A discussion at Leiter’s site, prompted by an admittedly alarming letter from an anonymous correspondent focuses on whether teaching counts for anything in a large research university. Here’s the prompt:
(1) “Teaching counts for nothing.” It was a shock to me how dishonest research schools are about teaching: on the brochures, to parents, in official pronouncements the line is that we care about teaching deeply. But in private all my colleagues, even at the official orientation, have said teaching counts for virtually nothing for tenure purposes, for merit raises, etc. (Exception: if your student evaluations are truly awful that might hurt a bit.) In other words, there is hardly any institutional concern for teaching, i.e. concern that manifests itself in aligning incentive structures with good teaching. It’s not 50-50 research/teaching, it’s 100-0 or maybe 90-10. Experiment: try explaining to your non-academic friends, neighbors, legislators that our top universities basically ignore teaching in their evaluation of teachers. I often wonder whether our actual policies could survive publicity.
Zemsky, Wegner, and Massy, in their excellent Remaking the American University muse about why it is that despite the fact that tuition costs, especially for elite colleges, have risen fast over the past couple of decades there has been no evidence of improved quality of instruction over the same period. They give what seems to me the most likely explanation:
Critics of higher education, and to some extent higher education itself, have misunderstood the core business of these institutions. Whereas most believe the task of universities and colleges is to supply quality educations at reasonable prices, their real business is to sell competitive advantage at necessarily high prices.
So there simply isn’t much market pressure to improve instruction (the fact that the fruits of growth over that period have largely accrued to the small group of people who are buying this essentially positional good for their children makes it even less puzzling). To illustrate: one of our commenters (sorry, can’t find any links, but I swear it’s true) has complained a number of times that his daughter takes an Economics class at a highly selective state research university for which he pays a fortune in which she learns nothing that she couldn’t have learned from the textbook. If so, I agree that this is shameful behavior on the part of the professor. But if our commenter just wanted the learning for his daughter he could just pay for the textbook – he doesn’t just want the learning, he wants the competitive advantage that she gets from a degree from an elite college.
As ZWM point out in the book, there is more market pressure these days than there used to be on institutions which are non-elite and non-selective: they increasingly have to compete with providers (like the University of Phoenix) which have low costs, high quality control, and are concerned with meeting the demands of workers who have particular learning needs (and, as they don’t point out, while this might have good effects on the quality of teaching it might have not so good effects on exactly what gets taught). But selective, elite institutions (especially the 140 or so colleges and Universities that are most selective) are really selling a credential, not the learning that comes along with it. This could all change of course. ZWM, writing in 2005, conjectured that only a major economic reversal might force change (we’ll see, then!)—but in the ordinary course of events it is hard to see how dramatic change will be come about through the marketplace. An institution which already has prestige could build up its market position over time by focusing on instruction, but it would take a very long time, and a leader taking that strategy would be constantly battling the very people whose efforts he/she was trying to harness to improve instruction. For example, an individual institution is not going to be able to attract faculty members who already have high status by asking them to do more teaching.
Of course, as several of Leiter’s commenters point out, this doesn’t mean that teaching plays no role at all in decisions about hiring, tenure, and promotion. Tenure allows us to act like monopolists. If we decide we want to provide high quality instruction and can figure out how to do so we are completely free to do so, and if we want to offer moderate-to-low quality instruction we are free to do that. And my experience of tenure cases is like Michael Rosen’s – good opinions of teaching can carry the day for a tenure case that is otherwise marginal, and bad opinions of teaching can sink a similar case. And in every discussion of a hire I’ve been in, people have advanced opinions about the likely quality of teaching as relevant to the discussion.
The problem is that those opinions are rarely well-informed. For example, one cannot judge the quality of somebody’s undergraduate teaching from observing them in a standard job talk – different audience, different judgments about what to say and how (and, hence, different misjudgments). The quantitative information in teaching evaluations is very dodgy; the qualitative data, while much more useful in flagging both bad and good qualities of a teacher, cannot yield an all-things-considered judgment about the quality of the teacher. In my three years of being on a divisional committee at my university I have come across just one department that seems to have the kind of high quality mentoring system around teaching that one would want to see—in which many department members have observed a junior colleague teaching, and produce memos about the teaching which are detailed, frank, lacking unnecessary superlatives, and giving what could be really useful feedback.
The problem about teaching is that we do not have good instruments for measuring its quality. If we did, then we might be able to use them. But what we, in fact, do, if we are diligent teachers, is cast around in the dark for ideas and try to put them into practice, with no real evidence about whether they work or not. This is why, although tenure makes us free to offer high quality instruction, even those professors who can resist the incentives of the profession to focus on other things may not be able to offer it. The fundamental problem is that as a profession we have not taken teaching institutionally seriously. We lack common standards, common assessments, the common language and the commitment to spending time learning collaboratively how to be better at it that would be needed for us to make well-informed judgments. I’ve no doubt that there is excellent teaching in my own institution, but I think the only people who really have much of a clue where it is going on are the reflective smart undergraduates, whose comments in evaluations sometimes shine through but have to compete with a lot of noise.
In other words, whether an institution takes teaching seriously or not is not revealed in its treatment of teaching in tenure cases. It is measured by whether it puts serious institutional resources into creating instruments which would allow teachers continuously to improve their instruction and whether the faculty make a lot of use of those resources. My sense is that most research university campuses have pockets of people trying to create and use such resources, some of them institutionalized in Vice Provost of Teaching and Learning offices and the like; but that administrators are timid about pressing faculty too hard. And, as ZWM say, in the absence of market pressure to improve, it is hard to see where things are going to change.