed with him.
In fact, the rumors were spread by his first wife, who brought them to the notice of the presidents at Chicago and Stanford. They confronted Veblen, who declined to respond -- something his first and most influential biographer, Joseph Dorfman, took as an admission of guilt. As far as I can tell, contemporary Veblen scholarship rejects that judgment entirely, treating the charges of Don Juan-ism as fallout from the dissolution of marriage that (in a telling detail about the level of estrangement here) seems never to have been consummated.
Be that as it may, the image that the literary and intellectual historian Daniel Aaron depicted in an essay from 1947 has continued to color how Veblen is read. “Irascible, dour and sardonic,” Aaron wrote, “living precariously along the fringes of the American university world he anatomized so mercilessly, Veblen remained during his lifetime a kind of academic rogue, admired by an increasing number of discriminating disciples but never winning the kudos handed out to his less able but more circumspect colleagues.”
Nearly all of whom were soon utterly forgotten, of course, but not Veblen, whose grievances -- whether about “conspicuous consumption” in society at large or “nugatory intrigue and vacant pedantry” within the groves of academe -- retain a certain vigor and bite. The opening pages of the new edition of The Higher Learning in America from Johns Hopkins University Press call it “an appropriate way to mark the centennial of Veblen’s great book,” and most of the back cover is taken up with comments by historians and critics of higher education, noting how disconcertingly timely it still seems.
The editor, Richard F. Teichgraeber III (a professor of history at Tulane University), has prepared what’s bound to remain the standard edition of the text for a long time to come. His extensive yet unobtrusive notes “identify -- when identification proved possible -- events, institutions, persons and publications alluded to or mentioned,” and he glosses the literary quotations and biblical references embedded in Veblen’s wild and sometimes woolly prose. The timeline of Veblen’s life and the recommended-readings list benefit from the past three decades of Veblen scholarship; in contrast, Dorfman’s biography from 1934 often looks like a target after a busy day at the shooting range. But the text’s apparatus limits itself to presenting the positive side of revisionist efforts rather than continuing to fire away.
For his own part, Teichgraeber, in his introductory essay, presents The Higher Learning in America as a more policy-minded work than a reader is likely to imagine going in with little sense of context beyond knowing about that abandoned subtitle.
Veblen started writing an essay on the university in 1904 and continued revising and expanding it for another dozen years, despite the reactions of colleagues and publishers, who were discouraging or appalled. In the preface drafted in 1916, he admits that circumstances “made it seem the part of insight and sobriety… to defer publication, until the color of an irrelevant personal equation should again have had time to fade into the background.” Veblen kept the discussion of institutional problems and academic politics on a level of generality that avoided naming names or describing his own troubles. But the note of personal frustration was audible even so, and readers at the time could hear it. (As, indeed, readers can now, though they'll usually need the annotation to fill in the details.)
But Veblen was not the only figure turning a critical eye on the higher education of his day. European models of graduate study and the research university, combined with the proliferation of land-grant colleges, inspired running public debates over academic freedom, curriculum reform, funding and so on. Teichgraeber points out that the whole genre of commentary even had a name to distinguish it: “the professors’ literature of protest.”
Veblen indicates that The Higher Learning in America was written in response to this “bulk of printed matter,” but without quoting it or identifying whom he’s answering. Perhaps he wanted to stop short of antagonizing people he hadn’t already made enemies, or causing trouble for anyone he agreed with. But our editor and annotator knows his way around “the professors’ literature of protest” and can make reasonable surmises about what articles and authors Veblen had in mind.
Between those sotto voce arguments and the biographical details, we can finally put his spleen in context. The Hopkins edition makes the best case possible for The Higher Learning in America as a serious contribution to institutional critique. At the same time, it’s the book in which Veblen refers to the corporate university as an “abomination of desolation.” Even without an annotation guiding you to the Book of Daniel, it’s easy to recognize that as something “often thought but ne’er so well expressed.”
College and university faculty are expected to be excellent teachers. In public, college leaders emphasize to potential students and their parents that at their institution, teaching matters above all else. Colleges seem to unabashedly promote that the teaching done by their faculty is markedly better than at peer institutions -- or that the opportunities for close working relationships between students and faculty are unique to their campus.
Many small colleges rest their laurels on the value they place on teaching excellence. From day one faculty members know that they will primarily be evaluated for tenure and promotion based on their role as teachers. Colleges and universities have Centers for Teaching Excellence to further demonstrate that they value teaching and provide support to faculty. Promotion and tenure committees scrutinize faculty dossiers -- syllabuses, assignments, exams and ubiquitous teaching evaluations -- looking for evidence that faculty members are indeed excellent teachers. Faculty attend workshops and conferences about teaching. Most academic disciplines have professional societies committed to improving the teaching and learning process; some even publish peer-reviewed pedagogical journals where scholars report on the effectiveness of teaching methods and assessment as well as sharing innovative ideas for classroom demonstrations and assignments.
There is no shortage of lip service from various academic ranks on the value of teaching excellence. Faculty and administrators alike -- particularly at small liberal arts colleges and comprehensive universities -- make concerted efforts through programming and institutional investments with the aim of improving teaching.
But what exactly is teaching excellence? Institutional commitments, workshops, conferences and journals, all sharing the intent of improving teaching and content delivery, do not necessarily translate to a universal agreement on exactly what it is we are improving.
I suspect that, at most colleges and universities, teaching excellence is primarily defined by how a subject is taught. Notwithstanding the fact that the value and weight placed on teaching vary across institutional type, for promotion and tenure most faculty likely collate the same sorts of artifacts -- collections of materials such as students’ course evaluations, teaching philosophies, syllabuses, assignments, exams, letters detailing classroom observations and so on. These items along with a faculty member’s own narrative often are the primary metrics promotion and tenure committees use to gauge a candidate’s competency as a teacher.
But all these measures share a common focus on the delivery of a course’s content. A heavy burden is placed upon the faculty member at promotion time to document that he or she effectively communicates the information to students, that students appreciate a faculty member’s enthusiasm for the subject matter, that students enjoy how a course is structured, that the faculty member participates in professional development related to teaching and implements innovative pedagogy, and that faculty members provide evidence of growth and improvement during the pretenure years, most often targeting content delivery.
What I see as a fundamental problem in defining teaching excellence within the academy today is a flawed assumption that evaluating course materials (assignments, exams, etc.) and instructor habits (shows up on time, seems prepared for class, effectively uses technology, etc.) automatically translates into an evaluation of what students truly receive from instructors. Much emphasis is placed on what the instructor does but very little is placed on asking students what they actually learn -- very rarely are students pointedly asked about their growth and intellectual maturation over the semester, as opposed to whether they enjoyed the experience.
I find it absurd that decisions about teaching excellence in promotion and tenure cases can come down to generic questions that ask students to rate the quality of the instructor (excellent good, fair, etc.) and possibly the quality of the course. How can students decide what is excellent when no operational definition of excellence is ever given to them?
But this essay is not so much about lamenting the shortcomings of course evaluations as it is about challenging colleges and their faculty to recalibrate how they think about teaching excellence. Is there really any measurable difference between teaching at deep-pocketed prestigious colleges like those found near the top of U.S. News & World Report rankings and the many second- and third-tier colleges and universities? Sure, colleges with more resources and expendable revenue can offer students more than cash-strapped, tuition-dependent institutions. More financially stable institutions can ratchet up the quality of teaching facilities, laboratories and libraries; they can offer higher salaries and start-up packages, which could do more to recruit and retain faculty; and they can do more to provide in-house funding to both faculty and students for undergraduate research. But do these factors that seemingly advantage the wealthier and often more selective institutions really matter?
Some scholars cluster elements of excellent teaching into one of three categories: teaching, communication and attitudes toward students. Probably most would agree that being a good teacher requires having expertise in the subject matter as well as a willingness to actively involve students in the learning process. And faculty should not only effectively communicate information in the classroom but also provide consistent and timely feedback to students on assignments. Respecting students as adults and having a good rapport with them fosters an environment conducive to learning, which in turn helps students to become effective problem solvers and to take ownership over their own learning. Regardless of institutional setting, one will find faculty members who excel on these very attributes. Note that not one of these is tied to metrics of an institution’s wealth, retention rate or selectivity.
Possibly most important of the three categories is the last: faculty attitudes toward students. Being an excellent teacher means more than designing and delivering an effective lecture or being able to foster thought-provoking classroom discussions. Effective teaching extends beyond the classroom; faculty should take a sincere interest in their students and make an effort to get to know them on a personal level. Students really want to get to know their professors, too, and when they develop meaningful relationships with us, it can have a positive effect on their work ethic and increase confidence in their ability. I think students who enjoy being around their professors are more likely to go to class, are more active in class and are generally more apt to seek help from faculty outside of class.
Colleges promote these very ideals by attempting to sway parents and potential students with their student-faculty ratios, their small class sizes, their sense of community and their approachable faculty -- all of which are meant to nurture students’ intellectual growth and provide them the quintessential college experience. And these are all qualities that may foster a culture of excellent teaching, but they do not guarantee one. As faculty members, we should be interested in and concerned about the student as a whole individual. No matter the institutional type, when faculty show a sincere interest in their students both on personal and academic levels, it can have transformative results in their habits, their success in our classes, their growth as students and most importantly, their social and emotional development as young adults.
Despite the diversity of institutional missions, surely all colleges and universities purport that their students leave with the knowledge and skills needed to be active and engaged citizens who will make a difference in the places they live, work and serve. Most would agree that faculty members -- and in particular professors in their role as teachers -- exert tremendous influence on their students' maturation during the college years. Maybe discussions about what is or what is not excellent teaching need to be rethought to actually capture the impact faculty have on their students’ lives. This is not to discount the summative and formative value of teaching evaluations -- faculty must be competent teachers and while current metrics likely do little to discriminate excellent from merely good teachers, they reliably identify dismal ones.
Yet it seems that colleges continue to define teaching excellence primarily based on what students say on course evaluations. But the extent of our influence upon students goes beyond how we may inform, inspire, motivate or challenge them in a course. How we connect with particular students, the mentorship we may provide them in a variety of contexts, our role as their advisers and generally the myriad of other ways we positively affect them -- these all contribute to excellent teaching. Though documenting these activities is challenging and impossible to quantify, their exposition would nicely augment the formal metrics so common to the academy.
In short, course evaluations are so entrenched in the fabric of the modern university that their use is certain to continue. Maybe colleges and universities could encourage and enact more flexible ways to define teaching excellence, so that when collated with student evaluations and other evidence, they would provide a much richer and more exhaustive characterization of the impact faculty truly have on their students.
Alan Hughes is a professor of psychology at Berry College.
Florida police have arrested a student at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University who allegedly wrote an anonymous note threatening to kill a professor, The News-Journal reported. Authorities said that when they arrested Konstantinos Kostakis, the student, he admitted to sending the note. The note threatened an assistant professor of commercial space operations. The note was left under her office door and said she would be killed by two heavily armed students, in class.
For the first time in its history, Harvard University hired an equal number of women and men as junior faculty members in 2014-15, according to a new report from its Office of Faculty Development and Diversity. Harvard took on 62 new tenure-track faculty members this year, exactly half of whom were women; 24 percent were minority. Some 28 percent of the Harvard ladder faculty over all are women -- at 438 faculty members, that's about 90 more than even 10 years ago. Harvard says it’s cautiously optimistic that the gender parity can be maintained over time; while many factors play into such an outcome, the university's made a significant effort to welcome more women onto the faculty in recent years by conducting broader, more inclusive faculty searches and through various pipeline efforts aimed at increasing the number of female faculty members. Harvard’s diversity tactics are somewhat similar to those recently announced by Brown University, which pledged to double its proportion of underrepresented minority faculty in 10 years.
“Over the past several years, Harvard, like many institutions, has worked diligently to diversify its faculty at all levels,” Judith D. Singer, Harvard’s senior vice provost for faculty development and diversity and James Bryant Conant Professor of Education, said via email. “While we cannot guarantee that the same will happen next year, this year’s success is a remarkable fact that was entirely unimaginable when I joined the faculty 30 years ago.”