Sunday, March 18, 2012

Breaking: Student unimpressed with professor

I'm not quite sure how to react to this op/ed by a University of Kansas student complaining about tenure and the quality of undergraduate education. It's not like there are no legitimate concerns here. But my first reaction is to say that I don't feel like getting criticized by a student who, by her own admission, skips classes to watch "Seinfeld" and uses her friends and as her primary data sources.

On further reflection, though... No, you know what, I'm going to stick with my first reaction.


metrichead said...

I hate it when people make these circular arguments that go nowhere like the student did:

"University tenure allows professors the freedom to publish and share their opinions without fear of losing their jobs, but it also unfortunately allows some to act as though they have a given right to their position, creating a possibility for poor-quality teaching, unhelpfulness, and disrespect toward students."

She's basically making the argument my sister made when we were talking about the K-12 system; she thought younger teachers were more effective because they're new, they want to teach, they've got more energy, and they haven't worked long enough to have bitter feelings towards administrators, idiot parents and the like.

She assumed the veteran, tenured faculty tend to get lazy, their skills plateau (or regress), and they milk their benefits, yadda, yadda, yadda. Which is kind of what this Kansas student was saying, too.

My main point is, it's impossible to win an argument as to who is more committed to becoming better educators, older or younger professors/teachers. To me, this student rehashed old arguments and didn't make the case for her side as to how we can make faculty more effective.

Andrew Oh-Willeke said...

Campus culture differs a lot. As an undergraduate at Oberlin College, in Ohio, I didn't know anyone who owned a TV and the TVs in the common areas of the dorm were often off.

Not far down the road at Bowling Green (the one in Ohio), every single dorm room had at least one, if not two TVs on at all times.

There are bad professors and instructors, although teaching assistants, especially teaching assitants with ESL issues, get the lion's share of complaints at most large universities, followed by (at all universities and colleges) the letches, and then by the professors who should be emeritus but aren't often in the early stages of dementia. Pre-dementia tenured faculty are usually underrepresented on the to avoid list.

In my interactions with foreign students, the impression that I get is that the quality of undergraduate instruction in the United States is far superior to that of most Japanese, Korean and Continental European instructors who tend to be more distant and even less pedagodgy driven than American professors (further exacerbated in Continental Europe by the presence of large numbers of young adults who are only in college because it is free). Even at fourth tier institutions, every professor beat out at least a hundred other candidates to be hired as an assistant professor and had at least a one in three chance of not winning tenure once hired.

Where undergraduate teaching from tenured faculty in some subject is bad, it tends to be a trait shared by 95%+ of the professors in the discipline, because the whole discipline is clueless about how to teach its own subject well to non-majors, not the result of individualized and exception lack of teaching ability on the part of individual professors. There are usually slightly more exceptionally good teachers than exceptionally bad ones, especially outside required subjects. The great amount of choice that students have to pick classes and professors imposes real practical limits on how bad your teaching can be if you hope to get away with it.

A certain amount of disrespect is healthy, and many students simply aren't used to the level of responsibility that comes with being a college student and perceive that as unhelpfulness. There are certainly poor public speakers, lousy graders, and fuzzy thinkers among tenured faculty, but an out of date professor is more of a liability to a graduate student than an undergraduate.

Garrett said...

All right, SMOTUS, I'd like to jump in here. In the interest of full disclosure, Emily Bullard and I have known each other since we were 3 and are very close. Ironically though, I found the opinion piece on your blog.

Emily and I were IB students together at Lakewood High School. Now, we both chose the IB program because it would offer a rigorous academic program ideal for preparing a young mind for college. Lakewood is routinely ranked among the top schools in Colorado and the country, and it was precisely what we thought it would be.

I can honestly say without any hesitation that the experience I had at Lakewood was markedly more challenging than what I get at DU. I love DU, and I love the PLSC and HIST departments, but overall, it doesn't compare. While there are some great professors here, there are also some who are absolutely god-awful ones. I have yet to have a class at DU that, at its best, was as intellectually stimulating as my junior year IB history course was.

Emily's piece didn't offer any silver-bullet solution, but that's hardly the purpose of an editorial such as this. I think she was calling into question the quality of our higher-education system. As Tupac said, "I ain't saying I know how to change the world. I ain't saying I know how to clean this place up, but if I keep talking about how dirty it is, someone is gonna figure out how to pick it up."

Maybe that's frustrating for someone like you, a terrific college professor who must grow weary of being criticized for your colleagues' shortcomings. But our higher-education system has some great flaws, most notably our stupid assumption that because someone has a PhD they will know what to do at the front of a classroom. Emily may not have given us a solution, but she identifies a legitimate and serious problem. The quality of instruction at our universities simply doesn't match the sticker price. Cut her a little slack, that's all I'm saying.

Seth Masket said...

Garrett, thanks for commenting. If your high school classes were more rigorous than our college classes, well that reflects poorly on us. (Although your high school IB program may well have had more rigorous entrance requirements than our university as a whole.)

And I agree with you that there is a legitimate issue here. You're right that getting a Ph.D. does not translate into teaching ability. If I have any skill as an educator, that has virtually no reflection on my grad school training, where I was primarily taught how to be a researcher.

That said, I believe there is value in working with professors who are active researchers. And there is significant crossover between research and teaching. For example, I hired a lot of students in the summer of 2008 to help conduct surveys of delegates and activists at the Democratic convention, and now I teach the research that came out of those surveys.

Still, yes, there are faculty who aren't great at teaching what they know, and I would like to see better training at the graduate level and better monitoring of educational abilities throughout one's academic careers.

But Emily really didn't make the case, in my opinion. Course evaluations have lots of biases, but she didn't even use those, instead drawing upon responses from, which are next to meaningless. She also drew from a handful of anecdotes. And then she asserted that she and her friends regularly skip classes, but it's her professors' fault for that, which I found very off-putting. Finally, she seemed to assert that tenure was the main problem, without offering any evidence to support that.

There's plenty of good information out there about professors' skills, or lack thereof, in the classroom. I just wish she'd used some of it.