Losing His Job for Teaching Too Well?

Why is Berkeley getting rid of a popular mathematics instructor who seems to be achieving more student success than others without dreaded homework or quizzes?

October 13, 2015

Students at the University of California at Berkeley like Alexander Coward. A lot.

“He is not just one of the best math teachers, but one of the best teachers that Berkeley has ever had the fortune of having,” proclaims the Protest to Keep Coward at Cal Facebook page.

Coward, a full-time lecturer four years away from a more permanent "continuing status" (but very much off the tenure track), revealed recently in a public blog post on his website that the Berkeley mathematics department would not renew his contract to teach multiple sections of introductory calculus courses. Students immediately flocked to his support on social media. Some used the hashtag #IStandWithCoward, and nearly 3,000 signed up to attend the protest on Oct. 20 -- the day the university will formally review the nonrenewal decision.

Coward, who earned a doctorate in mathematics from the University of Oxford, used his blog post to detail years of combative interactions with faculty and administration in his department. He linked to pages of email chains and hundreds of student evaluations that collectively seem to paint the picture of a lecturer who is very good at his job, but not so good at doing it within the confines of departmental norms or expectations. Specifically, Coward opted to forgo standard measures of student progress such as graded homework and quizzes in favor of what he sees as a more natural approach.

"We all know hard work is important, but there's a question about how to motivate students to work hard," he said in an interview. Tangible rewards like better grades for better work are one option, Coward said, but piles of research -- some of which he references in an open letter he sent the department chair in December 2014 -- point to a more effective system: intrinsic motivation. Encouraging the "motivation that's bubbling up inside ourselves because we're curious and like to learn and like to improve is much more powerful than saying, 'I'm going to do this because it's 0.7777 of my GPA.'"

In his classes, Coward says, he works to foster a feeling of autonomy, competency and personal affinity rather than rely on humdrum grades to spark motivation in students. In his class sessions, he asks repeatedly if everyone understands concepts. He repeats explanations several times, which he says is important for teaching math. And students say he always has time for them.

Actual course grades are based on final exams, which he does give, so his students do receive formal, traditional assessment at the end of the course.

That strategy spurred sweeping approval in the student evaluations he posted, many of which point to his enthusiasm, accessibility and outgoing demeanor in class. "He genuinely cares about his students," one student wrote. "And his love for learning and teaching really shines through his work."

Coward noted, and documentation he posted including an internal “Report on A. Coward” appears to confirm, that his students performed at or above average in subsequent mathematics courses -- a key piece of evidence that his teaching works. But even though students love him and go on to succeed in other courses, the department still found his approach to be problematic.

Arthur Argus, former chair of the math department, wrote a 2013 email, Coward says, “I do think it [sic] that it is very important that you not deviate too far from the department norms.” The sentiment came up again in emails and memos in the following years.

“This raises the question,” Coward writes in his blog, “What does it mean to adhere to department norms if one has the highest student evaluation scores in the department, students performing statistically significantly better in subsequent courses and faculty observations universally reporting ‘extraordinary skills at lecturing, presentation and engaging students’?”

“In a nutshell: stop making us look bad. If you don't, we'll fire you,” says Coward.

“We cannot address individual personnel matters, as they are confidential,” university spokeswoman Janet Gilmore said in a statement emailed to Inside Higher Ed. “However, many lecturers have appointments that may be for a single term or up to two years. They often fill in for regular faculty who are on leave, provide additional teaching to cover surges in enrollment and teach large undergraduate classes. Lecturers do not receive a commitment to ongoing employment until after they have taught for six years and have undergone a rigorous academic review of their teaching.”

Emails Coward received and subsequently posted include similar statements, but taken with the evaluations and other data Coward put online, they portray a man beloved by students.

A letter from a teaching evaluation coordinator about Coward’s student evaluations says, “Both of Dr. Coward's Math 1A scores were markedly higher than those of any of the regular faculty who taught Math 1A during the six-year period ending in spring 2013.” He averaged 6.4 and 6.5 on a seven-point scale, and both sections attracted nearly four times as many students as another section of the same course taught by another faculty member. In fact, the letter goes on to say, “Dr. Coward's scores are higher than any of the scores earned by regular faculty for at least the last 18 years."

More than 500 actual student evaluations follow the letter. Most of them are entirely positive.

“Professor Coward is by far the best professor I have ever had at Cal so far,” writes one student. “He has an extremely positive attitude when it comes to math, which makes the course really enjoyable.” Asked about his or her instructor’s weaknesses, that student wrote, “no weaknesses; his teaching is perfection.”

Some students do mention the same critiques the department raised, though -- that they wished he assigned more homework or kept a clearer schedule and record of progress.

Coward also alleges that administrators suppressed his glowing reviews and watered down statistical evidence that his students go on to perform better in other classes. In an open letter he sent to the department, Coward also revealed he had been admitted to a psychiatric hospital for suicidal depression, saying, "The entire faculty in the mathematics department should introspect on this fact. Bullying is something that affects adults as well as children, and where it occurs it should be addressed very seriously."

He added, “I absolutely love teaching the students at Berkeley, but I cannot in good conscience follow the instructions you have given me. I am unwilling to go to work and feel ashamed of what I am doing any more.”


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