University Professors Teach Too Much: Part II

Read Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV.

In no way should college teachers be judged by what research they produce, if any. Lists of papers and books should be forbidden to appear on CVs used for promotion. Those who now spend most of their time teaching are forced to emit “scholarly” output, just like researchers. Most of this output is of little use, is redundant, or is of poor quality. The number of journals created just to publish this material continues to grow, which is a needlessly expensive situation for libraries. These facts are well known.

A high-ranking professor at a prestigious university once told me, in reference to what counts for promotion, that “I add up the number of papers a person has and then subtract two for every one that appears in Journal X.” We all know Journal X is where bad papers go to die a lonely death. Every field has multiple Journal Xs.

Requiring teachers to write papers is asking them to do what they are not good at. If they were good at it (and had the desire), they would be researchers and not teachers. Teachers are wasting time publishing an article in the South-by-Southwest Far East Asia Journal of Research: C when they could have been polishing a lecture, holding extra office hours, or in just plain reading. It is a waste because the paper will never be read by anybody except the one or two referees attached to the journal, and it fools the teacher into thinking he has been productive. It also fools the promotion committee (which obsessively counts papers) into thinking they are measuring the ability of the teacher to do his job.

Counting papers is like eating opium: it is an addiction everybody knows its wrong, but nobody can resist. It’s only a wonder academics don’t receive spam promising a “Proven method to grow your paper numbers. 7++ new citations! Make Deans scream in delight!!!”

Teacher evaluations should disappear forthwith. In their current form, they are useless or even harmful. The kid who has just completed (I do not say “passed” or “understood”) “Introduction to Sociology” is in no position to judge whether what he has been taught is useful, or even to tell us he has learned what he should have. His ignorance is why he is at college.

College students are not customers1 and should not be asked to fill out customer complaint forms, which are, as all know, mere reflections of the grade each student receives in the course: higher grades, better evaluations. These evaluations are thus nothing but indicators of how entertained students were in their twelve- to sixteen-week sojourn. This being both true and well known, teachers change their material to ensure better evaluations2. Where this has led us is obvious.

The lust for purely quantitative measures of performance should not be sated. It leads to over-certainty and blindness to non-quantitative aspects of ability. Unsolicited student commentary, peer evaluation, and other obvious indicators are sufficient to judge teacher quality.

It is easy to judge the mettle of researchers: money and quality of result. But even here, the rush towards quantitative measures should be resisted. It is difficult to bring in the bucks for projects that aren’t considered sexy or are foundational (where the payoff is miles away; compared to hot topics where a paper per month could be pumped out). However, these provisos being read, universities, on average, rate quality of research reasonably well.

The research institute arms of universities evolved this ability by not doing more than paying lip service to teaching quality. If they paid more, they would never let a graduate student within a mile of a classroom of freshmen. Nor would departments hire adjuncts to handle “overflow” based merely on the adjunct having the credential of “M.A./M.S.” or “PhD,” but having no particular expertise in the subject. And just what is “overflow”?

Incidentally, by “lip service” I mean the annual pantomime where an administrator slathers on bright red lipstick and tells the most outrageous lies about how important teaching is to the “mission” of the university. Nobody believes this because, of course, it is not true.

Read Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV.

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1But see Part III.

2I am reminded of The Onion headline, “Teacher forced to sleep with student for better evaluation.”

If you are a professor or researcher, please email this article to a colleague or administrator.

18 Comments

  1. I must dispute a couple of statements, in part anyway:

    1. College students ARE customers … but they might not appreciate what they’re trying to get (and this has several facets); and close to that,
    2. Student grade/complaint forms of the teachers CAN be a very useful tool.

    The assertions made in the narrative are wrong by being presented as absolutes.

    My experience as a student, and having earned degrees from, very top schools (e.g. University of Michigan & U of S. Calif) and sub-tier (George Washington U.) is very clear: at tops schools where students have been selected via very competitive screening processes the resulting student body tends to be very demanding of instructor competence. I’ve seen, and participated in, group complaints of an instructor being lax, undemanding, etc. — exactly the sort of behavior that students at lesser schools applaud.

    This cuts to an old saying in management: “A” People (the most competent & self-assured managers) hire “A” People (those that may be more competent than they are in some ways) while “B” People hire “C” People, etc.

    Invariably with that is a sort of self-deluding personality quirk (most prevalent with the “B” & lesser, but for which the “A” People are not immune) that is addressed by papers such as:

    “Delusions of Success,” by Dan Lovallo & Daniel Kahneman (Published in the Harvard Business Review, online edition, 2003); and,

    “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments,” by Justin Kruger and David Dunning, Cornell Univ., Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1999, Vol. 77, No. 6, 1121-1134. Also published online.

    “Unskilled & Unaware” findings correlate with the “A” hire “A” & “B” hire “C” adage — with the population at the very top level of competence actually tending to accurately or underestimate their talent relative to a given task/skill set/measure(s). Estimates of this group’s size vary, but anecdotal estimates put it at something like 2-5 percent of the population. Small to be sure, but still sizeable considering where they tend to end up in organizations (usually those at the top are significantly disproportionately represented by such people….though other personality factors, many negative/toxic, also stand out).

    But as far as academia goes, this small exception is still sizeable enough & objectively demanding enought, that it ought to warrant mention.

  2. It is true that many students (and their parents) view the students (and the parents) as customers, and what they are buying is not only a college education, but a ticket to some kind of middle-class-or-better prosperity. (An added headache: Many students feel they have purchased “A’s”.)

    The class evaluations I’ve seen are basically a 1-to-5 rating on an instructor’s enthusiasm and preparedness as well as “command of the subject matter.” I will have to agree with Briggs that most teenagers will not be able to properly evaluate an instructor’s “command of the subject matter.” But that is not to say that students should not be treated fairly and with consideration. That is, I think students should know why they earned a particular grade, and that the grading metric should be as clear as possible when the semester begins.

    Course evaluations themselves can be startling hurtful:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2007/07/01/magazine/01wwln-guest-t.html

    And have unintended consequences:

    http://thefire.org/article/8693.html

    A novel approach—course evaluations after students have time to reflect (unlikely to catch on):

    http://www.insidehighered.com/views/2010/02/04/deans

  3. Just a thought; and one I have had every time some of our UK teachers moan about how much of their ample holiday time they have to use making “lesson plans”:

    Why isn’t a lecture a publishable item?

    The Journal of Really Great and Inspiring Lectures. Script + Slides minimum; youtube video of lecture optional.

  4. Onus Probandy asked, “Why isn’t a lecture a publishable item?”

    The Khan Academy
    Great Courses
    The Great Lecture Library
    Academic Earth

    The Lorain County Community College offers, for credit, on-line courses which are recorded lectures viewed on-line or downloaded and saved indefinitely on your computer. Students have access to the instructor, do labs on campus (if appropriate) and are usually free to attend some classes (instructor’s option). I’m sure this is offered elsewhere.

    These increase teaching efficiency beyond having lectures in giant halls and assigning teaching assistants to provide one-on-one help.

  5. Sorry; I wasn’t clear: of course I know that it’s technically possible to publish a course and it is excellent to see it going on (at least in the US; the UK seems to be lagging in this area).

    What I meant was: why can’t that publication count towards a lecturer’s “publications” just as normal researcher count journal articles?

    They could have peer review as well if they wanted it.

    Then the requirement that they “publish” would have been met in an manner appropriate to their skill.

  6. Onus Probandy and others.

    I’ve seen that while four year colleges/universities don’t seem to have specific objectives other than to attract applicants and staff that will bring in tuition, research funds and alumni donations, community colleges exist to …

    1. Provide knowledge and coursework that will result in certification ie. EMT, Certified Network System Administrator, CCNA, Construction Technology – Construction and Renovation Tradesman Short Term Technical Certificate etc.

    2. Provide knowledge and coursework that will result in an Associate Degree in a field with local jobs ie. Associate of Applied Science in Alternative Energy Technology – Wind Turbine Major, Associate of Applied Science in Automation Engineering Technology (Maintenance/Repair)

    3. Provide coursework that will result in acceptance into a four year BA/BS program.

    Instructors teach. Many have real jobs in the outside world which tends to make their teaching more appropriate to the job at hand than would getting published in Nature. They get recognition and pay based on how much they teach including on-line courses.

    For some students the rich and varied experience of an elite university is valuable. For others an education followed by a good job is just the ticket. For some, rubbing shoulders with teachers that publish in respected journals, consult with giants in their field and are the world’s expert in some small, tiny corner of the ecology of the Great Salt Lake is just the thing. For many others a little help with solving a partial differential equation is far more useful.

  7. One of the worries I have with the trend toward offering more online courses is that it will cheaper to set the courses in amber, and not have a yearly review-and-update, even if the original course author is no longer “active” (that is, no longer on payroll)? This also brings into view the question of who owns the courses—the instructor or the university? A “professor” could have protections not afforded to the “adjunct.” This is a question that could have ramifications in K-12 with many schools using “smart board” technology. Once the lesson plan and other materials are loaded into the smart board–that is, onto the servers owned by the school and/or city–who has ownership/copyright, and all of that?

    But O.P.’s point of peer review is well taken—and would not some kind of peer review be a preferable metric to student course evaluations?

  8. I agree with your position on teacher evaluations, which are now called student satisfaction surveys where I work. It is refreshing that there is no longer any attempt to hide their true purpose. I have long told anyone who will listen that these evaluations are a corrupting influence. I mean this literally as they corrupt the honest process of education in much the same way that bribes can corrupt an honest business.

    I do not believe, as Katie states, that we should try to copyright lecture material, for a number of reasons. First, the textbook publishers would sooner or later control all the copyrights. Much of what we lecture on is considered fair use, otherwise teaching would be impossible. Second, it is next to impossible to set courses in amber. If it was we would not need instructors as the textbook would suffice. Finally, it is very difficult and irritating to try to use someone else’s lecture notes. When this has been offered to me in the past, I looked at them and politely declined. If the university tried to use canned lectures and eliminate sessional instructors the system would soon collapse under its own weight. This has been tried many times in the past, long before the internet age. For example, at McMaster University in the sixties and seventies the Feynman Lectures were available in a video tape format, but the room where they were available was always empty. I believe that the MIT version that now exists will go the same way. After all the students already have textbooks and access to a library! Maybe when the fabled AI arrives it will be different.

  9. @William Sears

    I wasn’t thinking that the lecture notes would be for the students; they would be for the lecturer. I completely appreciate the advantage of a lecturer; and they are a lot more than simply note-reading machines.

    As an example: my A-level physics was taught by two teachers. One had his notes and essentially wrote them on the board (explaining them as he went, he wasn’t awful) and we copied them down.

    The other (who was truly excellent) had already photocopied his notes for the entire term and dished a copy out to each of us in the first week. His argument was that he didn’t want us using up attention acting as photocopiers when our attention should be on him and the concepts he was explaining.

    Your other point: it is hard to lecture from someone elses notes. I am quite certain that is true if you picked any random lecturer’s notes. What if you picked the peer-reviewed, wiki-based, multiple author, merit-based selection set of notes? Even if you didn’t, and simply had access to a load of pre-prepared, high-quality diagrams, graphs, and typeset equations that could be cut and pasted into your own notes, you would have gained by the process.

  10. Much of the impetus of going online in the first place was around access. I think that we’ve reached critical mass there. Folks are starting to turn their attention toward quality. For instance, the Open Learning Initiative, at Carnegie Mellon, represents what strategies afford themselves in an online context. The first thing they do is team-based development of courses, and then sharing those many times. We’re not stuck having to recreate the wheel in every classroom. A second thing that they do is rigorous data capture that informs the moment of learning for the student, that informs the instructor to know what to focus on in the face-to-face time, and that informs the course designer to know what parts people are really struggling with.

    Is there an opportunity for brands to emerge that are very cost-effective for students but do not symbolize degradation in quality?
    http://chronicle.com/blogs/wiredcampus/how-the-gates-foundation-will-spend-its-education-technology-dollars/27362

  11. Absolutely. The best course I ever took at either of the universities I attended (and graduated from) was an evening course where the lecturer taped his lectures and wasn’t even in the room!!!!! There were copious free handouts. A TA turned the tape recorder on and off.

    Conversely, the worst course had a lecturer who droned while placing transparencies on an overhead projecter, the same transparencies the students had been forced to buy at the beginning of the term. The lecturer had a bad attitude, thought all students were “braindead”, and engendered so much animosity that the lectures became shouting matches as student after student lit into the lecturer. I was the TA, sitting in the back of the room in silent horror.

  12. I strongly expect that enthusiasm for supplying students will hard copies, or electronic copies, of the lecture notes is an example of the novelty effect (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Novelty_effect). When the novelty wears off the improvement vanishes and all that remains is the extra work required on the part of the instructor. I have seen this for many of the improvements offered for traditional lecturing over the years. Sooner or later there is a return to tradition. It is interesting that the link I’ve quoted attempts to dispute its own definition with an educational research quotation. Such is the dislike of this reality. Motivation is everything. There are no cheap and flashy substitutions.

  13. Professor Briggs:
    I am reading a biography of Theodore Roosevelt by Edmund Morris. I have just finished the section on his education at Harvard. He attended Harvard from 1876 to 1880. The description of his education is sketchy but it is clear that he took a rigorous set of classes. On page77 the book lists 9 courses with 20 hours of classes per week in 1878 as German, two natural history courses (geology and zoology with labs), Italian, and philosophy. In approximately 130 years we have “dumbed” down college (university) education to a full time load of 12 units, four or five courses. This is in addition to the notion that college education is training for a job and for imparting culture. It seems as if we have lowered the bar to the ground. I might quibble about the notion at researchers not being allowed to teach. I am reminded of Richard Feynman from Cal Tech who loved to teach the freshman physics classes. Of course the reason the bar has dropped is the notion that everyone deserves an education. Unfortunately, they have wait until they get to college to have an opportunity to get one for which they are unprepared to face the demands that are required to achieve the objects that you have outlines above.

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