Monday, January 12, 2009

Adventures in Bad University Administration

Leave it to the Aggies. An administrator in the Texas A&M system has proposed a novel "merit-based" bonus system for teaching faculty: awarding financial bonuses to instructors with good (i.e., better than other instructors) student evaluations.

I recognize the value of student evaluations, but I'm not naive enough to believe that they provide an accurate metric for excellence in teaching, especially across disciplines and courses. At my institution, I teach required, core sequence classes that all music majors take. My evaluations last semester were really good, but I can't imagine they are as good as they would be if I were teaching, say, the history of hip-hop or a course on the film scores of John Williams. That is, I think students and their evaluations are colored by the nature of the course (thinking back my student days, it is probable that I gave lower evaluation marks to good teachers of uninteresting classes than good teachers of interesting classes).

Similarly, I am fighting (or trying to fight, at least) grade inflation; I have a steep grading scale and am considered to be a "hard grader"-- most in my classes received B's and C's last term. Grading leniently (even the perception of grading leniently) has an effect on student evaluations, a fact admitted even by the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation. Does this, in effect, bait instructors to inflate grades in hopes of a $2,500 bonus?

So what is really going on here? Take it from Texas A&M's associate provost Karan Watson, as quoted the Byran-College Station paper, The Eagle:

"Karan Watson, Texas A&M's dean of faculties and associate provost, admitted that the bonus program has shortcomings, including a disadvantage to professors such as Loudder. It's also more likely that the instructor of a fun elective is going to get higher ratings than someone who teaches a mandatory class, Watson said.
But the fundamental purpose of this program, she said, is to measure student satisfaction, not teaching effectiveness."

(emphasis mine)

Christ. If I want to win that award, I'm going to start having no exams, teach only pop culture topical subjects, and have a dime bag as a required course material. I don't say this because I have a low opinion of students, either. I think students have vastly different expectations for different courses. A class on the cultural psychology of the Velvet Underground carries a different expectation than Organic Chemistry III, and I would argue that it would be much easier to get better evaluations with the former. In the fall, I'm teaching a class on modes of listening, which will be for the general student population and include mostly popular music. I guarantee I will get better evaluations for that course than for my post-tonal theory class-- it is human nature. It will be less work, closer to their experience, and likely an easy 'A'.

The point here is that a nebulous, "consumer-y" phrase like "student satisfaction" (as opposed to "teaching effectiveness") is a pretty shitty metric. I'd be okay with it if they polled my students five or ten years from now; if they are satisfied with the skills and knowledge they learned in my courses at that point, I think it becomes meaningful.

From the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation's David Guenthner:

"Universities were created for the education of students, not as a jobs program for adults," said David Guenthner, a spokesman for the Texas Public Policy Foundation. "Reforms such as performance bonuses based on student evaluations will improve the quality of education students receive by making universities more responsive to students, parents and employers."

I have a real problem with Mr. Guenthner's thoughts on this. This displays a fundamental lack of understanding about how the university works in society. We are not here to provide a comfortable experience for students. We are not here to be popular, and we are certainly not better off mimicking the consumerist drivel that companies spew forth 24 hours a day. We are here to challenge, to guide, to impart skills and knowledge, and to create a foundation for life-long learning. When you degrade these goals down to Scantron bubbles on a 1 to 10 system, or a comment card you might find at your local Wendy's, you miss the fucking point completely. Let us do our jobs. Let scholars and people who work in academia, who know the system and its challenges, deal with its problems. If evaluations are bad, there are problems, to be sure. The administration will deal with them. Students are not afraid of calling out bad or lazy teaching, nor should they be. I'm thrilled to have students that hold me to high standards of teaching. But that doesn't mean their opinions at the end of a long semester are a good metric to decide whether I am a better or worse instructor than others on my campus. This is a university, not American Idol.