Association's annual meeting on academic freedom issues features a debate on whether Steven Salaita's rights were violated and consensus that Wisconsin politicians are undermining their university system.
There are professors who find student comments on their end-of-semester evaluations so upsetting that they cry after reading them. If my course evaluations have tended to be pretty good, I can still relate to how faculty members feel, thanks in part to RateMyProfessors.com. Side by side on the site stand evaluations from students who gave me high marks and others who gave me low marks -- in the same exact areas. I can see a host of negative and mediocre rankings for classes I taught very differently some seven years ago -- and one that I never taught at all. I’ve peeked there from time to time and have tried to learn what I could from things students said there, but have not spent a terrible lot of time on the site.
I’ve tended to view what one finds there as akin to YouTube comments -- most are gushing praise or insulting jibes, with very little middle ground. And most people will never comment, leaving the soapbox to those who feel strongly, having had a positive experience or, more likely, a negative one.
And so you can imagine my dismay when my son, who is in high school, told me that he had looked me up on RateMyProfessors.com. I'm sure a worried look crossed my face, but I tried my best to retain my composure. Apparently RateMyProfessors.com had been mentioned on Reddit recently, and anything that is featured prominently on Reddit, my son spots -- almost but not quite always before I do.
As it turned out, my apprehension was unnecessary. As the conversation progressed, I found myself really impressed by my son’s thoughts regarding the comments about my classes that he saw there. One student on the site had written, "I would advise not taking his class because he can't keep the class discussion going." Another complained, "He wasn't good at stimulating conversation." My son, despite still being several years away from university, was astonished by such comments. How, he asked, can students have the audacity to blame the professor for something that is the responsibility of the students themselves?
A conversation that began with fear and trepidation on my part ended with a sense of satisfaction. I had always taken comments on RateMyProfessors.com with a grain of salt. But it was reassuring to realize that a young person, still a student, without my prompting, could draw the same conclusion, based simply on what he knew about online reviews and things that he learned on Reddit. We often despair for humanity reading online comments, whether they are on YouTube, Reddit or RateMyProfessors.
Usually, when it comes to course evaluations, the fact that students are required/compelled/pressured to complete them means that one has a wider range of useful data to work with. If most students have filled in evaluations, and all the comments and ratings are similar, then you know that you really are doing a good/terrible job -- the results are statistically significant. If one only had course evaluations from students who hated or loved the class enough to fill them in, one would probably have a distorted perception of what one has accomplished, whether that perception errs on the side of being too negative or too positive. As with the complaints, the flowing praise of the course and its instructor some students offer may have as much to do with their own work habits and motivation as anything the professor did.
Comments (whether on official evaluations or RateMyProfessors) become less discouraging as one’s career progresses, because one becomes aware of what one is and isn’t able to control. I’ve taught two sections of the exact same class, with the exact same syllabus, back to back on the same days of the week in the same semester. The students from one of those classes gave me some of the highest ratings on the course evaluations that I’ve ever gotten; the students from the other gave me some of the lowest.
I learned some really important lessons from that experience. One was to avoid teaching two sections of the same course in the same semester if I can. But another was that you can do essentially the same things in a classroom, and it is not guaranteed to either succeed or to flop.
Unless you are still approaching classes in the traditional lecture mode, with students expected to write down and reproduce what you say, then your role is probably more like that of a coach. The same coach can work with two different groups of students on the same team at the same university, but they will not necessarily have comparable successes and failures. Because we know that, however much we hold coaches responsible, ultimately it is up to the players on the team to put the training that they are given into practice, to translate it into effective playing in games. In the same way, the same course materials may work really well with one group of students and less well with another. That doesn’t mean the students were necessarily less hardworking. Sometimes it is about their prior knowledge or personality types rather than their motivation or diligence.
I’ve heard lots of faculty complain about “kids these days.” I think such complaints are misguided -- and not just because my son’s reaction to RateMyProfessors.com gives me great hope for “kids these days.” I think we as faculty members are prone to forget that, in many cases, we were not typical students as undergraduates. Those who go on to pursue Ph.D.s and become professors are often those who enjoy learning for its own sake. Don’t you remember there being others in your classes who didn’t participate in discussions, didn’t read beyond the bare minimum, if that, and were content just to drift through classes?
None of the things discussed here are due to new technology, either. Even before there was RateMyProfessors.com, students were spreading the word about professors. And students didn’t require electronic devices to be distracted or tune you out and then rate you negatively for it. I remember early in my teaching career having my department chair tell me that he had heard from another faculty member, who had heard from a student, that I tend to drone on and on in an uninteresting manner in class. The chair sat in on my class soon after that. The discussion was lively, and he was thoroughly happy with it. But there was one student who sat flipping through a magazine or catalog the entire time -- with my department chair sitting right next to them! I can’t help but suspect that that student was the one who felt the class was boring.
It reminds me of this exchange in the Friends episode “The One With Joey’s Fridge”:
Monica: What’s the charity?
Rachel: I don’t know, something either trees or disease -- Ralph mumbles a lot.
Monica: Does Ralph mumble when you’re not paying attention?
Rachel: Yeah! It’s weird…
While there are exceptions, most students who are motivated and diligent do not find even a truly boring professor who mumbles a lot to be a hindrance to learning.
This is not to say that I haven’t undertaken efforts to improve. I have done so, even on the basis of comments on RateMyProfessors.com. One thing I never learned to do earlier in my career was how to use my voice properly. And so I took singing lessons -- in part because of musical interests I happen to have, but also because I suspected that this would improve the clarity of my communication.
I recorded my lectures using Panopto, partly because I wanted to try out the “flipped classroom” approach, but also in part because I wanted to take advantage of the opportunity this technology afforded to listen to what I sound like in class. I made conscious efforts to deal with “ums” and other verbal habits. And I think that these efforts have done more to give students a better experience in my classes than any changes I’ve made with respect to a syllabus or a textbook.
And so what’s the takeaway message of this experience? A number of things come to mind. One is the fact that some things will always depend on the student. Some students will take comments on RateMyProfessors.com seriously, and as a result may never take your class, or may take it and then be disappointed that you did not seem as stellar as that review on the website led them to believe you would be. You can do the same things and they may work well for some students and not for others. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t things you can do to improve. And in the process of developing your teaching ability even into the middle of your career and beyond, you can model lifelong learning to your students in ways that may help them to take responsibility for their own learning.
But ultimately, I think the biggest takeaway message is that there are students out there who have the understanding to perceive what a site like RateMyProfessors.com does and doesn’t tell you. And those students will, I suspect, be the very ones who will have the understanding to perceive what your course is about and engage with it in ways that are conducive to their own learning.
My son had a favorite comment about me from RateMyProfessors.com, and it was this one:
Having been reminded about this comment, I am seriously tempted to make it my Facebook banner. I can live with being described as a jolly leprechaun -- especially by someone who appreciates meaningful discussions about the spirituality and philosophy of science fiction, and who is capable of spelling "leprechaun" correctly, to boot!
I hope this article will provide some encouragement to faculty who feel beaten down and discouraged as a result of comments on RateMyProfessors.com. But if it doesn’t make you feel better, then you can always try using RateYourStudent.com. I don’t think it will convey any more useful information about what students are like than RateMyProfessors.com ratings do about professors. But ultimately, venting is about catharsis, and when we recognize that students and professors do that at times, we will be better poised to learn what we can from the feedback we receive, and having done so, to then move on.
This is not the best of times for faculty members. Many of the problems they face are beyond their control. And yet there are some they can address, especially if they are fortunate enough not to belong to the growing numbers of non-tenure-track, part-time, contingent faculty, but to those who can reasonably expect a secure future in the academy.
First and foremost is how they can transcend the barriers dividing them in finding the best way to serve their students, coming together not just as scholars in the same field and comrades in arms against administrators they perceive as soulless, but as a community of teachers. How can they achieve this by expanding their concept of what is, in fact, “their department”?
For one thing, how might they expand their thinking about the goals of their disciplinary departments themselves? For another, how can they go beyond a focus on their respective departments to contribute to the mission of the wider institution of which they are a part (and which, by the way, pays their salaries)?
We might begin by asking: Are faculty members taking an overly provincial approach, both intellectually and professionally, to their respective departmental programs? Insofar as an undergraduate major is focused on what a student will need to enter a graduate program, it is more properly seen as vocational training than as an integral part of a liberal arts education. Majors with relatively heavy requirements lead to a level of specialization that may be desirable for some students, but unnecessary and premature for others, many of whom will never seek a graduate degree in the field of their major. It is always possible to serve the interests of those heading to graduate school in the field by providing special curricular enhancements.
Faculty members should also consider how undergraduate departmental majors can connect more organically with one another and with the wider curriculum of the institution. This interest is not served simply by creating new interdisciplinary programs, since too often these have simply resulted in a proliferation of departmentlike entities and have failed to create greater intellectual coherence in the undergraduate experience as a whole. So, for example, in the place of separate ethnic studies programs and departments, one might instead see greater multicultural sophistication in the United States history curriculum, not to mention stronger collegial ties among faculty -- and hence students -- in the departments of history, anthropology, sociology and literature. The outcome might also yield a course or courses deemed desirable for all undergraduates.
If, in the spirit of John Donne, we wish to believe that no department is an island entire of itself, that every department is a piece of the main, we are no longer in a position to follow Donne’s next move and argue that if a single program be washed away (presumably, by the administration), the institution is less. As an institution continues to add programs without ever subtracting any, the curriculum comes to take on the aspect of a zombie movie in which the living cohabit with the undead and much frantic bumping into one another ensues.
On occasions when faculty come together for the lengthy, intensive process of an institution-wide “curriculum review,” the outcome too rarely justifies the time and energy expended. (I believe comparative research would show that, in general, the more elite the institution, the more modest the results.) Aside from their ritual dimension, such processes commonly involve the kind of logrolling especially familiar to political scientists, in which faculty members approach “general” or “distributional” requirements in terms of how their respective departmental interests are being served.
And yet, there have been some curriculum reviews that actually aim to make the student experience intellectually coherent, providing room for varying interests and passions while creating a student community that reflects the mission and identity of the institution. And apparently succeed in doing so. Some of us in the foundation world have been in a position to encourage this process, supporting those who are doing the real work.
How might graduate programs also better serve their students’ interests? Leaving aside the question of preparing graduate students for careers outside the academy altogether, graduate programs need to consider preparing them for the range of institutions within the universe of higher education in which they may find themselves. This means focusing on preparing students as teachers and not just as researchers, especially since their students’ chances of getting positions in research universities are clearly shrinking (though, even in such universities, better preparation as teachers would stand them in good stead).
Given that teaching assistantships are an important way of financially supporting graduate students, departmental faculty must decide whether they are viewing those students as junior colleagues or as cheap labor. This choice clearly influences how graduate students see themselves, as well as how well equipped they are for their working lives after graduation. Is responsibility for helping them develop as teachers being farmed out to teaching and learning “centers,” which are all too often teaching and learning “peripheries”? Or are there the strong collaborative ties between such centers and departmental faculty that are essential to the professional development of graduate students?
Some graduate programs are stepping up to this particular plate; more need to do so. Perhaps one way of getting their attention is to present them with the following choice: either (1) broaden the graduate program to properly prepare admitted students for a wider range of careers in higher education and beyond, or (2) limit the number of admitted students to those who are either likely to find jobs in research universities or who are interested in graduate education for its own sake and harbor no expectations about how the program will advance their future careers. Departments choosing the second option would have to find other ways for senior faculty members to occupy their time, which might possibly involve teaching undergraduates.
To put these two options in terms of reproductive biology, some species follow what is termed the R-selection strategy, in which a large number of offspring are produced and few are expected to survive. On the other hand, species that pursue the K-selection strategy produce fewer offspring but invest in them heavily, which results in their relatively high survival rate. Graduate departments, being (generally) composed of human beings, should presumably follow the strategy characteristic of our species.
And if, to continue the biological metaphor, we take note that evolutionary theory in general has come to emphasize cooperation as well as competition, we want to be sure that academics, as a population, are not so focused on departmental rivalries and individual career ambitions that they fail to have a sufficient regard for the common good.
A final point: the case for tenure is most commonly made in terms of academic freedom, which is certainly important. But the argument for tenure would be further strengthened if tenure were seen to reflect a deep mutual commitment between a faculty member and an institution -- a mutual commitment that truly serves them both.
Judith Shapiro is president of the Teagle Foundation and a former president of Barnard College.
Popular culture images of teaching would have us believe that the very best college professors speak from the front of a large lecture hall filled with eager young students listening to every word we utter. Or we sit at the head of a round table in a well-appointed seminar room peopled with rapt graduate students who wish to learn from our years of reading, thinking and writing. If cultural representations are any indication, professors are mere keepers of knowledge, the troll at the gate our students must pass.
The reality of higher education is that learning rarely happens in rows of seats in front of which stands a charismatic professor in tweed. The academic landscape has changed in dramatic ways, particularly as we use new platforms and technologies to interact with students. Innovative approaches to teaching and learning, such as competency-based education, increasingly rely on coaching models, a method of learning that challenges our popular conception of what it means to be a professor.
As faculty members in competency-based graduate and undergraduate programs, we have shifted from professors to coaches, a move that has yielded astounding results in terms of student learning, retention and graduation.
Coaching is a personalized and continuous process that facilitates student learning and development to improve performance in solving discipline-related problems. Faculty coaches question the learner until the learner acquires facts and builds ideas for creative problem solving.
The end goals of coaching include: building student awareness of how to approach complicated problems, increasing learner confidence by helping him or her figure out an individualized approach to problem solving, and motivating learners to improve performance by acting as a constant source of support. Coaching is not advice giving, mentoring or the mere act of transferring skills from an expert to a nonexpert. Effective coaches enable the development and action planning of a learner.
Coaching looks markedly different from teaching. For instance, learners in our competency-based programs meet with faculty by phone, synchronous online communication software or in person every two weeks at a minimum, with meetings lasting about 30 minutes. Coaches begin each conversation by building a connection with learners. They then proceed to a review of learner-generated action items from previous coaching sessions. Coaches and learners celebrate successes, but also have frank discussions about missed opportunities, roadblocks or negative behaviors. Coaching sessions end with learner-generated action items and clear measurable goals.
Admittedly, coaching is not a low-cost option for education. But it is a powerful pedagogy for learning, building relationships and increasing learners’ skill sets, particularly in individualized and self-paced environments such as competency-based programs. Coaching adds structure to learning. By facilitating goal setting for projects and holding learners accountable, coaches ensure that learners continuously move toward graduation. The coaching process also provides a context for learners to identify and develop skills necessary for successful careers.
Our experience with coaching has led to a variety of benefits, both for us and for our students.
Benefit 1: Coaching builds stronger relationships between faculty coach and student.
Coaching delivers results because of the supportive relationship between the coach and the learner. Good professors, regardless of the learning model, develop strong professional relationships with students. The best coaches, however, do not provide subject matter expertise. Instead, coaches provide encouragement, feedback and structure. Coaches don’t provide answers, but help students find the resources they need to solve problems. For example, one of us coaches students who are creating communication strategy plans. We might find it tempting to tell the student exactly how to research, write and present a plan, but that’s not our job. Instead, we have to ask pointed questions that prompt the student to find the resources she needs to complete the task.
Benefit 2: Coaching enhances student performance, including non-content-related performance.
Strong coaching inevitably leads to discussions beyond the subject matter. Performance coaches can help students situate what they are learning in terms of content within their short- and long-term academic and career goals. The coaching process provides personal and professional attention and detail to career planning, something more and more learners are demanding from higher education. For example, one of us coached a student who found himself in a job he hated and working for a company whose core values were the antithesis of his own. Meeting regularly with the student, the coach helped create a strategy to change career paths and help the student find employment with his dream company.
Benefit 3: Coaching better emulates the kind of relationship students will have outside the university.
Few other institutions outside of the academy will provide students with an expert at the front of the room who will present information to a large group of people who all have varying needs, interests, talents and experience. Coaching better represents the kind of guided relationships students will have with superiors, co-workers and collaborators in future environments.
Benefit 4: Coaching increases retention.
When students develop a personal relationship with their faculty coach, they are more likely to reach out when they need help and are less likely to disappear. For those reasons, we’ve seen increased retention in our coaching-based programs. Westminster College has two competency-based graduate programs -- a master’s of strategic communication and a project-based master’s of business administration. The strategic communication degree program has a retention rate of 94 percent over several years and the MBA has a retention rate of 91 percent.
Benefit 5: Coaching provides more bang for students’ buck.
Coaching models do not lower the cost of instruction. In many cases, it will increase costs. But research from the Annenberg Foundation for Education Reform shows that coaching promotes the implementation of learning and reciprocal accountability. Tuition dollars go to individualized, one-on-one instruction, providing results, something that many students are willing to pay for.
Shifts toward coaching models of education will require faculty and students to reconsider their roles. It also will require institutions to revise persistent and outdated notions about what it means to be an effective teacher. These shifts do present some challenges.
Challenge 1: Coaching requires new or redesigned evaluation processes (including rethinking tenure and promotion requirements).
Most faculty coaches must work within evaluation systems that have been created with traditional models of education in mind. For example, faculty who participate in coaching spend much more time per student, which means that large course loads are almost impossible without course assistants, especially if the faculty member is going to remain active in producing scholarship.
Because faculty coaches do their work via phone, Skype or in their offices, they are doing their work in less public venues. Faculty and administrators who review faculty performance based on face time might assume that coaches aren’t performing at the same level as more visible faculty members.
Challenge 2: Coaching, if not done right, can be disastrous for students.
Coaching cannot be done effectively without proper training for the coaches and the students. Bad coaches will not only tarnish the experience for the student, they can damage the reputation of coaching-based programs. We’ve seen problems arise in cases where faculty members simply want to transfer what they do in the classroom to the coaching venue. Good coaching requires training and effective transitions to truly benefit students.
Challenge 3: Coaching requires thoughtful scheduling and clear boundaries.
Because coaching creates a deeper relationship between faculty and student, coaches must be aware of setting clear boundaries. Students will push to make faculty available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Good coaches are accessible within reason, but they also teach students to respect time. We’ve learned that we have to set boundaries with students early in the process. First, we give them two or three choices for scheduling coaching calls. Then, we set an example by keeping that appointment, being on time for the call, staying on topic during the call and closing within the agreed-upon time. Finally, at the end of the call, we schedule our next check-in and reiterate our commitment to keeping that appointment.
Challenge 4: Coaching might be seen as an argument for eliminating full-time faculty.
Coaching can be done successfully by part-time faculty, but it cannot be done exclusively by adjunct labor. Coaches should be fully trained, regularly assessed and kept abreast of best practices and research in coaching models. Subject matter coaches are also imperative for helping students learn complex and complicated content. Such work cannot be turned over to less-qualified instructors or to robots, as faculty might fear.
Coaching won’t eradicate the problems of higher education, but it can offer students the kind of individualized and personalized learning that they need and want. Shifting to a coaching model, though, requires that we all rethink our notions about what it means to be a faculty member.
Christine Seifert is an associate professor of communication at Westminster College. Richard Chapman is a professor of economics at the college.