Wednesday, November 6, 2013

From Noble to Unethical Profession: Are we all Supporting Unethical Institutions?

This article entitled "When Students Rate Teachers, Standards Drop (NOTE: if you really want to read the article, just google the title and it should pop up free without having to pay; Defunct Adjunct googled it and it popped up the second time s/he searched for it; or read the summary below in Defunct Adjunct's comment; it's nothing new we haven't heard before, which is why it doesn't matter too much if people read it; I'm using it more as a segue to my main point). It basically states that when we want to get good evals, we--consciously or unconsciously--let our standards drop. Those of us posting on here complain when we see our colleagues doing this. But is it more complicated than that?

On this blog, we have the motto not to care more than the student does, but is another of our unspoken mottos that we care what the students think of us entirely too much? Or is it that we don't care, but we know administrators care, and  that means we feel we are helpless to do anything about it and then become resentful about it, thereby needing a blog where we can fight back?

In a similar way, I've been bothered by the recent question posed to us about whether we simply lack courage to stand up for what we know to be effective when it comes to student complaints and student badgering and student manipulative behavior. I'm not bothered by the implication that if we complain, we must automatically be cowardly (that fallacious reasoning doesn't fly with me), but I am bothered that maybe there is some truth in the idea that the institutions we support (by working for them) create powerless beings who end up being forced to care about things that shouldn't matter to them (i.e. adjuncts whose whole careers depend on whether students say they like them and want them to come back the next term). I do care that even my institution sets up an expectation that shows faculty that they are merely here to serve a function for an institution rather than to serve humanity's goal of furthering education. And I wonder to what end student evaluations contribute to the seemingly unethical institutions we are part of.

I have been fairly content and proud of the kind of work I've been doing in my career. I've felt accomplished and have felt as if I have been contributing positively to society. But recently, I feel like I'm working for a company that supports unethical business practices (by admitting students who won't succeed, and whom we can immediately tell won't succeed), unethical treatment of its employees (by hiring adjuncts in exchange for shiny pebbles and rotten apples, not to mention overworking everyone!), and unethical promises to society (that we are churning out a workforce ready to take over). This makes me feel like I'm contributing to this culture.

So while student evals may seem tangentially related, I think that all of it contributes to an overall feeling that maybe this isn't the career for me anymore because I'm having a hard time looking in the mirror and holding my head up; not because I'm caving in to student opinion (I'm proud of upholding my standards), but because I work for an organization that does shitty things to people.


  1. I don't know about unethical per se, though there are particular individuals or decisions at Tuk U that are unethical. The best way I can describe the University as a whole is that its values are out of line with mine. Tuk U values money and prestige. I doubt it is unusual in this. But I got into academia because I valued knowledge and understanding.

    I'm aware that these goals can sometimes align - James Watson's description of how he was motivated to figure out the structure of DNA by the fame it would bring is a famous example of how scholars are motivated in part by a desire for prestige, and that this is not necessarily a bad thing. But neither is it necessarily a good thing. I see too many of my admins and colleagues confusing the things that will support the university (like increased revenue for example) for the goals of the university.

  2. Is there a trick to getting the article to show up after the link?

  3. But CC, what’s the alternative? I agree that “corrupt” isn’t too strong of a word to describe higher education today. So did Peter Sacks in “Generation X Goes to College,” which was published in 1996, so this isn’t exactly news. I think I still can and should do a lot of good from inside higher ed anyway. I'd better, since there aren’t exactly a lot of jobs for astronomers like me outside of academia. There especially aren’t many where I can be a teacher, the way my Dad was, and be active in research too.

    Throughout my teaching career, I have done my best to STOP unethical practices in education. It hasn’t been easy, but I’ve been standing up to bullies for as long as I can remember. I've been beaten up for it more than a few times, but I have a long history of getting the last laugh.

    There was that time when I was 12, and I had a brand, new magnifying glass. One sunny day, I saw a bully sitting on a park bench. I mosied on over nonchalantly and sat down next to him, without saying a word. I held out my magnifying glass, and within 10 seconds I’d set his pants on fire. I got in a lot of trouble for that, but it was worth it: the bullying stopped.

    This story foreshadowed much of my teaching career. Ever since I began teaching 15 years ago, I have been flabbergasted by the utter crap that education professionals and administrators spouted at me. I couldn’t believe anyone could say such things, much less believe them. More than once, I’ve wondered how anyone could take at face value what teenagers say, particularly anonymously, and still live in this world, much less be a responsible parent. One particularly humorless department chair read every one of my student evals to me, yelled at me for every bad one, and ignored every good one. Can this fool possibly have thought that this would help in any way? What worried me most that he was supposed to be a physicist: they’re supposed to understand statistics, you know.

    So, my early years were a struggle. I very nearly didn’t get tenure. It was my ability to bring in funding from NASA, and my willingness to involve students in research, which saved me, and by only one vote.

    So, ever since I got tenure, I’ve done my best to use it. It still didn’t stop me from getting yelled at by department chairs, but that stopped when I finally served as department chair myself. It helped enormously that I had a great department secretary who really ran the department, I just signed stuff, and a dean who was keen on research and therefore liked me.

    It for dang sure didn’t stop the students from making that mewling sound. Herrgott im Himmel, how I HATE that mewling sound! But as I get older, I get harder of hearing, plus my hide gets thicker.

    Much of what keeps me going as a teacher were the bad teachers I had. Much of what keeps me going as a researcher were the out-of-date, research-inactive, and clearly bored deadwood professors I had as an undergraduate. I resolved never to be like that, and I think I’ve done pretty well. Life loves its ironies, of course: now I have no shortage of students who squander the opportunities I knock myself out to make for them. But then, I’ve also learned not to judge students too quickly.

    We recently got a new dean who’s turning out to be a real challenge. This new dean appears to be a snake-oil seller of the worst kind, who apparently truly believes the advertising copy. This dean has little experience in teaching, and less in research. I’m still going to need to be nice to this person, since my observatory needs some new equipment, and it’s going to be pricey. So, I won’t be setting anyone's pants on fire, much less stapling dicks to the floor, for now. If you don’t like working for an organization that does shitty things to people, the answer isn’t necessarily to quit. It may be just not to do shitty things to people.

    1. I don't know what the alternative is. I am just now questioning whether my staying does more harm than my leaving.

  4. J'accuse! I agree with you. As I've said here before, most higher-ed administrators (in the US) these days have priorities that amount to running a dishonest operation, and they know it. Here is the argument, in summary: the knowledge and academic attitudes of most students finishing high-school have declined precipitously, to the point most cannot withstand an intellectually rigorous environment, let alone thrive in one. Yet administrators increasingly pressure faculties--under penalty of unemployment--to not only maintain, but increase graduation rates without officially acknowledging a corresponding decline in the standards for individual courses or majors. I can teach "Real Analysis" in a certain way to students with a weak background so that, say, 65% will pass, but it won't be what was called Real Analysis fifteen years ago, and should have a different name. ("Calculus with some proofs?") I'm sure similar things happen in every discipline. Administrators may claim "success" (and bonuses) with increased graduation rates, but the result is that a U diploma will mean increasingly less. Employers know this, so except for programs that maintain an image of selectivity and high standards, students with a state U diploma will have a much harder time getting jobs. "Not my department", says the adminiflake. Like the mortgage crisis.

    The mechanism used to pressure the faculty to adopt lower standards (and participate in the general dishonesty) is making student ratings the major factor in faculty evaluation (even tenured faculty at "R1" places). I'm being faulted for lower enrollments in my classes, too (thanks, RMP! Why can't you be sued, I wonder.) The lifelong professional and financial cost of resisting this pressure is steep.

    So, what do other countries (Germany, France, Brazil, Korea) do? (And why don't we ever look at other systems in these discussions?) They have public (federal) university systems that are (i) free for students and (ii) highly selective. Students become accustomed, throughout secondary education, to the fact that there are consequences to non-performance. Not irrecoverable ones, but not an infinitely forgiving system, either. And there are alternatives: if rigorous intellectual pursuit is not your thing, there are networks of post-secondary technical schools leading to secure and well-compensated employment. Those degrees are not trivial, and they mean something.

    So that's one thing we could do: make public higher-ed free and selective, and provide realistic alternatives. One result of this would be to put pressure on high schools to create diverse tracks, making the U-bound track much stronger than it is today.

    What will in fact happen is very different. American capitalism is very good at identifying rich sources of income ripe for a takeover, and we already know how it will be sold: "using new technologies to cut costs and improve access". In 30 years, universities as we currently know them in the US will be the province of a tiny elite. The professoriate is powerless to do anything but watch. Or maybe not; maybe a small number of us will learn to use technical platforms and disseminate the content we generate, for our own
    profit (or at least subsistence). We just have to figure out a way to "monetize" it, without the bricks-and-mortar structure.

    1. Incidentally, we have (I believe) an administrator among us (Yuri from Youngstown) who can see the entire academic administrator class accused of willful dishonesty in this thread, yet can be safely predicted to decline to defend it. So Yuri: where is the courage, I wonder. Or if you agree the practice of using student evals in faculty evaluation is indefensible, go ahead and say so.

    2. PK: I am loathe to deny you your impression of me, especially if having it makes you feel superior in some way. Play on.

    3. Peter, you seem to be upset that the administration isn't admitting that they are lowering academic standards in order to educate their students. I don't think that's dishonest as much as simply not admitting what many people know to be true. Really, I don't see the big problem.

      We could make college more selective, that is, more white and middle/upper class. That would reverse our course from the past 50 years.

      Your comment about Yuri is out of line.

    4. Ben, academic administrators don't publicly admit something they know to be true, and you don't see the problem? If a university awards someone a diploma that used to be associated with the expectation of certain skills or knowledge, fully aware that that's no longer the case, that's at the very least false advertising, and easily fits into the common-sense definition of dishonesty.

      My (state) university is completely non-selective; basically anyone can get in. And yet it is more than 90% white and middle class (the few minority students on campus are almost all athletes.) Making higher education accessible to more lower-income students is a a worthy goal, but this is not the same discussion as tightening admissions standards. (And as I said, if you did that you'd have to offer attractive alternatives.)

      I merely challenged Yuri to contribute to this discussion. Strong statements were made about university administrators, both in the OP and in my comment. He has described himself as one, so I was curious about whether he agreed or not, and why. True to form, he declines to comment. (That's typical admin behavior as well: declining to discuss policy with the faculty; "the faculty", here, being the other members of this blog.)

    5. I don't think it's really fair to call Yuri to task to defend all administrators or to try to force him to comment if he doesn't feel he wants to contribute to this discussion. I had included his article as a link to mine simply because it was the one that prompted me to start thinking about whether the issue is as simple as people being cowardly or if it went deeper than that. I decided it was a matter of administrative abuse, but that may not be Yuri's experience or perspective.

      Perhaps I, too, am simplifying and scapegoating the wrong party, too, by labeling administrators as the hegemonic oppressive force in our lives, but that is my experience of over 16 years in this field.

      Mostly, I, too, would like this system changed, but am not sure how to do so, short of going over to the dark side and becoming an admin.

      Peter K: perhaps the question I should be asking is whether one can switch from faculty to admin and not become "the oppressor."

    6. Peter, I don't think that it's that big of a deal. If the quality of any other business (we're in a business, after all) declined, would you expect their commercials to advertise it? "The New York Times, now with 20% fewer foreign correspondents!"

  5. I can't get the article to open up. Is someone on the blog going to post the text, the flavor?

  6. Yeah, the link wants $$ to read it. No got no money for dat!

  7. Prickly Prof, it's really nothing that you haven't heard a dozen times before. That's not to say I disagree with him; it's just that it's essentially another iteration of the same lament about student evals.

    The author argues that having students evaluate professors is like having restaurants evaluate health inspectors, because the result of such a system is that a desire for better ratings leads to a decline in quality.

    He believes that there are good and reasonable questions that can be asked on evaluations, but that the system is corrupt because, for most administrations, those students evaluations are basically the only tool used to evaluate teaching quality. He notes that leniency simply makes life easier for teachers themselves and, in a line that I love and am going to steal, correctly observes that "essays can be graded in half the time if you pretend they're twice as good." Administrators are so focused on retention and graduation rates that they don't try to address the problem.

    He essentially calls for changing the system, and committing to a process that doesn't rely just on evaluations to measure the quality of teaching. He calls on both colleges and accrediting agencies to push for more rigorous standards, although he doesn't really explain exactly how he thinks they should do this. And, in terms of faculty employment, he calls for disconnecting job security and tenure decisions from student evaluations.

    1. And the odds of any of the things he calls for actually happening are....


  8. The intellectual part of my personality says: "Students should be held to higher standards in my classes, and I shouldn't be afraid to be a demanding professor. I should stop being such a pussy in the classroom."

    The practical, bill-paying part says: "Holy shit! I need to get good course evaluations or I'm out of a job."

    Finally, my cynicism speaks up: "Meh, fuck it. I need a drink."

    1. And then my pragmatic self says "and drink costs money..."

      and my worser self says "hey, drink makes me care less about this split infinitive! Woohoo! Quick grading!"

  9. Sorry, all! I don't have a subscription to the journal but it popped up for me when I googled the title. I will see if I can get a PDF attached or something.

    Thank you, Defunct Adjunct, for the summary!

    1. I should add that I don't have a subscription either. I went in through Google, and it came up as a "Subscription only" article first time around, but then it appeared in full the second time I tried.

  10. I think student evaluations get a bad rap in this case. There are inherent problems with student evaluations but all assessment methods have limitations. It's inexpensive, easy and can include all students in the class. The people evaluating are the ones who have sat through 45 hours of the class, more than anybody else. They are also the people whose word of mouth and tuition payments make the university solvent.

    The problem is how administrators handle the data. Should I be penalized because my score when from a 4.50 on a five point scale last year to a 4.45 this year? Only if my boss is an idiot. But if he is, then how will he interpret other data, like a single student who complains (100% student dissatisfaction?) or the evaluation by a colleague who is biased due to departmental politics and professional relationships with me? Student evals can be used poorly and they often are but that's the fault of the administration, not the evals themselves.

    1. "The people evaluating are the ones who have sat through 45 hours of the class, more than anybody else. They are also the people whose word of mouth and tuition payments make the university solvent."

      They are also the ones who, in some cases, have received a grade of F on their term paper for plagiarism, or who have received consistent grades of D+ or C- for mediocre work, or who have been asked to stop talking or texting during lecture. These people sometimes have an axe to grind, and the anonymous nature of the evaluations means that those produced by the malcontents and the slackers are weighted equally with those produced by the students who do things the right way, and who actually give a shit about their education.

      Another problem is that the 5-point scale is often the only thing that admins look at. Luckily for me, my department chair reads the written comments on the evals, and understands that students who whine about having to read 60 pages a week in a university-level humanities course are not making reasonable complaints. But those whiners, who want their courses dumbed down and their degrees in exchange for just turning up, are weighted equally in the numerical breakdown with good students who are happy to have an intellectually rigorous syllabus.

      A couple of semesters ago, I had a student who turned up to the first two classes, and who then turned up to the last class of the semester. I didn't know whether or not I was authorized to refuse her a chance to complete the evaluations, so she got to fill one out like everyone else. How can someone who's been present for about 10 percent of class meetings reasonably evaluate my effectiveness as a teacher?

      This is, admittedly, an extreme case, but the claim that evaluations have value rests on the assumption that students value the right things about their college education, and there's plenty of evidence that this simply isn't the case.

    2. Our student evals went completely online two years ago, and the overall response rate (throughout the U) stands at around 25%. In my UG classes it's been 35-40%. And the system allows students who have dropped the class to respond (and, of course, those who just stopped coming, but didn't formally drop). How can a system like that have any credibility? And yet the average on a single question ("instructor overall") of 25 asked is the single piece of data that has determined the rating given to my teaching by both the current dept head and his predecessor. That's ridiculous.

      A system in which students had to be physically present to fill out a paper form, with only students present to at least 80% of the lectures allowed to complete it, would make a lot more sense.

      And the main point of the article quoted in the OP (and similar ones) is that reliance on student ratings for faculty evaluation leads to weaker standards and drives grade inflation. No one here is disputing this highly plausible and well-documented fact, right?

  11. I just wonder what the alternative is in which we work for just organizations that do good for people. Most of my college friends are Ph.D.s, but everybody else who graduated from our university went to work at Bear Stearns.

  12. I'm sorry: I have no answers. I'm at a point where I see it as a paradigm shift needing to take place before any change will take place. And no change is likely if administrators continue to behave in ways that undermine faculty. So I wonder (aside from not know what other career would offer me the same kind of opportunity for intellectual stimulation wherein I feel like I'm doing more good than harm) whether becoming an administrator who fights for good is the way to go, or whether we are truly as helpless to enact change as I sometimes feel.

    While I do my small part to enlighten and hopefully get a few to learn a thing or two, does my small good still make me complicit in the overall "evil" of the organization?

  13. I think that my experience has either been quite rare, or maybe I'm missing something here...most administrators that I've worked with have understood the fickle nature of the course evaluations and that there will always be a certain amount of revenge mixed in. What I've heard, and witnessed, is a focus on a system that feeds back into itself. "Closing the loop" in assessment parlance.

    I once heard an administrator talk about the psychological value of providing evaluations (as in, the flakes are happier if they get to fill them out, even if they aren't going anywhere), but that's about as bad as I've seen. Particularly at my present institution, the important part is that you are assessing your instruction, learning from the assessment, and making changes due to those assessments (or possibly NOT making changes, the important part is that you are engaged in ensuring a quality education).

  14. I've met a few administrators (dept heads, deans) throughout my career who were competent people, accomplished in their fields and with "academic values" not different from mine. But not recently, and I think it's a dying breed. They came from the faculty or were hired from the outside, but in any case returned to the faculty once their term was up.

    Part of the problem is we've started getting"executive administrators": even when they come from the faculty, they become career admins, with no intention of working as regular faculty again. They don't teach, don't do research and yet in many cases view themselves as possessing special skills, or a better understanding of the enterprise than the random faculty member. (To say nothing of their inexplicably high salaries, given the mundane nature of what they do.)

    Ideally an administrator should be a "remover of obstacles", someone who creates conditions for faculty to do their best, wherever their talents lie. Instead what we see mostly is craven apparatchiks, bent on imposing the priorities of the next higher level on the next lower one. My current dept chair is a particularly spineless and cowardly individual, who will do anything to please the dean and the provost, and can be easily bribed by promises of TT positions.

    The atmosphere of an institution is a reflection of its academic leadership, and in my case the current situation is bad. At the very top we have the Board of Trustees, mostly business people whose main connection to academia is football. On campus, chancellor and provost are unremarkable scholars with wrongheaded priorities. The dean/associate dean are accomplished scientists, but new on the job, so it's too early to say. The dept head and his predecessor are complete idiots.

  15. Here's somebody who refuses to accept the crappy way things are.
    GET 'EM Prof. McGlynn! (Tenured, o'course)