There is a lot of pressure on academic institutions to be innovative these days, and faculty members are often characterized as roadblocks to change. Given the entrenched and highly structured rewards system within which we operate, it should come as no surprise that many faculty colleagues are risk-averse when it comes to exploring new trends in scholarship or pedagogy. Rather than bemoaning the hidebound, luddite, or traditionalist nature of faculty, anyone who wants to encourage innovative teaching and scholarship at their college or university should instead ask, what are the institutional barriers to experimentation here, and how might they be lowered?
When it comes to teaching, a highly personal and performative activity, fear of failure can take many forms. But for many faculty members it is crystallized in a single, dreaded object: the student course evaluation. The possibility of receiving negative student evaluations can be a powerful deterrent to colleagues who may be interested in incorporating new technology, radically altering course design, or exploring new areas of expertise. In an effort to counter that fear, we have just instituted a new policy at Middlebury College that allows faculty to designate new courses as exempt from official course evaluations -- a system that quickly became known as the "pass/fail option for faculty."
As provost, I had appointed some 40 colleagues last fall to task forces on curricular innovation that were charged with developing proposals to promote pedagogical, technological, and interdisciplinary experimentation. Though group discussions were energetic and forward-looking, it quickly became apparent that the perceived risks of experimentation could stand in the way of individual faculty adoption of many of the best ideas that emerged. In the hope of creating a receptive atmosphere for the task force recommendations, I proposed that we consider adjusting the institutional expectations embodied in our three major processes of faculty evaluation — course response forms, annual salary forms, and reviews for reappointment and promotion — in ways that might encourage innovation in both teaching and scholarship. After consultation with relevant faculty committees, we have already made the recommended adjustments in two of these areas. (As someone who has been involved in discussions about the challenges of evaluating digital scholarship, I was not surprised that the third area, review language, was less of a slam dunk).
The new course evaluation policy is simple: all faculty members who have completed two full years of teaching will have the option of designating one course every two years as "course response form-optional." In such courses, the standard evaluations will be distributed to students, and collected, but returned to the instructor only (who may then stipulate whether or not they should be included in their central administrative files). Like the student who chooses to take a particular course pass/fail in order to mitigate his or her fear of exploring unknown territory, an instructor who is trying something new now has the option of teaching an "ungraded" course.
While we take course evaluations very seriously at Middlebury, they are only one data point in a peer review process that includes multiple classroom visits by a candidate’s department chair, some senior colleagues, and all three members of the collegewide tenure and promotions committee. We are confident that omitting two or three sets of evaluations from a colleague’s multiyear file will not preclude a rigorous assessment of their teaching. In my experience, having sat with T&P committees for a number of years, and read many thousands of course evaluations, sound judgments about teaching effectiveness rest on discerning patterns over time and across course types, and not on judging the success of any one or two courses.
This policy represents a small change, but I believe it has symbolic value: it says that we do not equate teaching excellence with perfection, but instead expect all teachers to be lifelong learners, even at the art of teaching. It says that we trust faculty colleagues to do their best, even when no one is looking over their shoulders. And it says that an institution that demands innovation has to support innovation. Much of the current commentary about higher education emphasizes the imminent dangers of disruption from without; the best way to cushion that disruption, in my view, is to welcome change from within.
Alison Byerly holds an interdisciplinary appointment as college professor at Middlebury College, where she also served until recently as provost and executive vice president. While on leave in 2012-13, she is a visiting scholar in literature at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Her bookAre We There Yet? Virtual Travel and Victorian Realism is forthcoming this fall from the University of Michigan Press.
Many Americans look upon an election year with trepidation – they worry about being deluged with phone calls before dinner; they grumble about their favorite TV shows being taken over by attack ads. For college and university faculty members, there’s another reason to worry: we’ve been made an easy target for politicians.
On the campaign trail, Rick Santorum made waves with his statements criticizing President Obama on the importance of college. This brought to light an earlier statement that he made at Ave Maria University. Santorum argued that Satan’s campaign to subvert American institutions started with the professoriate, because Satan "understood [the] pride of smart people…. They were in fact smarter than everybody else and could come up with something new and different -- pursue new truths, deny the existence of truth, play with it because they’re smart."
Repeatedly, the Republican nominee Mitt Romney has assailed President Obama for being a product of "the faculty lounge" – out of touch with the problems of everyday people and possessing dangerous ideas that will make America less secure (Examples here, here, here and here). There's already been a great deal of discussion about this matter – whether it’s the curiosity of someone with multiple degrees from his alma mater attacking it, or the presence of Harvard University faculty on his policy team. Most recently, Stephen Carter from Yale has weighed in on the matter, politely asking Romney to stop.
For the record, I’ve never seen the inside of a faculty lounge; it could be that I’m not subversive enough for the brandy and Karl Marx-read-only-in-the-original crowd. My query on this matter is a tactical one: Why do these attacks persist, and what can we do about them? Carter invokes Richard Hofstadter’s argument that intellect is an inherent challenge to authority. While this is of course true, part of the problem lies within ourselves. At a time in which the very value of a college education is under attack, too many of us: faculty, administrators, and our professional associations, are silent about what we do in these ivy-covered buildings. Asking politicians to stop is not going to work. It is time to reframe the debate.
We need to take the offensive in justifying academic research. If scholarship is the mechanism by which we are out of touch, then it is our responsibility as scholars to better underscore (and indeed sell) what we’re learning about the world and why that matters. The good news is that this is something that many of us already do. We train graduate students to justify how their work contributes to broader debates in their theses and dissertations. In our own grant competitions, we are required to explain why our work is important – and indeed, why our proposal merits funding over hundreds of others. We report back to these same funders about what we’ve learned and how their investment in us has been used. What we need are mechanisms that allow us to better articulate and disseminate to nonacademic audiences what academic research is and why it makes a difference.
Fixing this problem is not merely a matter of marketing. It also requires changing incentives. Decisions about tenure and promotion are based on output in scholarly outlets, not the popular press. Individual faculty members will resist devoting energies to outreach as long as there are no professional rewards attached to it. Generating more outreach requires that universities value outreach about scholarly research just as much as they value the research itself . Universities send out press releases to announce athletic recruits and the retention of million-dollar coaches; surely the ideas in a book published by a philosopher merits attention as well. As the political science community has seen this past year, failing to justify what we do as scholars and why can have detrimental consequences.
At the same time, universities need to better promote their own efforts in teaching and mentoring. Rick Santorum would not have argued that faculty are the first page of the Satanic playbook had he understood that the faculty lounge is increasingly staffed by adjunct faculty members who have few incentives to hold office hours, write letters of recommendation, and counsel students — and yet who do so all the time because of their commitment to their students. They do so much to keep the modern university running, and yet receive so little in return. Rewarding adjunct faculty for excellence, and publicizing that excellence, is a great way to reassert the importance of student learning.
Colleges and universities need to tell their stories to multiple audiences. This doesn’t merely mean prospective students or Congressional lobbyists; it means opening our doors and sharing what we do with the public. Universities become less easy targets when we promote how first-generation students become Congressional staffers and how the products of single-parent households can win nationally competitive scholarships. We do not merely pour facts into students’ heads. On many days, we change students’ lives.
American higher education is one of the greatest products ever devised for human betterment. We do not need slick slogans or fancy jingles to justify it. All that we need is to take the energy that we get from an interesting article, a fascinating finding, or a great class discussion, and share it. More attention to scholarly outreach and promoting teaching and mentoring can be our own attack ad as we work to elevate higher education in these challenging times.
Martin Edwards is associate professor at the John C. Whitehead School of Diplomacy at Seton Hall University.
Faculty union says university proposal would effectively let administrators get rid of tenured professors any time a budgetary shift takes place. Administration says it respects tenure, but needs "flexibility."