Amid calls for his termination, Central Connecticut State suspends professor who's had skirmishes with the law -- even though none of the crimes and alleged crimes relate to teaching or publications. When professors break the law, what should a college do?
I have spent the last several years participating in the collective hand-wringing that has occupied humanists and liberal arts educators everywhere. There is no point in rehashing the indignities that academe has suffered at the hands of legislators, administrators, corporations, and student-consumers. You know the lament all too well.
There seems to be some sense among us that what we are experiencing is an unprecedented problem; that somehow profit incentives, patriarchal administrators, corporate values – in short, “the Man” – have only recently taken over American education. We like to believe that once upon a time higher education had a golden age that was due, not simply to the nation being flush with cash or to growing populations, not to bull markets or boards full of generous millionaires, but to high-minded, honorable prevailing philosophies about democracy and justice that have since fallen by the wayside.
But, as philosopher Stan Goff points out, the idea of education-for-all didn’t enter American culture until well after the Civil War (even then it remained heavily segregated), and this was for somewhat suspect reasons. Progressives at the turn of the century “were concerned about the feminization of men, the recent influx of non-English speaking immigrants, the temptations to vice of urban life for boys, and a general lack of discipline among the young. The compulsory public school … was a ready-made solution. Progressives equated ‘good citizenship’ with respect for authority.” Widespread education was designed to produce manly men, and obedient women and workers, who would answer their nation’s call in peace and wartime. Football, Boy Scouts, and the National Rifle Association were parallel projects of this era. A flourishing of land grant universities and private institutions – supplementing the already-existing elite institutions – began producing a steady supply of human capital so that America could enhance its economic and military dominance.
In other words, American education has always owed its primary existence to the Man and has never really challenged his dominance. Not everyone is equally invested; there have been student uprisings here and there, and certainly particular persons on the margins have called for radical change. But by and large higher education has never demanded a fundamental re-thinking of the American project.
For example, on the whole, the educational sector doesn’t call for the return of the continent to Native Americans (my house!), payment of reparations to descendants of slaves (my taxes!), the end of industrial economies (my iPhone!), or the radical revision of state or national borders (my scary neighbors!). On the whole, we don’t question the concepts of nation-states, economic and social progress, the primacy of individual choice, or the use of state force – instead quibbling over their limits. Such concepts are the water we swim in and the air we breathe; except for an extremely small number of us who truly live off the proverbial grid, we hardly notice these assumptions, much less interrogate them.
And even those of us who are radical enough to challenge governmental or corporate sectors are almost certain to rebel against any wholesale revision of higher education. We may call for tweaks – more diversity, more tenure-track lines, fewer administrators, better family leave, better need-based financial aid. But the end goal of democracy (not to mention getting/keeping my job) stays the same. It’s not just Arne Duncan who sees educators as “nation builders.” Many times have I heard colleagues bring up “citizenship” when pressed to defend the work that we do.
While we may hope good citizens will speak truth to those in power, we must also admit that most of our students will end up – like us – not as revolutionaries but as more or less comfortable (and eminently replaceable) cogs in the global economic machine. Even in flagship institutions of liberal arts, a mainly white Western canon prevails that is designed to shape students who will foster some variation of American-style democracy, at home and abroad.
This is not the mythology we live by, of course. I, for one, am conscious to include readings in my classes that will anger nice white liberals and Fox News devotees alike. And I like to think of myself as counter-cultural in my educational ideals of “learning to think” or “awakening human beings,” which often involve a soft-focus image of toga-clad ancient Greeks or medieval monks, mingled in with brochure-worthy photographs of diverse and smiling young people doing good works. Such images are what motivated many of us to work in education, and are among the reasons (along with summers, health benefits, and retirement funds) that many of us stay on even after we’ve become disillusioned.
But in the end, I’m pretty dedicated to colleges and universities continuing to exist mostly as they are; the liberal arts education that has shaped me is, in very real ways, my religion. I’m unlikely to renounce it as such. Thus, all the stories I’ve told myself about changing the world are probably indicative of my wishes and best intentions rather than my reality.
What if revolution, not mere reform, is called for? What if we – yes, even those on the margins – have been so indoctrinated into the putative value of education-for-freedom that we can no longer see the ways in which educators – as educators – are part of the problem? If, as Audre Lorde says, the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house, what makes us think we can somehow make the institutions of American higher education work for something other than the master? Is it at least possible that, just maybe, the American educational system is so corrupt at its roots that we should welcome its passing?
Don’t get me wrong. If the Ivy Leagues and other billionaires are all that’s left when the rest of us crumble, I will be furious. But perhaps, if we take the long view, we could rejoice in the opportunity that this crisis presents – if not for us as individuals, then at least for future generations on the earth. What if our demise will make room for, be the mulch that nourishes, something even better? Perhaps instead of institutions imprisoned by endowments, academic calendars, boards, legislators, tuition discounts, or profit margins, there will be “flying universities,” “artisanal” colleges, online-residential hybrids, or various kinds of micro or macro institutions actually run by the people and for the people, not yet invented or even imagined.
As someone once said, “Everything. Everyone. Everywhere. Ends.” Why not us?
Kate Blanchard is associate professor of religious studies at Alma College.
The controversy over the value of teaching evaluation surveys completed by students has led to increased calls to include some type of faculty observation as part of one’s teaching dossier. Those against student evaluations argue that direct observations of teaching avoid the questionable validity of student opinions, which are heavily influenced by popularity and are vulnerable to faculty pandering. Even those who feel that student evaluations are still valuable for faculty evaluation feel that gaining additional data through observation is a worthy goal.
We argue that although there may be a place for direct observation of teaching (e.g., professional developmental -- such as helping new faculty members master a particular classroom technique), this type of evaluation raises a number of questions. Moreover, we believe that after careful consideration of the complexities of faculty observation, what now seems like a reasonable alternative or addition to student evaluations is not a worthwhile pursuit. Most important in this regard is that the observation of faculty does not help us deal effectively with critical issue of faculty accountability in the classroom.
There are both conceptual and methodological problems with direct observation of teaching. One concern is that it violates a sense of professionalism and academic freedom, both of which have been cornerstones of teaching in higher education. College professors, unlike secondary education teachers, are expected to assert their agency as scholars. Professors are trained, credentialed and expected to be responsible for their professional work. Both teaching and research depend on the assumption that professors do not require top-down management of their work. As a core principle of our professionalism, academic freedom is intended to preclude direct interference in our teaching and research.
College teachers are to be held accountable, yes, but as professionals who are governed by intrinsic dedication to teaching rather than extrinsic management. Having an outsider to the class drop in to watch seems to disrespect the professionalism of college teaching.
The classroom is not the factory floor; college teaching should not require nor should it tolerate efforts to manage the process from beyond the agency of the teachers themselves. The idea that we need outsiders to watch us teach is the kind of assumption that can transform a teacher into a mere knowledge worker. Evaluating a college professor is not the same as evaluating a teacher in grades 1-12.
Teaching is ultimately an intimate affair, regardless of whether it occurs with a single student or a class of 500. Students and teachers engage in a personal dance; we do not teach classes, we teach students. Direct observation of classroom performance can be a major intrusion that disrupts the very nature of the teaching moment.
Methodologically, there are several practical questions about faculty observation that are rarely addressed. First, who will actually observe? Perhaps it will be leaders of academic units (i.e., department chair, associate dean or dean). The problems with such a strategy are that administrators have likely not been fully engaged in the classroom for some time, and (like most college faculty) they probably have had little or no formal training in theories of teaching or pedagogical techniques. There is no more harmful evidence than that generated by an uninformed, incompetent observer.
Especially troubling is the prospect of an administrator observing and evaluating faculty from disciplines that use different pedagogies than their home department. Alternatively, some or all faculty in a unit could serve as observers. The problems here are that some faculty will balk at the idea of judging their peers, especially without anonymity, and others may be unwilling to participate as observers because it takes away valuable time from other scholarly activities. Another problem with faculty observers is that the amount of teaching experience between observers will likely vary a great deal. This raises questions such as, “Should an untenured faculty member evaluate a senior tenured colleague?”
Second, how should what we will call “observer bias” be handled? This bias may occur because each observer is likely set in their own way of teaching. Different faculty members have radically different teaching philosophies, and our attitudes toward our philosophies will taint our regard for different approaches. In addition, an observer may be biased because they have a limited repertoire of teaching experience. For example, an observer may not have taught the course being observed or may not have taught a class of the same size. How valid are judgments about teaching in a class of 500 made by an observer who has only taught seminars?
Third, how many peers should observe each faculty member and how many observations should occur? There is considerable evidence that observational evidence can be easily distorted. For example, both the number of observers and the number of observations can dramatically influence the validity of observations.
Also, should the teacher being observed know in advance of the observational session? It would seem that unannounced observations would better serve the evaluation process, but that strategy introduces its own problems. For example, variations in course content (some topics are more difficult than others), external factors that impact students (the stress of midterm exams), and the physical health of students and teachers can all affect teaching and learning. To be observed on the wrong day by the wrong observer could easily produce a meaningless assessment.
Fourth, how should the observer evaluate the faculty member? There are many possibilities for this type of evaluation ranging from some type of behavioral assessment (e.g., how many students attended lecture) to tallies of how many active learning techniques were used during a class period. However, given the amount of variability between college courses, it is simply unclear what evaluation technique(s) would be best.
As accountability in higher education continues to grow, fueled by both internal and external institutional forces, expect to hear louder calls for improved teaching. Consequently, expect more hand-wringing over our inability to effectively measure teaching competence, and watch the momentum rise for implementing quick fixes such as direct observation of teaching.
Of course, instead of measuring the process of teaching, we could adopt the more reasonable tack of measuring what students actually learn. Rather than having faculty invest time and creativity in improving assessment of teaching as a proxy for measuring learning, we should be more deeply committed to the latter. Given the impressive progress shown by mind sciences in understanding learning, memory and thinking, and given the many new tools available as a result of the digital revolution, we believe it is possible to do just that.
It is our opinion that this measurement does not require reliance on standardized tests, simplistic rubrics or other conventions of the assessment movement. Rather, if we trust that faculty can design effective measurements of learning in their classes (e.g., through exams), then we should be able to develop ways of using similar measures to evaluate teaching effectiveness. As we move toward developing these measures, we should never forget that teaching is merely a means to an end, and it is that end for which we need to be accountable.
Jonathan M. Golding and Philipp J. Kraemer are professors of psychology at the University of Kentucky.
It’s a widely noted fact that colleges and universities are under new pressure to justify their value and function. The same is true of tenure-track faculty members, who are at the heart of the higher education system whose benefits much of society now claims to find mysterious, and whose job security is increasingly criticized.
While colleges face criticism for converting most of their teaching posts to non-tenure-track status, they also face criticism for offering tenure to the rest. The final decision by the Wisconsin Legislature to weaken tenure and shared governance in the University of Wisconsin System teaches a lesson that should resonate beyond Wisconsin: the standard defense of tenure and shared governance isn’t good enough to address widespread skepticism about their public benefits.
Faculty members have gone as far as they can by pleading an academic exemption from the financial control and autocratic management that typify the U.S. workplace, crystallized in the power of summary dismissal. Faculty members now need to explain the value not only of their own job security but also of job security in the workforce as a whole. We will need to be much clearer about why tenure and shared governance enable core functions of the university and also of any productive, creative workplace.
I am aware of the dangers of this kind of escalation and expansion of what we’ve been taught are unpopular job protections. And yet academics can no longer defend tenure and shared governance as minority exemptions. We need to explain their principles and benefits for an overall workforce that has suffered from their absence -- and is now unmoved by our special pleading.
In the important case of Wisconsin, the state Legislature and governor have now passed and signed major qualifications of UW System tenure and governance, including student governance over the expenditures of their fees. One section introduces language legalizing layoffs of tenured faculty “due to budget or program decision,” and then offers a long, ornate set of procedures for dismissing tenured faculty as a result of pretty much any programmatic change. Another section eliminates statutory language that gives faculty members direct managerial authority in the university by vesting them “with responsibility for the immediate governance of [their] institution” while expecting them to “actively participate in institutional policy development." Though tenured faculty members aren’t yet living in the at-will employment utopia of the American right, where one can be fired without cause or due process, the plan makes them vulnerable to restructuring strategies that a range of commentators equate with making universities more efficient.
Since these proposals will now change UW significantly, and perhaps model changes in other states, what should faculty members do next?
The Typical Faculty Response
Let’s start with what faculty members usually do. The current state of the art was on display at a multicampus academic senate meeting in Madison where faculty members had gathered to discuss the situation. One much-admired intervention was delivered by Professor David J. Vanness, who argued that the weakening of tenure and of faculty governance threatened core academic activity:
"This is not an issue of Democrats versus Republicans. This is an issue of academic freedom. Freedom to discover and to teach new knowledge, regardless of whether it offends (or enriches) a specific business interest or political party …. If we allow ourselves to be led down this path laid out before us … there will be nobody left to 'follow the indications of truth wherever they may lead.' We will sift where it is safe to sift. We will winnow where we are told to winnow. Our pace of discovery will slow and our reputation will falter."
I heartily agree. But I am already inside the academic consensus that the pursuit of truth requires intellectual freedom and professional self-governance. Since most people don’t enjoy either of these in their working or even their personal lives, they wouldn’t immediately see why empowering chancellors will hurt teaching or slow the pace of discovery.
Rather than revealing the inner workings and effects of tenure and shared governance, faculty members generally do three other things. We cast tenure and shared governance as constitutional principles beyond the legitimate reach of politics. We instrumentalize these practices in the name of competitive excellence. We put our defense in the hands of our university’s senior managers. Each of these three moves made sense at various times in the past, but they are now serious mistakes.
First, what happens when faculty present academic freedom as transcending politics? The question was brought home to me again by a good op-ed called “What is driving Scott Walker's war on Wisconsin universities?” The author, Saul Newton, an Army veteran studying at UW-Waukesha, discusses the conservative Bradley Foundation’s role in intellectualizing reasons to bring education to heel. He cites a 1994 article by the foundation’s president that, in Newton’s phrase, justified “demolishing public institutions, specifically public education.”
I followed Newton’s advice and read the Bradley Foundation article, whose ideas about K-12 governance are now being applied to public universities. I was struck by two features. First, the piece advanced a quasi-Foucauldian vision of society in which any group’s principles lie within society’s structures of power rather than outside them. “Educational policy is always and everywhere a profoundly political matter,” wrote foundation president Michael S. Joyce. Second, it defined its attack on an “exhausted” progressivism as a movement for democratic accountability: “If educational policy is finally and irrevocably political, then surely, in a self-governing polity, the people themselves are the source of educational policy -- not a distant bureaucracy.”
When Joyce moved on to demonize teachers for wielding the “political hegemony of the ‘helping and caring’ professionals and bureaucrats,” he did so in the name of restoring democracy. It doesn’t matter whether this framework is right or wrong (it’s wrong). Once it has been established, and faculty then defend tenure as a privilege of their intellectual status, they don’t rebut the right’s democratic critique but validate it. The democracy frame makes academic freedom look like a license to ignore public concerns rather than to engage them in dialogue from an independent position.
On the second error: university administrators and faculty alike predict that quality decline will follow any weakening of tenure. A group of distinguished chaired professors at UW-Madison stated that qualifying tenure would make the university “suffer significant competitive disadvantages.” Competitiveness is often measured in rankings shorthand: UW-Madison is 47th in U.S. News and World Report’s rankings this year, is among the top 15 among public universities, and has a large number of top-20 departments, all of which may fall in the rankings as they come to lose every contest for top candidates to peers with stronger tenure protections.
But how much would lowered rankings reduce faculty quality and public benefit? Top rankings mostly concern the Madison campus, and so involve only a minority of the students and faculty in the UW System. Politicians also know that hundreds of qualified people apply for every good tenure-track position, and thus assume that the UW system will still enjoy a surplus of excellent candidates. Wisconsin departments may have a harder time landing their top one or two picks who have offers from other major universities, but politicians may reasonably doubt that their third or fourth candidates will offer a noticeably lesser student experience.
More fundamentally, departmental or university stature is an inaccurate proxy for the competitiveness most people care about, which is the economic kind that raises the standard of living. Universities have constantly asserted their direct economic impact, and conservatives are taking this rhetoric literally. Thus an alleged blueprint for the Walker changes, a report called “Beyond the Ivory Tower” that was published by the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute and authored by the longtime chancellor of UW-Stout, justifies its call for more flexible tenure and governance on the grounds that this will “help the UW System better fulfill its mission to help produce economic development.” University administrators agree that this is their mission, and STEM fields have benefited for decades from the emphasis on technological outputs, often at the expense of funding broad liberal arts-based capabilities. So faculty members’ talk of staying competitive encourages conservatives to ask UW to show them the money. In the U.S. business system, making money normally involves giving management a free hand over employees, thus hoisting professors on their own petard.
We arrive at the third faculty habit, in which a faculty assembly calls on senior managers for protection for tenure and shared governance. There are two issues here. One is the academic freedom to produce research even when its evidence contradicts the beliefs of politicians or business leaders, who then may seek to discredit the study, as recently happened in Wisconsin, by calling it “partisan, garbage research,” and/or by defunding an entire program, as happened in North Carolina. Senior managers often hang tough on this point, and defend the research autonomy of their faculty and their institution.
The other issue is direct faculty control over university policy that goes beyond offering nonbinding advice. I noted that the now-deleted Wisconsin statute expects faculty to be directly involved in “the immediate governance of [their] institution.” Governor Walker does not want this strong version of shared governance. But do System President Ray Cross or UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank? Careful Wisconsin faculty observers like Nicholas Fleisher, Richard Grusin and Chuck Rybak think not, and I can’t call to mind a senior manager who does want full co-governance with faculty.
In addition, UW’s senior managers have some history of efforts to increase their own authority. As Lenora Hanson and Elsa Noteman argue, former Madison Chancellor Biddy Martin’s “New Badger Partnership” sought to delete much state oversight over the university’s budgeting and human resources policies. The current UW administration continued the campaign under another name, even at the cost of accepting state funding cuts. Chancellor Blank told local television that the university could make up for cuts with more freedom from the state, if they just had more time. In other words, senior university managers de facto agreed with the core tenets of movement conservatism that state oversight lowers efficiency while executive authority increases it. Since so much of the conservative business position matched the university’s official position, the voting public could be forgiven for not seeing why the statute changes would affect faculty much.
General Public Benefits, Not Special Privileges
So what would motivate the wider public to fight for academic tenure and shared governance? To present them as general public benefits rather than as our special privileges.
To do this, we will need to undo each of the three mistakes I’ve described. First, rather than casting tenure and shared governance as necessary exceptions to normal workplace politics, we should define them as necessary to workplaces in general. Tenure is a simple idea: protection from the at-will employment practice of firing any employee without cause or due process. Tenure places an obligation on the employer not only to identify specific reasons for termination but to convince others of their validity.
Tenure doesn’t just protect academic freedom; it protects all employees’ investments in their skills, relationships, know-how, and commitment to their organization. I have always thought that tenure should appeal to conservatives, since it defends liberty by protecting one party against another’s arbitrary exercise of authority. Tea Partiers who accuse Barack Obama of being a dictator should logically favor limits on the lawful tyranny of the private sector supervisor. At the same time, Democrats should like generalized tenure for enabling a limited type of workplace democracy. A hundred years ago, the American Association of University Professors constructed academic freedom as the great exception to the autocratic managerialism of American business life. Faculty members will now need to promote workplace freedom from at-will dismissal as right for employees everywhere.
On the second mistake, of touting their competitiveness, faculty members should reject competition as a main driver of high-quality work. We enjoy top rankings and status as much as managers do, and yet in the long run they depend on research and teaching achievements that come from persistence, security, obtuseness, heretical thinking and collaboration. It’s not just that competition encourages wasteful duplication and intellectual imitation, but also that intellectual progress depends profoundly on complicated forms of cooperation among all kinds of people and expertise. Universities teach people to address massively complicated problems that require both individual originality and collaboration. The U.S. doesn’t have a competitiveness disadvantage: it has a collaborative disadvantage, and universities are needed more than ever to develop new kinds of collaborative capabilities. In addition, public universities help their regions, states and nations not by being better than other universities but by doing transformative work in the place they are and with the students they have. Faculty should help the American workplace move in the same direction.
The third mistake: instead of looking to senior management for defense, faculty members should look to employees in other workplaces in advocating democratic rather than autocratic organization. Until our current neo-Taylorist management revival, the efficiency of peer-to-peer self-management was widely understood. The uber-mainstream features the historian David Montgomery chronicling the contributions of indigenous and immigrant craft skill to 19th-century American industrialization, the management gurus Tom Peters and Robert Waterman advocating employee empowerment in their 1980s blockbuster In Search of Excellence, the sociologist Richard Sennett analyzing the centrality of mutually developed craft practices to effective work, and, in a backhanded way, the neoclassical economists now warning about the “skills gap,” since if top-down management were so great companies could simply boss their hirelings to competence.
Such research has established academic analogs, starting with peer review. Wisconsin faculty have pointed out that tenured faculty members must meet their own colleagues’ rigorous performance standards to get tenure and must then continue to satisfy them to progress. Another common academic practice is the combination of outcomes evaluation with freedom to organize everyday work. Although professionals have had an easier time claiming this right to direct their own work, to whom does this principle not apply? Everyone needs training and ongoing feedback, and everyone needs latitude to shape their own efforts.
The faculty’s central political problem is that their assertion of their tenure and governance rights is read as their tacit denial to everyone else. The problem starts with the “new faculty majority” of non-tenure-track professors on campus and spreads out from there. This sense of tenure as a special privilege (error one) is the cornerstone of the politically powerful stereotype of the elitist professors who proclaim their superiority to other people (error two) and can’t deal with regular people directly (error three). In making these mistakes, we have played into our opponents’ hands.
Rather than claiming academic freedom, tenure and fair governance as a special perk of our unique standing, we should hold them out as the general economic and social justice virtues that they are. Faculty have models of collaborative self-governance that we now rarely bother to develop, that we have allowed to serve an ever-smaller share of our colleagues, that are not taken seriously by many administrations, but that are designed to allow both intellectual originality and decent, honorable workplaces. Faculty must now model how shared governance, if spread to other workplaces, would improve society as a whole. And we are going to have to do it soon.
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.