'Holy Grail' of Reform

Suppose you are an ambitious, gifted college student with a passion for your major and the potential to become a world-class college teacher. You are precisely the person parents and taxpayers want to be teaching tomorrow’s students. Furthermore, private and public spending per college student has grown faster than median household incomes for the past three decades, suggesting that people are willing to pay more for your services. You want this career, parents/taxpayers want you to have this career, and they are willing to pay for it; what wonderful prospects!

During your undergraduate studies you were introduced to several luminaries in your field who receive considerable attention from the news media and are often on the lecture circuit. They are well-known for their six-figure salaries and commanding positions in your discipline. So far, it’s all good. Except …

Unfortunately, the luminosity of the luminaries has nothing to do with their teaching prowess; it is entirely due to their scholarship. There is a thriving market for senior scholars in higher education -- a market that brings plenty of release time from teaching, along with high salaries and fame.

There is no corresponding market for world-class teachers. No one in higher education becomes famous or well-compensated for exceptional teaching. How could this happen, since the students, parents, and taxpayers (those who pay the bills) have only a passing interest in research, but an abiding and personal stake in high-quality teaching?

Before we address that question, it is important to note there are many social benefits to be derived from an efficient market for senior scholars; the existence of that market is not the problem. Only spite and envy would ban the market for scholars as some ill-conceived “fix” for the imbalance between teaching and research. The correct response is to learn why we have a market for scholars and no market for teachers.

The critical reason why one market exists and the other does not is the information available to potential employers. Potential employers of professors have sufficient information to judge scholarly productivity, but virtually no information that would allow them to judge teaching productivity.

Institutions seeking to hire exceptional scholars can identify productive scholars at other institutions. The information they need is provided by outside sources that are independent of the scholar’s home institution, the scholar in question, and the potential employer. That information comes from the journals where the scholar publishes, books they’ve written, citations by other scholars, and their reputation among other scholars in the field.

None of this information exists for gifted teachers, and as a consequence, a potential employer seeking gifted teachers cannot identify those candidates. This creates a real problem for the potential employer. The teacher’s home institution may know who is an exceptional teacher and who is not, but too many institutions don’t even bother to find out.

If the potential employer makes an offer to a candidate and that candidate is in fact a gifted teacher, the home institution will make a counter offer. If the candidate is in fact a poor or average teacher, the home institution will not make a counter offer and the potential employer is likely to hire a poor or average teacher. This leads to what economists call “adverse selection” for job offers to potential teachers. Since the prospective employer knows it is likely to hire a poor or average teacher rather than an exceptional teacher, it does not make offers designed to attract exceptional teachers, and the market for exceptional teachers does not exist. Clearly, this problem is made worse by tenure, since tenure greatly increases the cost of making a bad hiring decision. In short, the “market for superior teaching” has unraveled due to insufficient information about teaching quality.

What does this mean for our prospective college teacher? First, he or she will not be able to find a Ph.D. program that specializes in preparing world-class college teachers; all the Ph.D. programs try to produce scholars, even when their own faculty members are not good enough to adequately train a new scholar. Most of these second- and third-tier Ph.D. programs could succeed in training teachers, but they do not because all the rewards in the faculty tenure and promotion process go to scholarship.

Second, the lack of a market for teaching creates a real dilemma for a new Ph.D. starting an academic career. If he starts his career on the teaching track, his future employment opportunities are limited to the teaching track since it is the information attached to research output that enables outside job offers and he will not have time to do research. Further, if he gets tenure through teaching, he will never be able to move to another comparable institution with tenure; the tenured teacher is stuck at his home institution and his employer knows he is stuck. On the other hand, if he starts on the research track, there is a chance he can move up the quality rankings, gaining more salary and fame if he succeeds as a researcher.

Now, suppose we have two fully informed young people: one aspires to be a world-class scholar and the other aspires to be a world-class teacher. They are about to make their career choices. The fully informed potential scholar chooses an academic career and the fully informed potential teacher decides to apply her talents to some other career. The few talented potential teachers who choose college teaching careers are those who derive significant personal satisfaction from teaching (despite the lack of public acclaim or financial rewards) or are very risk-averse (they crave the economic security provided by a tenured position).

What does this mean for college prices and quality? Since there are few rewards for teaching, faculty members focus too much on scholarship. Rather aspiring to be well-balanced teacher/scholars, faculty members become slaves to scholarship. We have a similar result for institutions. “Mission creep” among colleges and universities is partially due to the imbalance in the rewards for teaching and research. Colleges and universities try to become research institutions, rather than world-class undergraduate teaching institutions. As great teachers are discouraged from becoming professors, and as professors are discouraged from focusing on teaching, undergraduate teaching quality declines steadily over time.

Some may argue that an active research agenda improves teaching quality, but the evidence proves otherwise. A meta-analysis of the studies looking at the relationship between research and teaching by John Hattie and H. W. Marsh finds that they are completely unrelated. Nor is it hard to imagine why -- more research means less time for teaching.

Why has this obvious imbalance existed for so long? First, the average faculty member has nothing to gain from correcting the problem. This is obvious if the average faculty member is a scholar, but, it is also true if the average faculty member is a teacher, as the average teacher is by definition not a world-class teacher (out of the entire population of potential teachers, the current system weeds out a disproportionate share of good teachers and encourages the rest to focus on research, meaning that the current crop consists of below-average teachers).

Further, teaching institutions have little incentive to correct the problem. If they compete for students by publicly promoting their exceptional teachers, they run the risk of having those teachers hired by another institution, and they strengthen the teacher’s negotiating position with respect to the institution. In other words, recognizing the exceptional teachers increases their mobility and raises the probability they will be hired by others. Even among teaching institutions, colleges do not invest in the personal reputations of individual teachers; they always tout the high-quality teaching of their faculty as a group (everyone is above average). While there are a plethora of campus teaching awards and recognitions, they count for little outside their home institutions. Prospective employers know that most institutions do not make a serious attempt to measure individual value added and that leads teaching awards to be more political than they should be.

Even if the home institution sincerely wants to compete on the basis of high-value-added teaching, it has no way of changing the environment it operates in. If it is the only institution to identify and promote their exceptional teachers, those teachers can be lured away by other institutions, and the rest of the faculty will resent the recognition given to exceptional teachers (current teaching awards do not lead to this behavior because no one knows what a teaching award at different institution signifies).

What Can Be Done?

The “holy grail” of higher education reform should be the creation of a market for exceptional college teachers. The vigorous market for scholars provides the keys to this project. First, the information required does not have to be perfect in order for the market to be efficient (the information about scholars is not perfect). Second, the source of this information should be independent of the individual teachers, their home institutions, and their potential employers. There is great hope that the Web will be the requisite outside platform. Intercollegiate teaching tournaments are another possibility, as are digital course offerings.

The key requirement is a mechanism for excellent teachers to establish their reputations independently of those who have a vested interest in the outcome. Once that happens, teachers will no longer be filtered out of the pool of professors, as they are now. As a result, great teachers will enter the profession in greater numbers, and existing professors will have incentives to improve their teaching as well.

Robert Martin and Andrew Gillen
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Robert Martin is emeritus Boles Professor of Economics at Centre College and author of The College Cost Disease: Higher Cost and Lower Quality (Edward Elgar, Ltd., forthcoming). Andrew Gillen is the research director at the Center for College Affordability and Productivity.

What Do Students Remember?

At the end of each semester, as I read the last papers and enter the final grades, I wonder: how much of this will students actually remember a year from now — or a week from now? They ought to remember something. In a typical semester we will have spent some 40 hours together. Something must stick. But what is it? Material from the course? Skills they’ve mastered? The time a kid in the back row had his desk collapse right before a test?

A year ago I decided to try to find out. On each of the final exams I have given over the past three semesters I included the following question, worth one point of extra credit: "What one thing from the course did you find most memorable? Explain why."

I received 359 responses altogether from the nine courses I taught, courses that included everything from Western Civ. and European History to the U.S. History Survey, the American Revolution, and the Age of Jackson. While some of the results were predictable, others were surprising, instructive, and, ultimately, encouraging.

Students named something visual as most memorable more often than anything else. Twenty-nine percent cited a specific video or picture. Another 8 percent mentioned material that we covered only or primarily through a documentary. Thus, for more than a third of the students, the class will be associated with an image.

I expected videos and pictures to be popular, and I use a lot of them in my teaching. I showed documentaries such as The Last Stand of the 300, about the Spartans; Andrew Jackson: Good, Evil, and the Presidency; and The Nazi Officer’s Wife, about a young Jewish woman who survived the Holocaust in a very unconventional way. I also showed clips from TV shows and movies ranging from Johnny Tremain and HBO’s John Adams to Mad Men and Gladiator to examine how the past has been remembered.

I did worry, though, about the courses lapsing into mere edu-tainment, with the visual elements amusing the audience of students while providing little intellectual substance. My survey results confirm that entertainment explains much of the popularity of the videos and pictures I showed. At the same time, reading between the lines of my students’ responses suggests that they also learned something important. Many of the Western Civ. students who cited The Last Stand of the 300 were struck by how different the Spartans' values were. The brutal training regimen of Spartan boys, in which they were taken from their families at age seven, attracted particular interest. One student wrote, "I couldn’t imagine my son gone not knowing if he would even survive the training [let alone] become a soldier."

Spartan women wouldn’t have wanted the sympathy. It was Spartan mothers, after all, who said to their sons, "Come back with your shield or on it." Several students remarked on the surprising toughness of these women. One student recalled the "Spartan people, especially the women and how they treated their sons and how the happiest moment for them would be when their sons were going into battle." Spartan mothers were not like the students’ moms today. Dropping off their kids at college, no one shouts, "Come back with your diploma or on it" from the family minivan. It's a basic point of history that the past is a foreign country. Students got that message from the documentary. For a survey class full of students who don’t really want to be taking the course, that's a vital point for them to understand.

A surprising number of students did not choose something visual. Some students even said that a book — a book! — was what they remembered most. Twenty-three students, upper-level majors as well as survey students, designated a book as what they best recalled. Seven students in my 20th-Century Europe class named Christopher Browning’s Ordinary Men, about a group of German police conscripts who helped perpetrate the Holocaust, as the most memorable part of the course. Ordinary Men is an extraordinary book, chilling, challenging, and compelling. It's gratifying to see that students responded to it.

As for topics, responses were diverse. In Western Civ. the Spartans were the champs, followed by gladiators and knights. Interestingly, religion was also popular, with 19 students picking a religious topic (one even said Zoroastrianism). In 20th-Century Europe, World War II and the Holocaust were far and away the most popular responses, and rightly so. In my U.S. history classes, Andrew Jackson was the winner. In particular, students were awestruck by his personality. "The guy was crazy but still led our country. I don’t know how he did it but it happened," a typical response read. I suppose I’ll be known as the guy who told wild stories about Jackson.

At the same time, a satisfying number of students mentioned the experience of slaves and how slavery changed over time as what they recalled best. This was a major course theme, with multiple classes devoted to it. Maybe, just maybe, some students will retain the difference between a society with slaves and a slave society.

About 17 percent of students brought up my teaching style, the classroom atmosphere, or some non-lecture activity as what they recollected best. They seemed to have liked me personally, which is always nice to hear. They enjoyed the discussions and debates we had in class. When I was adjuncting in Buffalo, New York, two classes took field trips: one to a local French and Indian War-era fort and another to an on-campus art museum for an exhibit on the Underground Railroad. Students appreciated the hands-on experience and seeing a piece of local history.

Several students wrote about the friendships they had made during the class. "I think the most memorable time I’ve had in this course is just getting to know everyone," wrote one student. Another offered that the class was memorable "for social reasons, the people that I met in the class. It was by far one of the more sociable classes that I’ve been a part of since community college." One student had a slightly different social priority. What did he remember most? "The three girls in the fourth row. Good eye candy." Well, at least he had some reason to come to class!

I would rather they had improved their writing skills, but if part of the reason for attending college is to have the "college experience," then, I suppose, mission accomplished.

Over all, I have taken three things away from my survey experiment. First, visuals work. As the education theorists point out, some people are visual learners and need some kind of image to make information stick in their minds. But visuals do more than help students retain information for the midterm. Some documentaries today are of such high quality, in both production values and scholarship, that they convey important concepts as well. Even popular movies and TV shows, whose quality may be doubtful, are vital in helping students understand how to be critical about the kinds of information they receive every day.

Second, variety makes for memorable experiences. Even as I was flattered by their praise I was struck by how often students named something I didn’t do: the discussions, the field trips, the visuals, their relationships with each other. Many classes are structured with the professor as the center of attention. Stepping out of the spotlight can be a good thing.

Third, students want to learn. Not all of them, of course, and especially not in surveys where student interest is low and disengagement high. It’s easy to become discouraged looking at blank stares and hearing the tap-tap-tap of fast-texting fingers. At the same time, there are interested minds out there — even in large surveys held in cavernous lecture halls. If you are feeling jaded, focus on those students.

The real test of what students remember will come later on. Did they acquire skills that will help them in their careers? Will they find their lives enriched by learning about the past? Thirty years from now, when those 19-year-olds from Western Civ. are attending their own children’s graduations, I hope they can say yes. And if they can remember some video, some book, some discussion — and recall why it mattered — then I’ll be very happy indeed.

David Head
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David Head is a visiting assistant professor of history at the University of Central Florida.

Humans and the Humanites

An Instructor’s View – Andrew D. Kaufman

From the moment the guard at Beaumont Juvenile Correctional Center escorted my students and me into the multi-purpose room, where a group of incarcerated adolescents, aged 16-20, in maroon jumpsuits awaited us, we knew that this was not going to be Russian literature class as usual.

To begin with, I wasn’t doing the teaching. My students were.

And by teaching I don’t mean guiding these residents through brilliant analyses of narrative strategies in Dostoevsky, or how mimetic desire works in Tolstoy. No, students in this academic community engagement course, “Books Behind Bars: Life, Literature, and Community Leadership,” piloted in 2009, have a different task: to promote authentic conversation about major life questions raised by short classics of Russian literature: What makes for a “successful” life? How I can be true to myself? What is my responsibility to others? Given that I will die, how should I live?

These are the sorts of questions, of course, that many academic humanists these days consider to be too personal, quaint, or irrelevant to take seriously in their classrooms, let alone their scholarship. Over 20 years ago, in 1988, a National Endowment for the Humanities report was already sounding an alarm that the humanities were veering away from pursuing questions of human purpose and meaning in favor of mind-numbing abstraction and captious analytical exercises.

More recently, Martha Nussbaum, Anthony Kronman, and Mark Edmundson, among others, have voiced eloquent fresh concern about this continuing trend. Still, relatively few scholars have developed concrete methods for addressing this ongoing problem in the classroom itself. My colleagues and I believe that “Books Behind Bars” offers one successful model for doing just that.

In this course pairs of University of Virginia students lead weekly discussions with small groups of residents at either a juvenile treatment or a correctional center. Before each meeting, students write in their journals about which characters and topics they think will resonate with the adolescents. Afterward, they discuss how their interactions with the residents affected their earlier ideas, not only about literature, but about juvenile offenders, about themselves, and about what it means to read and study literature in a community context. At the end of the semester they write a reflective essay describing their intellectual, creative, and emotional journey throughout the course.

"For once, I was actually able to take literature and apply it to a situation," wrote one student, an English major, in her final essay. "I had almost forgotten that was possible." Another reflected: "I do think literature can change people and that words hold a tremendous, awe-inspiring power. Perhaps this is the most serious and intense transformation I’ve experienced in this class." In anonymous end of semester evaluations students described the course as "powerful," "transformative," "eye-opening," "humbling" and "profound."

The “Books Behind Bars” course appears to be having an equally strong impact on the residents, as well. When one resident found out that she was reading the same books college students study in their classes, her face lit up with pride. When asked to describe the most important life lesson they learned from Russian literature, participants at Jefferson Trail Treatment Center for Children said things like “Love life,” “Be a good person,” and “Never give up on your dreams.” After the semester was over three musically talented residents voluntarily got together to work on a rock rendition of their favorite Russian short stories.

Encouraged by the success of the pilot, a team of faculty from three different schools at UVa is now assessing the impact of "Books Behind Bars" more closely. This study is being conducted through Youth-Nex, the UVa Center to Promote Effective Youth Development. One hypothesis is that UVa students grow in this class because they are asked to move outside of their intellectual and personal comfort zones.

Smart English majors familiar with the latest critical lingo quickly discover that incarcerated adolescents are not so interested in Derrida’s theories about identity, meaning, and power. These are youth, after all, with long histories of economic disadvantage, social delinquency, mental illness, and dysfunctional or nonexistent families, and they live in a secure facility. In such an environment discussions about freedom and moral responsibility, nature versus nurture, and social alienation, become very concrete very quickly.

To bring alive the themes of Mikhail Lermontov’s poem, “Homeland,” for instance, a pair of students gave residents cardboard paper, pencils, and markers, and asked them to create their personal vision of “home.” While some residents created pictures of calm lakes and soaring birds, one 16-year old represented her home as a large black space with a tiny white opening in the middle. My students were astonished to learn that she had lost both parents by the age of 8 and spent most of her teens in juvenile treatment centers, and that a concept as familiar to them as "home" could have such different associations for an adolescent growing up in extreme circumstances.

This is just the sort of discovery, in turn, that deepens students’ understanding of the literature itself. Russian writers, who knew firsthand what it means to lose one’s freedom, to be an outsider, to search for an ideal in a broken world, become strikingly relevant.

And relevance is what college students find missing today from too many of their literature classes. What Hannah, an English major at UVa who took the pilot run of "Books Behind Bars," writes below reinforces my own belief that academic community engagement might be a solution to the current crisis in the humanities. Her thoughts also reflect a hunger I see among many students for a humanities education that promises more than the rarefied parsing (or pummeling) of texts by a small cadre of trained specialists.

For Hannah and other students of "Books Behind Bars" the humanities become about actual human beings — university students, incarcerated youth, great writers, and their characters, confronting life’s biggest questions and exploring their common humanity across a great social, economic, and cultural divide.

A Student’s View – Hannah Ehrlinspiel

Throughout my four years at UVa, I’ve noticed that most of my fellow students even slightly interested in reading usually fall into one of two camps: those who believe literature has the power to change your life, and those who, well, don’t. When I first signed up for "Books Behind Bars," I considered myself a member of the former group — but just barely. That is, I thought literature might have the power to change my life, but I wasn’t so sure about everybody else’s.

What’s more, I was a little skeptical of a class that purported to structure itself on a peer-peer model of teaching. The typical teacher-student paradigm was just something I’d grown accustomed to in the world of undergraduate literary studies, and it was the one I assumed I’d put into practice when interacting with the residents.

But not only did the residents in "Books Behind Bars" turn out to be my equals in picking out moments of personal relevance in the texts, they also taught me an invaluable lesson: that the questions raised by great literature are actually the most important questions raised by life itself. Surprisingly, I had never really gotten that from my other classes.

One of the first things that struck me was that the word "discussion" was not a mere code word for "impress the teacher with my incredible wit." The main difference in this class is that we weren’t speaking for ourselves only. We were helping others to speak for themselves — others who truly depended on us and the work we were doing. If I didn’t prepare adequately for class, I would not only let myself and my classmates down. I would also betray the trust and rapport I was hoping to build with the residents.

And rapport was critical. During our introductions, I observed that the two adolescents (John and Claire) my partner and I were working with would only really answer anything (even such banalities as, "Oh, what kind of dog do you have?") if I, too, shared something personal and anecdotal. This democratization of introductions forced me to deconstruct the teacher-student binary I’d built in my head.

I saw that I wouldn’t be allowed any insight into their thoughts if I didn’t make myself vulnerable, as well, which was difficult for me at first because real, personal relevance and human connection had often been discouraged in my other classes. Yet without that authenticity discussions would have gone nowhere.

They almost did go nowhere when I started off thinking I’d ask them for their thoughts on "the structural anachronism of narrative collapse" in Nikolai Gogol’s "The Overcoat." However, such a question would have been utterly ludicrous and totally ineffective. I had to learn to ask questions not just that sounded smart, but ones that really mattered to these kids — and to me: "Do you feel worse for Ivan or Akaky? Did one deserve to die more than the other?" As simple as these questions appeared, they were, surprisingly, the most difficult to answer, and the very ones that generated the most discussion with the residents.

I learned something important about the residents, too. Surrounded by such sensational images as those seen on "Law & Order" and "Maury," it seems that people often dismiss youth in treatment and correctional centers as mere "types." Far from a bunch of rag-tag ruffians and bloodthirsty cutthroats, however, these adolescents were highly feeling, emotive, complex, and even humorous. Above all, they had a huge capacity for sympathy — and it surfaced in their interactions with the texts.

During the discussion of Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Ilyich,” John was put into the position of Ivan’s son and asked to describe his father in one word. “Kindhearted,” he said. “If I had to describe my dad in one word, it would be kindhearted.” In previous discussions it had come out that John’s father had been abusive towards him, so I was anticipating some real vehemence directed toward Ivan (who more or less completely ignores his son throughout the entire story).

John’s reaction floored me. How was this boy, abused by his father and condemned to institutionalization for a large part of his life, able to judge another with such purity of intention, with such sympathy? I realized in that moment that incarceration may be a term to describe the residents’ concrete daily lives, but amazingly, they also possess a moral imagination which allows them to rise above their circumstances and bestow upon others far more charitable and nuanced judgments than they themselves have received.

For years I had always been taught that literature was something you had to stab at, to pick through until it gave up its most complex secrets. "Books Behind Bars," however, taught me to appreciate simplicity, to yield to the most basic stirrings of emotion caused by a genuine smile or by a beautiful simile. As a result, I got much closer to the texts than ever before, and became genuinely interested in what each work really means.

But perhaps the biggest lesson I learned is that if you touch one life anywhere, you’ve touched lives everywhere. And isn’t that what reading literature is all about?

Andrew D. Kaufman and Hannah Ehrlinspiel
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Andrew D. Kaufman is lecturer and Academic Community Engagement Faculty Fellow in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures, and research affiliate in Youth-Nex, the UVa Center to Promote Effective Youth Development at the University of Virginia. Hannah Ehrlinspiel is an English major, Class of 2011, at the University of Virginia.

Calling the Clicker Vote

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As classroom devices proliferate, institutions look to campuswide adoptions to ease costs for students.

'Educating the Net Generation'

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Today's students have different expectations and skills with regard to technology, and colleges sometimes fail to meet those expectations or understand what those skills mean, according to a new e-book.

The e-book, the first published by Educause, is Educating the Net Generation. It is available free on the organization's Web site.

Diana G. Oblinger, a vice president of Educause and co-editor of the book, answered some questions about its themes in an e-mail interview:

New Role for Community Colleges

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Spanked Out of Grad School

Smart Title: 
An education student wrote a paper last semester advocating corporal punishment; now Le Moyne College won't let him enroll.

A Scientific (Teaching) Revolution

Smart Title: 
With $1 million each, professors supported by unusually lucrative grants are changing undergraduate education at research universities.

Influential Group Calls It Quits

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Financial difficulties force the American Association for Higher Education -- a key voice on assessment and faculty issues -- to disband.

What History Students Read

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A scholar analyzes the state of instruction in American history survey courses – and finds them heavily reliant on textbooks.


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