Is teaching undergraduates central to the mission…?

by Harry on February 23, 2015

Megan McArdle quite reasonably takes me to task for a seemingly (but not actually) throw-away phrase in my post about the recent dispute over the mission of my university. I’m very much in sympathy with the direction of her piece, so I thought I’d explain what I meant. One caveat — she very clearly specifies that she is talking about public flagship universities like mine, and I shall stick with that, so neither of us should be interpreted as implying anything about any other kind of institution (she takes her main example from an Ivy league school, but that example could just as easily have been at Madison).

She says this phrase caught her eye:

First, and most obviously, undergraduate education is central to the mission of the institution. Although at UW-Madison we have as many graduate and professional students as we do undergraduates, most of the graduate students are here because the undergraduates are here, and a very large proportion of our professional students are recruited from the undergraduate pool. Take away the undergraduates and the whole enterprise is done for.

She’s not sure what I meant by it (I’ll clarify in a moment) but she suspects that:

“Undergraduates are central to our mission” is a kind of polite public fiction within the university community, the sort of thing that everyone believes ought to be true but often isn’t, like “America is a great melting pot.”

The main evidence she has that it is a fiction concerns hiring, promotion and retention decisions:

One of my favorite professors at the University of Pennsylvania, a truly gifted and amazing teacher, failed to get tenure the year I was a senior. After a grassroots campaign by his adoring students, the department reconsidered and gave him an extra year, after which he again failed to get tenure, and he went off to the West. I eventually got to ask someone else in the department why he’d been let go, and the answer was simple: His scholarly work was not impressive enough. So arguably the best and most beloved teacher in the department, the one whose class I have carried with me lo these 20 years and more, wasn’t good enough to teach undergraduates at Penn because he wasn’t publishing enough groundbreaking research.

Does that sound like an institution where educating undergraduates is central to the mission? Not really. Or at least: It is not central to the mission of the faculty, because if it were central, it would carry more weight in deciding who to hire and retain


So to people outside, teaching undergraduates seems like a nice thing that the faculty would like to do, or at least persuade someone else to do, rather than an overriding priority.

As she points out, even if faculty don’t value undergraduate teaching, that doesn’t mean it is not at the core of the mission. Maybe Administrators care about it:

As a group, the administration is probably more focused on undergraduates than the faculty are, if only because the administration is responsible for keeping them out of trouble.

But I’m not sure that this means they think of educating undergraduates as core to their mission. Graduating undergraduates, yes. Keeping undergraduates from dying, or suing — yes. Getting undergraduates jobs, yes. Giving undergraduates a happy college experience that will later turn into fat checks from nostalgic alumni, yes. But educating them? Is that really their core mission? Again, from outside, it seems that administrators are more focused on student life outside the classroom than they are on what happens inside it.

Ok, so there is a lot to discuss here, and I might not get to it all, but here goes.

First, what did I actually mean? Well, the phrases that bookend the passage she quotes are different kinds of claim. The second —
“Take away the undergraduates and the whole enterprise is done for” was an empirical claim. I realize that various restrictive practices mean that even if there were no undergraduates there would be room for Law schools, Medical schools and Veterinary schools. And maybe States would join the Federal government in making grants available for research in the sciences, social sciences, and even in the humanities, in which case very small research organizations might exist to compete for those funds. My own school, the College of Letters and Science, teaches a considerable majority of the undergraduate credits on campus, and the business model is based on that assumption. Possibly we’d have a very small Graduate College of Letters and Sciences. But it would be small, with only the very elite researchers, and some research staff to assist. Nothing on the scale of a Michigan, a Berkeley or a Madison. Undergraduate teaching underpins the large public research university.

The first sentence of the passage — undergraduate education is central to the mission of the institution — was, however, normative, not, as Megan interpreted it (perfectly reasonably in the context, which is why I’ve taken the opportunity to clarify), empirical. “Mission” is ambiguous between “what the mission statement says” (mission statements are, by and large, uninteresting — this is the ‘polite fiction’ — and in the fuss over our Governor’s proposed revisions I think too few of the Governor’s critics paused to ask how well our practices actually align with our published mission), “what the institution is actually trying to do” (as she says, unclear, though speaking as someone who has a good deal of interaction with administrators at my institution, I have total confidence that their commitment to the undergraduate mission — and the rest of our mission — is deep, not at all cynical; and, fortunately, they are highly competent. Maybe we’re just lucky at Madison), and “what justifies the institution”. This last is what I meant. I didn’t argue for it, and I am not going to do so here, really (I think she and I agree, but she can correct me if not; we might even agree on why, but I’ll leave that till another time).

Now, to the main point. If educating undergraduates (well) is so central to the justification of the state flagship, do hiring, retention, and promotion practices reflect that? She is right that they don’t, and she is right that they should. By saying that I do not mean that teaching should always be more important than research or service. Just that teaching should sometimes be more important than research or service, and, usually, evidence of very high quality teaching should be good enough to get tenure for somebody whose research is right at the threshold that the institution usually holds research to and perhaps, even, below it. Students often ask me why we can’t recalibrate the importance of teaching in tenure decisions. Here’s the answer I give: several considerations which, when taken together, make me doubt that we can make big changes to the tenure process. Then I’ll suggest how better to align what we do with what our mission should be.

1) It is much, much, easier to judge the quality of someone’s research than the quality of someone’s teaching. Research is a publicly visible activity — you can count the papers and the number of pages, and rank the journals by prestige. Other recognized experts can be easily identified, and then asked to review all the research someone has produced, and evaluate it. Outsiders to that research, themselves experts in the evaluation of research quality in their own fields, have good reason to trust the judgment of experts in that field, and have experience evaluating the evaluation of research. As Megan says, teaching evaluations are extremely limited in their value. Most students are not expert observers of teaching (some are, actually, but it takes real work to figure out which ones: I always try to have a few whom I know to be experts, for my own purposes, but I don’t have a systematic process for finding them, and don’t know what a systematic process would look like). And professors are not even experts in teaching (some are, but it takes real work to figure out which they are); let alone in the evaluation of teaching or the evaluation of evaluations of teaching. We have only recently developed the technologies (video-recording) that make it possible to review, after the fact, the quality of someone’s teaching in the classroom; and even that does not capture everything; a lot of teaching goes on in the margins — comments on papers, conversations (including private, hence by their nature unobservable, conversations) with students, checking in to make sure someone is ok, building relationships, choosing the right people to present together, inviting a student who’s hanging outside your office to wait inside your office while you talk to a graduate student, so that she will hear and learn from the conversation, etc…

2) Suppose we had good ways of evaluating teaching quality. It would be extremely difficult for a single institution to do as McArdle suggests, and give teaching a lot of weight in tenure and promotion decisions. Why? Everybody knows that it is difficult to assess the quality of teaching. Furthermore, tenure decisions are holistic, and made by committees of people whose judgements cannot be precisely dictated. So, first, even if an institution declares it will give more weight to teaching, it is going to be hard for a tenure track professor to believe that. And, because they cannot be assured tenure, even if they would rather focus more on teaching, they have to remain competitive for jobs at other institutions — which have either not made the same declaration, or, even if they have made that declaration, it would be even harder for an outsider than for an insider to believe it.

3) Cultures change very slowly, unless they are under heavy pressure of some kind to change, and the culture of i) prioritizing research over teaching and ii) being sloppy in one’s judgments about the quality of one’s own teaching and that of others is very deeply ingrained by decades of practice.

All this leads me to doubt that tenure is a feasible pressure point for changing the quality of teaching. And even if it is feasible, it is not the most promising. I’ve already endorsed the suggestion of a track for master teachers. I actually think that, for the time being, the most promising pressure points are during graduate school, and post tenure. At the graduate school stage it is possible to require participation in systems that promote continuous improvement — the teaching assistants and lecturers are, after all, graduate employees. At the post-tenure stage, it is possible, for at least some professors, to create monetary and other incentives for participation. What kind of system am I envisaging? The clue is in McArdle’s comment that:

Compared to other institutions, university departments barely attempt to evaluate a professor’s skill at educating undergraduates — they do not, for example, spend much time supervising classrooms or trying to figure out how much the undergraduates have learned.

I’m not sure about the “compared to” — K-12 is the obvious comparison class.In k-12 we have lots of standardized tests, but not much assessment of learning in a specific period, and certainly not a lot of supervising of classrooms; and too much of the little observation that is done is done by principals who know little about teaching and for whom evaluating teachers is a miniscule and, de facto, unimportant, part of their job. But the best (if rare) practices in k-12 can be borrowed by higher education. Teaching is just like any other skill. You improve by first identifying others who are demonstrably skillful, observing them, mimicking them, getting feedback on your practice, modifying in the light of the feedback, and repeating the whole process over and over again. A system in which we record lectures and discussions, get teachers together to observe and discuss what they see, in the light of evidence about what the students learned (and, in college you can even, as I have done, select students to participate in these critical discussions) according to carefully developed protocols; and the addition of systematic coaching (sometimes by students — last Thursday the student whom I currently hire to observe me gave expressed dissatisfaction with the discussion I had just conducted in a discussion section and identified exactly what I need to do next week to avoid the problem) would, I think, improve the quality of instruction; and would be cheap relative to the cost of the whole enterprise.

I’d like to see these sorts of things happen because I think they’re the kinds of things that we should already be doing — because we should value undergraduate instruction more than we do. I don’t see the market exerting much pressure to get us to adopt such practices, though. I think the key reason is this. Parents, and students, are not buying education, but a credential. As long as that is what they are doing the brand is going to matter more than the actual instructional quality or how much they learn. As Bill Massy, Bob Zemsky and Greg Wegner put it in Remaking the American University:

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 collegesis to supply quality educations at reasonable prices, their real business is to sell competitive advantage at necessarily high prices. [HB — this comment applies to the more selective parts of the sector]

As I explained here, as long as this remains the case, there won’t be much market pressure to elevate the importance of teaching. McArdle thinks that might be changing:

People outside the university are already focusing less on graduation day and more on what you did during your years in school. That will continue, and intensify.

Many of the people who will be doing that focusing are parents or employers, or policy makers who went to large research schools. Their beliefs about academia’s priorities — true or not — are going to shape their willingness to invest more in its students.

I am not so confident. When I talk to non-university audiences about admissions and choosing colleges my exhortations on parents to exert pressure on colleges to improve the quality of instruction their children will receive are met mostly with bemusement — because, I think, people don’t have much of a clue how to do that because it is so hard to figure out systematically what kids will or did learn within the institution. And anyway they are generally, and rationally, more concerned with the quality of their kid’s credential than the quality of their learning. Sure, there seems to be some political pressure to elevate the importance of teaching. But the kinds of proposals I see are so indirect that it is hard to imagine them actually having good effects, and easy to see them having bad effects (eg, rewarding schools for the starting salaries of their graduates would, for example, discourage colleges from improving their teacher education programs, because teachers start with low salaries, and are expensive to educate well and, in general, intensifies the incentives colleges have to seek students who are already well prepared and whom, therefore, they won’t need to educate). And it is not clear to me that many politicians actually have the attention span or time horizons to push through real, substantial, improvements, even if they had the relevant proposals.

Still, since it has come up, and knowing that a whole lot of readers are currently helping their high school seniors choose colleges: please, at open days, etc, ask the deans what kinds of system they have in place to identify the high quality teachers on their campus, and to ensure that other teachers are observing and learning from them, and they are learning from each other. Many deans, and a not a few faculty, recognize that undergraduate instruction is not as good as it should be, and would more than welcome some sort of market pressure to make improvements happen.



Roland 02.23.15 at 3:03 pm

Great discussion–important evidence about the commitment to teaching is in the preparation of the graduate students who will go on to become faculty. Even at large publics where they earn their way as T.A.s. there is (or at least in my direct experience there was) almost no formal teacher training. Working as a T.A. provided a very modest income for graduate students (and fee relief) and lifted the burden of the teaching load for Faculty. That is all. I am not a particular fan of what passes for teacher training, but I suppose it can be well done–rather than not done at all. It is very difficult to raise the professional bar in a domain for which no one was prepared in the first place.


DrDick 02.23.15 at 3:17 pm

I have to say that I generally agree with all of this. I do think that there is a massive disconnect in what administrators nominally value and how they evaluate faculty and academic programs (and a conflict between those two). Enrollments clearly matter a great deal to administrators and most of that is undergraduates. Teaching, however, is not as important as research (more specifically getting research grants) or, often, “service” (much of it mindless and unproductive committee assignments) in faculty evaluations generally. As you say, there really is no good way to evaluate teaching, which is a problem.


kris 02.23.15 at 3:29 pm

It may be worth noting that her anecdote is about a faculty at UPenn which is most definitely not a public school, and so I dont see how her experience at UPenn applies to that at a public university.


oldster 02.23.15 at 3:37 pm

“One of my favorite professors at the University of Pennsylvania, a truly gifted and amazing teacher, …arguably the best and most beloved teacher in the department.”

“As Megan says, teaching evaluations are extremely limited in their value.”

Yup. Her hero at UPenn may have been, not only a lousy researcher, but also a truly execrable teacher. And he may have been let go, at least in part, because he was a truly execrable teacher–one member of the department said the decision was based on scholarship, but others may have based their decisions on teaching, as well.

Do we have any evidence that he was a competent teacher? Nope, just a single teaching-evaluation from a single student. Of extremely limited value.


Jon W 02.23.15 at 3:38 pm

It’s worth acknowledging another basic issue that arises in connection with rewarding teaching at the tenure stage: it comes directly into conflict with the school’s institutional interest in increasing its own prestige. (I teach at a large public research university, though I don’t teach undergraduates.) Every time a school grants a spot on its tenured faculty to a great teacher whom it believes won’t publish work contributing to its scholarly reputation, it’s passing up an opportunity to try and maximize that reputation. In my experience, that’s a powerful driver, and it underlines your call for finding other pressure points on the institution.


Josh Jasper 02.23.15 at 3:48 pm

But the kids really did love Professor Venkman!


Bloix 02.23.15 at 3:48 pm

#4 – “a truly execrable teacher”

It’s possible that the teacher was bad. Undergrad ability to evaluate teachers is limited.
On the other hand, the department would have no way of knowing that the teacher was bad, would it?


Tiny Tim 02.23.15 at 3:58 pm

Research output is the most quantifiable thing, and it’s why crossing that imaginary boundary is the one thing which is close enough to sure to get you tenure. Institutions should be much better at recognizing that good teachers and people with good service should be a part of the mix, even if their research is a bit below the standard, though to some degree I understand the reasons for why this is sadly not the case.


Matt 02.23.15 at 3:59 pm

For what it’s worth, I know of at least three cases in the philosophy department at Penn where poor teaching evaluations played a role in negative retention decisions. (One of these was eventually reversed.) These were not the only factors, but a record of poor teaching evaluations was given significant weight.


chairman 02.23.15 at 4:17 pm

Undergraduate teaching really isn’t as important because undergraduates should be able to get the content themselves if they need to. If a professor is a poor lecturer and the student doesn’t get much out of the class, and it’s a relatively simple undergrad topic, the student should be able to hit the books and instruct themselves well enough to get a good grade and learn the material. There will always be professors who love their topic and love explaining it to others and helping others see it in the light they do, but the thing about university education is at that point the student should be the more vital component of that own student’s learning than the teacher.


carol 02.23.15 at 4:25 pm

chairman@10: If you are correct, then the undergraduate economic model should change. $x to attend a lecture, $y to attempt the examination for a course, and $z to obtain the credential (the degree). If the lecture is worthless, why pay for it? I believe that the model I describe is closer to the way German universities were run before WWII, at least the charge to take the exam existed. (According to one of my physics professors, Nobel laureate Felix Bloch, who was a wonderful teacher, by the way.)


hix 02.23.15 at 4:51 pm

Maybe less evaluations and more norms would help. I dont think its much a question of natural talent. If the norms are alright, people will learn it and get help doing so. Profs getting evaluated by students for their teaching after every course with a questionaire is an ugly game. They are tenured anyway, no one can fire them and they just get grumpy, often double down on bad methods when they get bad evaluations* (also, its true we students are a bit clueless and cant really evaluate everything objective).

*Which might involve grades most students would celebrate


Trader Joe 02.23.15 at 4:58 pm

The number of instructors most universities have that are both gifted lecturers and gifted researchers is (at least in my experience) pretty small – perhaps that is the cadre that should be reserved for tenure (though that is currently rarely the case). There is a much larger proportions that are excellent at one and merely comptetent at the other – that’s why Harry’s “Master Teacher” track, perhaps paired with a “Master Researcher” track (that would never teach, only publish…er wait, we already have that).

Whether teach undergraduates is central to the mission is somewhat an application of maybe a more fundamental mission which is to both seek knowledge (research) and to impart knowledge (teach), having either without the other eventually defeats both. Imparting knowledge happens at all levels of the university (admin, graduate, undergrad etc.)…seeking knowledge is usually focused on the graduate.


JW Mason 02.23.15 at 5:02 pm

Two things strike me about this exchange:

First, the equation of “higher education” with a small group of research universities and elite private colleges, shared by both Henry and McArdle. Yes, the OP acknowledges it’s doing that, but it’s not really cool to dismiss 95% of actual higher education with a one-sentence aside.

And second the assumption (by McArdle, but not really challenged by Henry) that “making undergraduate education central” means rewarding or punishing instructors for good or bad teaching, as opposed to giving instructors the resources they need to improve their teaching. In my experience, the problem is that professors don’t care about teaching undergraduates. It’s that teaching is a demanding skill, and graduate school does little or nothing to train us in it. It’s not surprising that McArdle would pose the problem in terms of incentives but the rest of us should resist that frame.


JW Mason 02.23.15 at 5:03 pm

the problem is NOT that professors don’t care


DCA 02.23.15 at 5:14 pm

See for a withering (and well-informed) critique of student evaluations and how they are used (eg, averaging them is witless). Unfortunately, the best student evaluation method, which would be to get 100% of students to evaluate the course/professor a few years later, is impossible.


Ethan Gach 02.23.15 at 5:30 pm

That student evaluations aren’t usually that helpful in determining whether or not a professor has been a good instructor is a difficult problem. I mean, if the students say that teacher’s bad, and they didn’t do well in the class, how do you even begin to figure out whether the instructor was capable and performed at or above what’s expected?

I just went on RateMyProfessor trolling for some comments on a handful of my past professors (I’ve been out of university for four years now). Admittedly, the sample size is small, and probably very skewed. But it certainly aligns with my impression of what other students in the classes felt at the time, based on their comments to me, one another, and even out loud to the instructor.

Depending on the class, and why the student’s taking it, some prefer a more difficult teacher. They want to be challenged. But other students feel that the same professor is ‘unfair’ or difficult not by virtue of expecting more of the students but simply because they aren’t capable of delivering a coherent lecture or aligning what’s on the test with what student’s expect to be on the test.

I can remember one professor who I thought was absolutely dreadful. I hated his class. He was extremely well spoken, generally quite funny, and most of the students liked him considerably, not least of all because the graded work was light, and full of extra credit opportunities for anyone who deigned to miss his lectures or poor in subpar papers. They’ll say he was a great instructor because they knew what he expected of them, broke the content into really barebones outlines of concepts, and sprinkled anecdotes through out the class discussions about that time he chatted with such and such a celebrity when they were in town filming X. I was felt scammed.

Some people in the class were jocks, who took all of his classes because they were so swamped with other stuff his easy going manner and minimal requirements were a godsend. And I guarantee they ‘learned’ more from his sparknotes version of the course then they ever would have from scraping by with a C in a more difficult one. Other students who were grad school bound used the class time to do readings for others. Point being: with so many different people in the class for different reasons with different levels of background knowledge, different abilities, and different learning styles, how are you ever going to come up with standards that meaningfully inform a tenure committee on whether the candidate in question is a good teacher or not?


adam.smith 02.23.15 at 5:47 pm

Re teaching evaluations: the best designed study I know uses performance of students in subsequent courses at the US Air Force academy, where students are randomly assigned to courses/teachers.

The findings suggest that, at least for those technical classes, long-term performance is not at all correlated with teaching evaluations (see table 9). It’s a really nifty study.


sanbikinoraion 02.23.15 at 5:48 pm

I for one call bullshit on this “assessing teachers is hard”. My experience of university was that a good third of undergrad professors were simply bad teachers, in easily identifiable ways (like: lectures just by reading the course notes, creates exams with pathetically easy questions for high marks, changes final assessment 17 times during the course of the assessment week). This stuff just shouldn’t be happening, and the fact that it does makes the claim that “undergraduates are central to our mission” obvious nonsense; I don’t believe the academy is even trying to improve its teaching.

(This was at a UK university that was top-rated by the Times for my department, the years I was there.)


Miranda 02.23.15 at 5:49 pm

17 gets it right. I can remember the professor who won the best teacher award in undergrad–he was super popular because he was easy and he invited students over to his house and had beers with them. I learned nothing in his class and hated it because I felt cheated, but other students thought he was cool and perhaps they were inspired by him or whatever. So, yes evaluations by students can be tricky, and I wouldn’t use them to decide who’s “good” or “bad” at teaching.


Roger Gathmann 02.23.15 at 6:02 pm

There’s always been a wierd dichotomy between the training that goes into the Ph.d and the training that goes into teaching. You can’t teach high school without having gone through courses about pedagogy, but the same universities that host Education departments evidently think that you can throw anybody in front of a higher education class and that they will instantly socratize.
This is the maddening thing about student evaluations. These should be designed to help people teach better, but they are not, to my knowledge, ever used that way.
Since the german model of the research university migrated to the U.S. in the 1870s, this split in the university mission has always been there. But it is addressed with less priority than, say, choosing the kind of coffee they’ll use in the faculty lounge.


Donald A. Coffin 02.23.15 at 6:14 pm

In some ways, the difficulties with evaluating teaching are self-inflicted. I think we really do know a good deal about how to assess teaching, but we choose not to do it because it is time-and-effort intensive–and not just for the instructor whose teaching is being assessed.

There are fairly well-known processes for peer review of teaching. But even for people who are recognized as excellent teachers, becoming an excellent peer reviewer requires training. And to institutionalize it, we have to consider the need for peer reviews that are not tied to big decisions like retention or tenure or promotion (as well as peer review for those purposes), because the approaches are different for formative and summative assessments (I hate the jargon, but it’s standard).

In addition, we need to have independent peer reviews–reviews not done by friends and colleagues. This is institutionalized in peer review of journal articles (etc.), in which experts in a field volunteer (for little or no compensation) to review submissions for publication. A similar approach to peer review of teaching would be fairly expensive, even if it did not involve in-person reviews.

And as Henry points out, so much of teaching is all but unobservable–in comments on student work (written or verbal), in advising, in career counseling…

I taught at a comprehensive master’s level (Carnegie-classification) institution, at which teaching had to have a weight in annual evaluations equal tot hat of research. And we did a lousy job of it. In 40 years of university teaching, I was never at an institution that required a peer review of teaching (even though for that entire 40 years, teaching was at least a co-equal factor with research–at least hypothetically). So the difficulties, in my experience are not just at R-1 institutions; they are ubiquitous.

Yet another reason I’m glad to be retired.


harry 02.23.15 at 6:38 pm

JW Mason — It’s Harry, not Henry; easy mistake to make. I wasn’t dismissing the rest of the sector (I don’t think MM was either); I was just talking about the part of the sector that I am reasonably confident my analysis applies to (reasonably confident because I know it well, both by study and acquaintance). And I don’t really understand how you could interpret what I wrote as ‘rewarding and punishing’. What I was arguing for was the development of an infrastructure to support continuous improvement in instruction, which is pretty much entirely absent (as others on the thread have implied). (Of c9urse, because there are so many incentives to direct one’s energies and attentions elsewhere, and because tenure enables us to follow the incentives whatever they are, I do think that, in general, people need to be rewarded for doing what they ought to be doing.)

19: identifying the very worst teachers is, indeed, probably easy. But I’m interested in getting the vast majority of teachers to improve. What I need, to improve, is to be able to identify the people who do what I do better than I do it, and study what they do. If I were one of the very worst teachers, that would be easy enough. But most teachers are not among the very worst teachers. And what 17 says is right — quality of instruction is a matter of fit between style and student (so even the best teachers are bad for some students).

10. The test of quality is this: I have x minutes with the students. What can I/we do in that x minutes that will result in learning they couldn’t get any other way? If they can learn it (expecially if they really would learn it) without being in the room with me, I am wasting their time (and their, their parents’ and/or the government’s money). 19’s point about the lecturer who reads the coursenotes is the paradigm case of this. (And the bad effects of bad teaching are too easy not to notice. Last year a very very smart, but troubled and underconfident, kid told me about a class she was in during which the lecturer read the powerpoints, and the powerpoints WERE the textbook. If you are troubled and underconfident, being disengaged from the learning process is really bad for you, and I’m pretty convinced she’d have dropped out that semester if she’d not, also, been in an extremely demanding and engaging class with one of my (excellent) colleagues (and I claim credit, since I influenced her to take said, demanding, class — an interesting case where, I think, my colleague is a much better teacher *for that student* than I am; my contribution being that I recognized the fit between them).


harry 02.23.15 at 6:46 pm

On Roger Gathman’s point: that’s right about evaluations. I wonder about sharing the evaluations with a (small) group of students and discussing them, which would help filter out irrelevant points. I’ve never done it myself. What I DO though, is instruct them, before they evaluate me, that nobody else will look at them, and that since my university stopped giving raises they couldn’t possibly affect me materially, so I want them to think hard about how I could improve my teaching (and their learning) in the course.


Matt 02.23.15 at 6:48 pm

It is much, much, easier to judge the quality of someone’s research than the quality of someone’s teaching. Research is a publicly visible activity—you can count the papers and the number of pages, and rank the journals by prestige. Other recognized experts can be easily identified, and then asked to review all the research someone has produced, and evaluate it.

Oh dear lord please no. The first two sentences here describe an evaluation process that has been poisonous in the natural sciences. Has it not affected the humanities as much? One perverse incentive is to spread your work across Minimum Publishable Units that collectively add up to too many pages for too little information. Because you’re going to be evaluated on article counts and page counts. A reader can also end up chasing basically a single line of research from a single group across several journals because it was diced up and impact factor shopped around. Sucks to be you if the story partially appears in journals your institution subscribes to and partially in others.

Another perverse incentive is to always seek surprising, high-impact results suitable for “prestige” journals, even if it means fooling yourself, your reviewers, and your readers. A substantial fraction of high-impact research turns out to be irreproducible later. It has trickled down to lower tier journals too. People are faking and fooling themselves even about mundane topics. Nobody can advance a career by publishing confirmation of the null hypothesis, even if it might save everyone else in the field a lot of wasted time. I basically trust the academic literature of science published before 1970, though people still made mistakes, but for literature after 1990 or so I read with much diminished expectations.

Maybe the last sentence I quoted allows you to rescue researcher evaluations so that the faculty is not polluted, only the literature. But the literature pollution is a serious problem. If this is what a good solution to researcher evaluation looks like, glimpsing the bad ones would probably turn me to stone.


William Meyer 02.23.15 at 6:53 pm

This is an important subject, or set of subjects.

(1) the reason we can’t easily measure teaching quality is that we have no definition of the desired end state. In other words, what should a well-educated student know and what skills should they possess? Until some standard is determined and some test is adopted to allow us to know if the standard has been met, very little meaningful can be said. Of course, the failure to develop such a standard is a rather peculiar failing of the higher education system. Honestly, it is as though no one in academia ever read or gave serious thought to the writings of Mr. Deming.

(2) I am struck by how complacently people accept the existence of credentialism. Am I alone in regarding it as a major social-economic-political failure of the current age? Obviously what is desired is competence, not credentials, and yet the relationship between the two is to put it mildly quite slippery. I remember recently attending a gathering of highly credentialed people who were all graduates of highly selective universities and thinking that I wouldn’t give one of them a job at my own company. The fact that credentialism in the US anyway goes by the term “meritocracy” has made me squirm since my own graduation from an Ivy League college–I remember many of my fellow students a little too well.

(3) none of these problems is limited to academia, but are becoming sadly more ubiquitous throughout society. Humanity’s “best and brightest”, while fully smart enough to secure cushy berths on the ocean liner of life (in large part by shoving everyone else into steerage) are not by the exercise of their smarts actually able to steer the boat past the icebergs. And people wonder why with an ever more credentialed elite class, we seem to suffering from secular stagnation.

When will people start to question the paradigm?


harry 02.23.15 at 7:01 pm

Well, in my original draft I only had the final sentence you quoted, but I went back and added the sentences you objected to in a sardonic, ironic or maybe even sarcastic mood. Sorry for misleading!

Oh, and (everybody) please read Donald A Coffin at 22.


A lecturer 02.23.15 at 7:17 pm

@22: “And as Henry points out, so much of teaching is all but unobservable–in comments on student work (written or verbal), in advising, in career counseling…”
Yes, YES!


TM 02.23.15 at 7:22 pm

“These were not the only factors, but a record of poor teaching evaluations was given significant weight.”

I don’t want to be overly cynical but here’s the deal: had the same person received excellent evaluations, they would probably still have denied but the evaluations wouldn’t have been mentioned. Conversely, had the decision been positive, the same poor evaluations simply wouldn’t have been mentioned. Committees have a lot of freedom to cherry-pick (not to mention fudge) the facts they cite in justification of decisions that may or may not have been reached based on objective criteria. In a case I know of, an assistant professor had just received an “outstanding mentor” award from her university. When she was denied tenure a few months later, the award wasn’t mentioned at all but she was now claimed to have neglected her grad students.

Btw it should be mentioned that teaching evaluations are known to be biased against women, foreigners, and tough graders.


JustBob81 02.23.15 at 7:32 pm

No matter how much various groups claim to care about instructional quality, the truth is readily apparent in the amount of money that is directed at measuring it. Systems reflect priorities and if educational quality were a priority, then there would be extensive systems in place to track and evaluate it. As a society we can take the census every 10 years, track tainted food batches across the country, and find earth-like planets around the universe. Don’t tell me we ‘can’t’ measure instructional quality (college or K-12), we just don’t care to pay to do so. Ergo, we don’t really care that much about it.


RSA 02.23.15 at 7:51 pm

I teach at a large public research university, and I think that Megan is under-counting the ways that a department supports undergraduate teaching as core to their mission. In my department there’s an undergraduate program director, an undergraduate curriculum committee, an accreditation director, and half a dozen ad hoc committees formed every academic year for the purpose of assessing our undergraduate core courses. A lot of what we do isn’t aimed solely at improving the quality of individual teachers and the courses they teach (peer assessment, etc.); it’s about the bigger curriculum picture. We’re collecting data, making tweaks, seeing what happens. It’s incremental, but that’s inevitable, because as has been observed above, evaluation is incredibly expensive.


Bloix 02.23.15 at 7:56 pm

If teaching is central to the mission, then teachers must be central to the mission, right?
Ahem —


Bloix 02.23.15 at 7:58 pm

Oh, the money quote:
“many colleges and universities have ceased to treat the instruction of college courses as a profession worth supporting with a living wage.”


Philip 02.23.15 at 8:26 pm

In the UK we have a pretty rigorous observation and inspection regime for non-higher education in the Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted). Schools will do their own observations of teachers and give them a grade based on Ofsted criteria. Then every few years the school will be inspected by Ofsted to ensure its systems meet Ofsted standards and where some teachers will also be observed by Ofsted inspectors. This causes lots of problems in increased bureaucracy for schools, skewing priorities on ticking boxes for Ofsted, and Ofsted changing their priorities, criteria and processes. It also changes the observation process to one of grading teachers instead of supporting them.

I know less about HE but there is the Quality Assurance Agency but I don’t think it does much, if any, observation of teaching. The point I’m trying to make is that administrators would like to use observations and other methods like checking samples of marked to grade teaching to help with hiring decisions but this isn’t necessarily the best way to improve teaching standards. Initial training, ungraded peer observation, and meaningful student feedback would be better but it would take a massive culture shift for faculty and administrators.


Stentor 02.23.15 at 8:33 pm

I think a lot of this depends on the sort of school you’re at. While Madison is a public school, it’s still a big R1 institution (like Penn). The situation is different at a place like my employer (Slippery Rock — a lower-tier public school). I recently got tenure at SRU, and it was very clear through the whole process that teaching was the most important factor. My research output is pathetic by the standards of my grad school classmates at more prestigious institutions, but SRU felt it was just fine for their purposes.

The process still suffers from the problems cited in the post with effectively measuring teaching performance — in particular, there seems to be excessive weight put on student evaluations because they’re nice and quantitative — but there’s still clear follow-through on the intent to weigh teaching much more heavily than research in tenure and promotion decisions.


PatrickfromIowa 02.23.15 at 8:53 pm

I think we know that good teaching is largely unsustainable in a world of three hundred seat lectures, weed out courses, and adjuncts. Good teaching takes time, security, infrastructure and money, and it sometimes pisses off the students, and–especially–the legislature.

In a world of declining resources, metastasizing administration and increasing WalMartization, this rings truest: “I think we really do know a good deal about how to assess teaching, but we choose not to do it because it is time-and-effort intensive–and not just for the instructor whose teaching is being assessed.” This is–mutis mutandis–true of everything a university professional does–research, service, clinical work and teaching.

My ethos: I’m a full time non-TT instructor at a RI. I teach pedagogy courses to grad students, whose advisors discourage them from taking them because they screw with the time to degree, the pedagogy course we require our composition grad instructors to take in their first year, and I supervise grad instructors. Oh, and I teach the equivalent of 4/4. Our department is serious about teaching and educating teachers. The college and the university and the students and the legislature and the state could not care less.

One data point: My university just rolled out a 3-year BA/BSc. Apparently we figured out how to do it faster. (Which, to be fair, given the debt that accrues, isn’t a completely stupid thing.)


Jared Harris 02.23.15 at 9:00 pm

I think an expressed normative commitment that things really should be a certain way, with no plan to make them that way, and no intention to leave if things don’t change *is* a “polite fiction”. I don’t question Harry’s sincere desire but do very much doubt its centrality in his normative landscape. I’m sorry that this is somewhat impolite but that is intrinsic to questioning polite fictions.


Alan White 02.23.15 at 9:12 pm

Hi Harry–a great OP missive on the ideal and reality of R1 attitudes about teaching and tenure. (As you know) I work for a lower-tier part of UW where some demonstrated excellence in the classroom is a necessary condition for tenure. We’ve accomplished that in part by relying not just on student evaluations, but on a pretty heavy schedule of peer visits and evaluations throughout the probationary period (at least two per academic year, and as many as four or five in later stages in some cases). Now granted we have not in my 30+ years been trained to accomplish this job other than informal discussions among ourselves of better and worse ways to conduct such reviews–but we do strive to have all or as many as possible tenured folks review someone on TT. And it has made a difference: it can (and has) trumped student evaluations that, taken by themselves, were praise through the roof. So from my own non-R1 perspective I strongly second the role of peer-review in the classroom to help determine the quality of TT colleagues.

I don’t know if you mentioned this above (forgive me if you did), but does your department do peer-visits? I’m interested because I believe the only reason we do them today is that pre-merger (where we paradoxically actually split despite the “merger” lingo) our department was an extension of yours, and your Chair was ours (I know Mark Singer was). I believe that our tradition of peer visits was based on Madison faculty evaluating our department members’ teaching! At any rate, that tradition has served us very well. FWIW.


Will 02.23.15 at 9:31 pm

I feel like I’m missing something here. Aren’t points 1-3 addressed by the existence of undergraduate colleges that are widely known for the quality of their undergraduate teaching? What do they do? Sure, they are not trying to achieve (all) the same things that public flagships are, but the question sets (many of) those other things aside and simply asks how one would “recalibrate the importance of teaching in tenure decisions”. I propose one possible answer: send a delegation to (say) Carleton College and whatever they are doing in their tenure process, do more of that. I’m not saying they have solved the problem; I am saying they seem to have made more progress on it than the answers given here acknowledge.


Paul Reber 02.23.15 at 9:45 pm

As a professor at a private research university who is pretty familiar with these issues, let me just chime in with a conjecture that it’s actually a fairly modest fraction of what is learned in college that is acquired in the classroom. Much class/lecture teaching is about facts that aren’t really going to be that critical post-college. There are some general skills, like critical thinking, that are probably more general, but even a lot of those will have to be re-learned in the specific context you will be using them later. [When I’m not teaching, which is most of the time, my research is on human learning and memory, fwiw.]

I think a common/standard employment model is to hire smart kids out of college who have shown they can think, and then teach them on the job what they need to know there. College isn’t a trade school and I don’t think that’s likely to change anytime soon.

I sat on the university tenure committee for 3 years and realized right away that we have no real measures of teaching ability — and that it would be very hard. Note that if you really want to assess how effective the teaching is, you really need to measure the students. Poor classroom teaching leads some motivated students to do more on their own, and that probably leads to better knowledge. And even the best classroom teaching doesn’t protect you from the natural course of forgetting material if you don’t keep using after. If you measure the students, you’ll discover that they are a big part of what they get out of class. The students around here are pretty bright and will figure a lot of stuff out even if I’m a little disorganized some days because of research prep.

Given student variability and natural forgetting, the practical difference between an exceptional and a mediocre teacher may not be all that big in many cases. So I believe the rationale for focusing on research is (a) research brings value to the university (grants) and the world (information disseminated in non-teaching ways); (b) teaching is more substitutable/replaceable than research excellence; and (c) some excellent researchers who are currently mediocre teachers may be excellent teachers later (e.g., when research winds down a bit later in career and there is more time to teach), but the reverse may not be true. Those are reasonable, if contestable, ideas.

Myself, I feel bad when it feels like my teaching is constrained by research demands, but it is what it is. If students ask, I direct them to the classes increasingly taught by our lecturer (non-tenure) faculty who are truly excellent teachers. Watching my own college-age kids find their way on campus, it’s abundantly clear that there is a lot to learn when you are first out on your own that has nothing to do with a classroom. College provides a great environment for that, and that’s ok, too.


Samuel Paul Douglas 02.23.15 at 10:02 pm

While the situation is not exactly the same in here in Australia, the tensions between research and teaching are certainly similar in composition. And certainly, the teaching of undergraduates being central to universities’ survival is different to it being central to their mission.

Having worked for some years in student administration and as a non-tenured academic, I find Megan McArdle’s comments how university administration is focused on the experience of students outside the classroom interesting (and somewhat accurate). I’m not convinced that this is the way things should be. What if ‘education’ is construed very broadly to include anything a student learns from, or that influences the kind of graduate they become? That could and should put what happens outside the classroom in a different light.


mdc 02.23.15 at 10:07 pm

My guess is that the best proxy for measuring institutional commitment to undergrad teaching is teacher-student ratio. (This stat can be juked in various ways, what you really want to know is typical, as well as maximum class size.)

I wonder how many parents and prospective students ever ask about reappointment procedures- probably close to zero. You might find out interesting things if they’ll tell you. I remember hearing an old story about Yale’s philosophy dept: one would submit a list of the top people in one’s field, and then the department would ask *those* folks to name the best three people in the field. If your name showed up enough times in the results, tenure! Sensible people should run screaming from a department like that.


Main Street Muse 02.23.15 at 10:09 pm

I am not sure that teaching is central to the mission of universities (whatever the tier) any more. The top tier don’t necessarily have to work on teaching – students are there for the network they can utilize.

State universities (flagship on down to lowest tier) have been defunded by legislators intent of damaging (destroying) the higher ed promise. No money for raises for a half-decade or more – in any market – means top talent will likely leave.

But the most important indicator of the value of teaching is in the salaries paid for the teaching aspect of university work. Contingent faculty – the ones who are paid to teach, not to research – make peanuts compared to tenure-track faculty. The fee for teaching one course at my (lower-tier) public institution is something like $2500 for the semester. That’s not even $150 a week. That’s $50 a credit hour per week, maybe – but look at the hours that go into three-credit hour course – the class prep, the grading, the discussions outside of class with a floundering student. Is it even minimum wage? WalMart probably pays better – and higher ed should be embarrassed.

According to AAUP (, more than 50% of all faculty hold part-time appointments. For those teachers, there is NO professional development; there is NO money for conferences; there is NO money for training. And there are far too many tenured faculty who won’t even give contingent faculty the time of day, let alone guidance on becoming a better teacher.

With many of these contingent faculty positions, the teacher does not know what course he/she is teaching until close to the start of the semester. The contract teacher generally has no control over the textbooks ordered for the class. It is IMPOSSIBLE to be a great teacher under such conditions. And yet contingent faculty teach the majority of coursework offered in higher ed. Hard to see how higher ed values teaching, when too many of the teachers are underpaid and not at all supported by the institution.


Main Street Muse 02.23.15 at 10:11 pm

Harry – in your #2, you prove Megan’s point – perhaps teaching is “central to the mission” of higher ed – but those provided with institutional support are not valued for their teaching:

“So, first, even if an institution declares it will give more weight to teaching, it is going to be hard for a tenure track professor to believe that. And, because they cannot be assured tenure, even if they would rather focus more on teaching, they have to remain competitive for jobs at other institutions—which have either not made the same declaration, or, even if they have made that declaration, it would be even harder for an outsider than for an insider to believe it.”

Teaching is not now a central focus of tenure (too hard to measure) – and no one would believe an institution would make it a central focus of tenure. But in the end, look at how those who only teach get paid – very poorly, with no job stability AND with no professional support. TEACHING is little valued within higher ed, all talk aside.


Alan White 02.23.15 at 11:33 pm

Harry–I realized right as I touched “submit” I wrote a “k” instead of a “c” for Singer’s name. I wouldn’t mention it except I thought of one more thing.

I mentioned this to you years ago but I have the complete minutes for your department’s meetings concerning the teaching of the Introduction to Philosophy course roughly from 1952 to 1963, given to me by a retired member of my department who got them from Singer, who served on the committee for that entire period. (They’re interesting in part because they list some interesting new assistant professors assigned to the committee–some guy named Dretske, for example.) They reveal that Madison professors then were deeply concerned about undergraduate teaching, and used at least crude statistics to assess (for example) changing students’ views and making them more reflectively critical. Some of the mimeos are barely readable, but I’ve used copying enhancements to save almost all of them. At any rate it is an interesting time-slice of the Madison department that shows a long-term commitment to analyzing and trying to improve undergraduate instruction.


harry 02.24.15 at 12:13 am


Just as a general matter when someone, apparently sincerely, raises a criticism of their own environment, and seems to be doing something about it, inviting suggestions about how to do more, injecting a comment that does nothing but impute bad faith isn’t especially useful. And, yes, its pretty rude.


Tabasco 02.24.15 at 12:59 am

When I was in graduate school those few non-tenured faculty who were known to be good teachers of undergraduates were almost automatically presumed (certainly by other graduate students, and apparently by some tenured faculty) to be bad at research. It was thought that anybody who put anything more than minimal effort into teaching was doing so to make up for their lack of scholarly aptitude, or they were prioritising the wrong things.

All the incentives were for untenured faculty to be bad at teaching and to be seen to be bad at teaching.

The worst backhanded compliment that could be made of any faculty member, tenuted or untenured was “he/she is a good teacher”.


Bloix 02.24.15 at 1:17 am


gianni 02.24.15 at 1:37 am

I think that the difficulty of assessing another’s teaching capability is overblown. Just as you can trust certain experts to assess one’s research portfolio in a tenure case, so you can have experts on pedagogy assess one’s teaching. If we are talking about a large research university, the university should have said experts on staff in some capacity already. The lack of creative solutions to this question is indicative of a lack of interest in pursuing them.


Corey Robin 02.24.15 at 1:49 am

I’m rather surprised to see Bloix claim that the academy doesn’t care about teaching and that a department has no way of knowing that a professor is a bad teacher. Just a short six months ago, he was quite certain that Steven Salaita was not going to be a good teacher: there was just no way that that angry Tweeter would be able to stop himself from turning his classroom into a soapbox and punishing his students for their views. And quite certain that that was one of the reasons that Chancellor Wise decided to dehire Salaita: because she cared so much, apparently, about what went on in the classroom.


harry 02.24.15 at 2:08 am

Bloix — right, I linked to that post in the OP.

Tabasco — not my experience, at the very least in my department, which takes considerable pride in the quality of its teaching (about which it doesn’t know a lot!). But I’ve heard it elsewhere.

MSM — I don’t disagree. Though use of adjuncts varies by institution (we don’t use many, at least in L&S). The ‘master teacher’ proposal has appeal partly because it helps solve the adjunct problem — it provides stability, and reasonably pay, and emphasizes professional development in teaching. There is a cost problem in HE, especially since HE has started to be more inclusive of students who come from non-traditional backgrounds and has started to take seriously that, having admitted someone, an institution has an obligation to support them actually graduating. That’s expensive.

Alan — who was the Dretske guy, anyway? More seriously, there is something quite unnerving about UW Madison seeing itself as the expert on undergraduate education and doing quality assurance at what were presumably considered satellite campuses. But its also fascinating. Maybe we should resume the relationship, though on a more realistic basis (learning among peers).

Peer-visits. No. We do what we are required to do – all visiting is supervisory, which is a problem (ie, tenured faculty visiting untenured, profs visiting TAs) and we don’t have shared protocols. Anything else is informal and ad hoc. I want to see what can be done about this.

mdc — I’d say that, as in k-12, student:teacher ratio is at best a very weak proxy for teaching *quality* but, as you say, probably better for *institutional commitment*. But that’s partly because practices aren’t so great anywhere!


Bloix 02.24.15 at 2:38 am

#50 – Open your dictionary to troll and you will find “Corey Robin.” I don’t comment on your posts anymore, Prof. R, but if you want to chase me around, I’ll bite.

Let’s see what his students have to say about former Prof. Salaita:

“Awesome prof. … lets class out super early every day. Take him.”

“if you dont like english take him because he will be easy on you-and he lets us out early which is always nice.”

“Professor Salaita is great. He goes off topic sometimes but it’s all good. He lets you out of class really early … He is SO cool.”

“This class is great it satisfys your diversity reqirement and all you have to do is read some books and talk about them and the books are easy reading”

“we ALWAYS get out early. We even watched the Dave Chappelle show as part of the curriculum!”

All of the above from

And from

“This is probably one of the easiest courses I’ve ever taken… However, every class we do end up on some tangent but the conversations are almost always really interesting often relate to pop culture or controversial topics.”

“If you need a grade booster, take this class. Easy A”

“typically gets off topic, but rest assured, the conversations get interested. just ask him to talk about sex in the city, the movie, and your entire class will be off track”

“Cancels class often”

“very laid back. By far, the best prof. at vt”

“easy as hell.”


Corey Robin 02.24.15 at 3:15 am

Bloix at 7: “Undergrad ability to evaluate teachers is limited.”

Bloix at 52: OMG, look at what these undergraduates say about their teacher!

It took Bloix six months to change his tune on how seriously university administrators take education in the classroom. Now it takes him a single comments thread to change his tune on how seriously he takes student evaluations.

Which should tell you something about how seriously we should take Bloix.


Bloix 02.24.15 at 3:48 am

Corey Robin, you are seriously trolling now. I don’t comment on your posts anymore because you distort what people say, when you are caught in error you move the goalposts, and you don’t link.

I’m going to respond to you once nore, and then, fulminate all you will, I’m not going to participate in this diversion of the thread any longer.

The point of the reviews is that the Va Tech students LOVED him. He handed out A’s like candy, he wasted time in pointless diversions, and he let class out as soon as he possibly could. If you looked at the numbers only, you would conclude that this guy is god’s gift to higher education. You look at the descriptions, and you realize he’s a clown. He’s a textbook case for why you can’t trust student reviews.

He’s Exhibit A for the utter failure of even a reputable school like Va Tech to impose some quality control on teaching and grading. The fact that he got tenure there is a shining example of the lack of importance of undergraduate teaching to the mission of a university.

Steven Salaita is, on the evidence of his books, a sorry excuse for a scholar. On the evidence of his student reviews, in the classroom he is a fool. It’s a crying shame that the future of academic freedom may hang on the fate on such a pathetic character. His supporters – some of whom, like Natalie Zemon Davis, are great scholars – have made a horrific mistake in choosing Salaita as the battleground for the defense of academic freedom.

PS- Corey Robin, on this blog, reported that the Salaita evaluations were “stunning.” How did he reach this conclusion? Why, he reported the numbers.

I don’t mind anyone wondering how seriously they should take me. I’m happy to argue, I don’t make ad hominem attacks, and I link to support my arguments. When someone shows that I’ve made an error, I admit it.

My question is, how seriously should anyone take Prof. Robin?


mdc 02.24.15 at 4:11 am

MSM, your comment suggests another plausible proxy for institutional commitment to teaching at four-year programs: proportion of adjuncts. (These are inversely related, I mean.)


Corey Robin 02.24.15 at 4:45 am

Shorter Bloix: You can’t trust faculty to evaluate teachers (comment 4), you can’t trust students to evaluate teachers (comment 54), you can only trust the chancellor of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (comment 115, in this thread):

And Bloix doesn’t do ad hominem.

Except when he does:

(See last sentence):

(Bloix liked that “voices in your head” business in the previous comment so much, he repeated it):

And when someone shows Bloix that he is in error, he admits it — except when he doesn’t — and doesn’t move goalposts. Except when he does.

Like in the thread below: Where Bloix first says that in Eichmann in Jerusalem, Hannah Arendt ignored the testimony of Avraham Gordon (comment 4), and when I tell him he’s wrong, he demands to know where she mentioned it (comment 23), and when I point him to just one of the instances where she discusses it (he would only have to have read to p. 23 to have seen it), he says, she only mentioned it once (comment 38), and when I say, no, she discusses it at least three times, he…disappears from the thread.

Or in this thread, where Bloix can barely keep up with the errors he’s making (and not acknowledging) and the goalposts he’s moving, so furiously is he googling the books he’s not reading:

And through it all, continues to hope that no one will notice that in this thread (and in the 2010 thread Harry linked to in the OP) he’s quite sure that universities don’t care about the education that goes on in the classroom, but during the Salaita threads, was equally sure that the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, and its chancellor, cared a lot about the education that might go on in the classroom.


PatrickinIowa 02.24.15 at 4:49 am

One of the very best graduate instructors I’ve supervised worked with
Professor Salaita at Va Tech when getting her masters. Her research area is pedagogy. She says he’s a superb teacher. She’s Jewish.

I’ll take that over a motivated reading of Rate my Professor any day.


Sebastian H 02.24.15 at 7:47 am

Corey, Bloix suggested that administrators don’t know/bother to investigate what makes a good teacher and that they have institutional reasons for not gaining that knowledge. He didn’t suggest that HE doesn’t know what makes a good teacher. You are taking two non-contradictory statements and claiming that they represent ummm something.


P.M.Lawrence 02.24.15 at 8:42 am

It may be worth repeating the comment (no. 13) that I made on that earlier post, that nobody appeared to pick up on:-

“Which stresses undergraduate teaching as its main priority” should never be part of any university’s mission at all; that would make it a mere institution of higher education, somewhat like the idea of the polytechnic. However, universities as we have them today are institutions of learning, with origins in mediaeval gangs of roaming scholars who found patrons and put down roots; their association with education is incidental, not essential, and derives from two things, the need to bring on new scholars so that their core function could endure, and the need to find a practical source of revenue that could be based on their strengths. Confusing their working to live with their living for that work is understandable, particularly since that is what their sponsors (e.g. governments) want from them, but putting the cart before the horse that way risks losing the very thing that supplying education was buying for them – the ability to be scholars, transmitting earlier learning and discovering new learning through research; in a word, scholarship. Without that, I would never have been able to use a Washington (state, not city) university’s corpus of material on Madagascar as provided to specialist journals and books.


Bloix 02.24.15 at 2:48 pm

59 –
The modern university, particularly post-Sputnik, is not primarily an institution for the training of scholars.

There is a real point in your comment, which is that the historic mission of the university is in uneasy tension with the mission of what you’re calling the polytechnic. But in our world, both missions reside in the same institution. Many of its customs, including tenure, academic freedom, and research for faculty, descend from the historic university, even as the overwhelming majority of the people who come there to study only marginally interested in the university’s historic mission and are there to learn to earn a living.

That was sustainable as long as the bills could be paid, much as newspapers were sustainable as long as classified advertising paid for the journalism. But it’s not sustainable when 18-year olds who are training for white collar jobs have to mortgage away their ability to buy homes and raise families in order to receive a credential.

Would it be a better world if the two missions were disentangled? I personally wouldn’t like to think so. But perhaps I’m nostalgic for the benefits of what I like to think of as a liberal arts education.


Metatone 02.24.15 at 3:32 pm

I find it difficult to compose a good comment on this issue, because it feels to me that it’s a Gordian Knot that contains many strands. So perhaps I can beg for more posts to cover some of these strands in discussion. Or maybe a series, like the book club things, only for HE – since it’s something many of us are interested in?

Strands that come to my mind:

– Resources – in particular lectures vs smaller classes, but also realities about “digital generation” students used to a multimedia world, but no meaningful resources provided to make the learning experience that way.
– Syllabuses – as an adjunct I’m currently struggling with a really out of date assigned textbook and syllabus. Crucially, the syllabus is incoherent and it really affects the quality of the education.
– Student expectations – obviously this links to the accreditation issue, but also to Howard Gardner’s latest about the “app generation,” there’s a definite shift against exploration, ISTM.
– Student information management – frankly, this generation aren’t generally good at reading (be it paper books or e-books) and they aren’t impressive at Googling either. There’s a skills gap which is undermining the educational model. Again, as an adjunct teaching isolated classes, this is big issue which is beyond my power to truly do much about. I think there are other skills gaps we could name
– You can’t teach a class the old way if the students are coming up with different skills… we’ve so long taught skills through the content that as the student relationship with content (but also everyone’s relationship with content) changes, it queers the skill acquisition and assessment. (Obviously more in non-numerical subjects.)
– Adjunctification is coming to research too. Especially in non-lab subjects. This is a huge looming issue.


jake the antisoshul soshulist 02.24.15 at 3:38 pm

Since this is McMegan, perhaps this was her favorite professor because he suggested glibertarian hackery as a career path.
I do appreciate Harry taking McCardle seriously, but I can’t quite bridge that gap.


CJColucci 02.24.15 at 4:22 pm

It’s easy enough in context to figure out what an “R!” institution means, but could somebody please explain the rest of the code, perhaps with examples?


CJColucci 02.24.15 at 4:23 pm

That is, of course, “R1.”


fgw 02.24.15 at 4:28 pm

I think in the buyer’s market for academics universities could do more than pay lip service to teaching in hiring or tenure decisions. I was once assured by a Stanford dean that, in fact, it wasn’t enough to be a leading researcher, you also had to be an outstanding teacher. However, I think many of the peers making tenure decisions think that level of expectations is unfair. Since teaching and research are both full time jobs, compromises must be made and corners cut. And it is easier to cut corners in the classroom when you’re dealing with students than in the public and cutthroat world of research conferences and peer reviewed articles. Which becomes self-reinforcing, I think most colleagues (not all!) wind up deriving less personal satisfaction from teaching. I don’t think most are so cynical that they look down on colleagues with reputations as star instructors, its just that frequently there are two pools of people with different priorities. Also, most academics associate with one another mostly via research, and probably derive most of their personal sense of accomplishment and their status via research. So any institution could in theory mandate a higher priority for teaching, its not so much the intrinsic difficulty in evaluating teaching (where there’s a will there’s a way) as the cultural resistance it would face. The idea of separating teaching and research tracts is going to be difficult because faculty who value research will expect the teaching track to have higher teaching loads and/or lower compensation.


VeeLow 02.24.15 at 4:30 pm

“I think a common/standard employment model is to hire smart kids out of college who have shown they can think, and then teach them on the job what they need to know there. College isn’t a trade school and I don’t think that’s likely to change anytime soon.”

I’m curious about perceptions here–I’m 50ish, have taught at various institutions (from Ivy to commuter campus) in various positions (g-student to t-t) and I find this post heartbreakingly naive.

I mean, if you teach at an Ivy/SLAC, and never encounter non-majors, OK, maybe. But for 90% of American kids college is a trade school and the process of change that has produced the current state of affairs is ongoing and relentless.


Bloix 02.24.15 at 4:47 pm

R1 (“Research 1” ) is a term that used to be used in the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education to describe universities that did extensive research and graduated a lot of PhDs. R2’s were research institutions that had fewer doctorates/less grant money. M1’s and M2’s were masters-granting schools, and B1 and B2 were colleges.

US News picked up these categories up for its rankings, and studies of institutions of higher ed used them as a research tool.

Carnegie gave up these categories because it didn’t want to be seen as ranking schools by quality, but people still use R1 to mean a major research university and R2 to mean more of a teaching institution. As I understand it, there are informal conventions that faculty use – what publication expectations and teaching loads are at an R1 vs an R2 university. Kind of like what it’s like to play a varsity sport at a Div I school vs a Div II school.

Carnegie now uses the terms National Universities, National Liberal Arts Colleges, Regional Universities and Regional Colleges. The University of Wisconsin is a National University. Slippery Rock (see #35) is a Regional University.


Bloix 02.24.15 at 4:50 pm

I take back the joke about Div I and Div II, which implies levels of quality, which is precisely what Carnegie (rightly) is trying to avoid. As Stentor at #35 was implying, teaching at a given R2 may be better than at an R1.


krippendorf 02.24.15 at 4:52 pm

My institution has gone to mandatory, written peer reviews of teaching as part of all promotion reviews, to tenure/associate and to full. Peer reviews involve a quick perusal of the syllabus and an in-class visit announced in advance to the review-ee. Peer reviewers are senior colleagues in the review-ee’s department. There’s no training, or even any attempt to identify peer reviewers who are themselves good teachers.

Not surprisingly, all of our faculty members are way, way above average teachers. In fact, most are the best teacher in the department.


CJColucci 02.24.15 at 5:01 pm



TM 02.24.15 at 5:10 pm

“I was once assured by a Stanford dean that, in fact, it wasn’t enough to be a leading researcher, you also had to be an outstanding teacher.”

Yeah sure. “All our professors are leaders in their research field and outstanding teachers.” Google the term “excellence in teaching and research” and you will find proof that University administrators (at least in North America) are almost universally innumerate.


TM 02.24.15 at 5:12 pm

“Not surprisingly, all of our faculty members are way, way above average teachers. In fact, most are the best teacher in the department.”

Incidentally, student evaluations often give the choice of rating a professor average, below or above average. Most ratings are above average. Seems like everybody goes along with the scam.


Bloix 02.24.15 at 5:31 pm

Hey, TM – how can you spot the best ag school professors? Easy – they’re all outstanding in their field.


sanbikinoraion 02.24.15 at 5:42 pm

I wonder if there are any studies comparing the difficulty of assessing HE teaching quality compared to the difficulty of assessing:
a) perhaps-related professions (K-12 teacher, IT trainer, sports coach…)
b) unrelated but non-direct-bottom-line impacting professions (HR, data analyst, administrative assistant…)

It seems to me that there are plenty of professions for whom direct measurement of skill is difficult, but that doesn’t seem to stop businesses that depend on that function from attempting some sort of ongoing review and improvement process.


T 02.24.15 at 5:54 pm

Sorry Harry, but at R1 institutions while “undergraduate education is central to the mission of the institution” it’s typically not central to the mission of the ambitious faculty. This is not true at top tier colleges. At a top tier undergrad institution. the professors teach the labs and use undergrads in the labs and there not grad student led discussions because there are no grad students. They teach more courses. And while they have to publish, the requirements are much lower and the quality and quantity of their publications typically reflect those lower requirements relative to R1. The faculty know they have to be engaged teachers because the administration, including department chairs, have bought in. Student feedback matters more to the administration. At R1 schools, both the department and university ranking is tied to research. In addition, R1 faculty mobility and salary are tied to research. While the resources to improve teaching are not often available, tenure depends on publishing and it’s unclear how much these resources would be actually be used. And yes, faculty in the department know who the better teachers are. They’re often the ones teaching the 500 student sections at big state schools. The admin doesn’t want 500 people complaining.

And btw, UofW is notorious for students having to take and an extra semester to finish their degree because they can’t get into required classes for their major. Doesn’t seem to match the mission statement.


harry 02.24.15 at 6:20 pm

T – like some others, you seem to have misread the post. I was pretty clear about what I meant by ‘central to the mission’. In both sense that I meant, I think it implies that as an institution we should take undergraduate teaching much more seriously than we currently do, and implied pretty clearly that ambitious faculty have very strong incentives not to take teaching as seriously as we should. I don’t see what I said that you are disagreeing with.

I don’t know our 4, or 4.5 year graduation rates — the typical measure for cross-institutional comparisons is 5-year, and on that we are pretty much like comparable institutions (that is with similar demographics, and similar structure). There are particular programs, I know, that are badly designed in this respect (some of which have recently been overhauled to make more sense).


Jeff R. 02.24.15 at 6:48 pm

Can’t a lot of teaching evaluations be done by peers, particularly by teachers of advanced classes and their impressions on how well-prepared their students are in the subjects covered in prerequisite courses?

I suspect that this is easier to do in STEM areas, Languages, and other technical fields with strong prerequisite paths, but there should be at least something to this in at least most fields.

Or are one’s teaching peers infected with too much logrolling, infighting, and loyalty codes of mutual noncriticism to be trustworthy in such judgment?


T 02.24.15 at 7:03 pm

Harry @75

I apologize for the misreading. I was in the middle of writing a paper ; )


harry 02.24.15 at 7:57 pm

Jeff R — that can work, I guess. But only if you have good information about attrition rates. A stylized example — most people who start Medical School are well prepared in organic chemistry. A medicine professor, noticing her students were well prepared in Org Chem, who concluded that organic chemistry was well taught at the schools from which her students came, would be quite deluded. Of course, that’s artificial because the institution selects out those who didn’t do well in Org Chem. But, more generally, on average, the students who did badly are less likely to take the higher level course.

T — that’s fine!


Jonathan Mayhew 02.24.15 at 8:16 pm

Mediocre teachers actually teach. Mediocre researchers don’t do much research. If you don’t publish you aren’t doing that 40% of your job (or whatever percentage of your effort it’s supposed to be). It would be like rarely showing up to class.

That’s why the comparisons are so hard to make. One activity is judged by quality alone, the other by quality and quantity.


Main Street Muse 02.24.15 at 8:25 pm

Harry @51 “There is a cost problem in HE, especially since HE has started to be more inclusive of students who come from non-traditional backgrounds and has started to take seriously that, having admitted someone, an institution has an obligation to support them actually graduating. That’s expensive.”

There is a cost problem in HE – and it’s the cost born by the student to actually ATTEND the university. According to Forbes:

“Since 1985, the overall consumer price index has risen 115% while the college education inflation rate has risen nearly 500%. According to Gordon Wadsworth, author of The College Trap, ‘…if the cost of college tuition was $10,000 in 1986, it would now cost the same student over $21,500 if education had increased as much as the average inflation rate but instead education is $59,800 or over 2 ½ times the inflation rate.'”

So costs to students have increased far in excess of the inflation rage. In response, higher ed trims HE operating costs by decreasing reliance on tenured/tenure-track faculty. HALF of the people teaching in HE are not on the tenure-track. So the idea that colleges are investing in teaching seems disconnected from where they’re actually investing their money (it’s not in teachers if half of the teaching comes from contingent faculty.)

Follow the money – higher ed is NOT investing in teaching – which is very sad for students who graduate with a nice chunk of debt.

To Metatone @ 61 “Syllabuses – as an adjunct I’m currently struggling with a really out of date assigned textbook and syllabus. Crucially, the syllabus is incoherent and it really affects the quality of the education.”

Do you have no control over the syllabus? Yikes!

I am contingent and I have no control over textbooks – in several courses, I’ve gotten the textbook just prior to the start of class – and in one instance, a week after it started. Hard to really plan a semester when the textbook is not available until the start of the term (or later – and yes, I ask for the book as soon as I know I’m teaching a class.) I teach one course designed by a tenure-track professor – I follow the readings and major assignments, but completely rewrote the syllabus and changed the order of things around. The course director seems okay with that, though, academic freedom and all…


harry 02.24.15 at 8:47 pm


First, same thing I said to T above (like T you seem to have misinterpreted my post quite radically)
Second, though, cost disease.
Third. One of the unappreciated causes of the increase in costs is the rise of student services. Advising, counseling, career, services, for example, are increasingly professionalized, and this is in large part in response to dissatisfaction with the (low) rate at which students from first generation and low income backgrounds — who arrive at college without the built-in well-informed advising/counselling/career service that upper middle class parents provide — were matriculating and graduating from institutions like mine. And a good thing too (in my opinion). This is another locus of conflict, though: faculty want faculty to be hired, when that may not be the best use of the marginal dollar for those students.

But, more generally, the excessive use of adjuncts and contingents is bad for students, and the ‘master teacher’ track (which would take resources currently allocated to adjuncts AND currently allocated to faculty) is part of how that problem could be addressed.


Bloix 02.24.15 at 8:47 pm

#79 –
“Mediocre teachers actually teach. Mediocre researchers don’t do much research.”

Actually, there are boatloads of worse-than-mediocre published research.

“While brilliant and progressive research continues apace here and there, the amount of redundant, inconsequential, and outright poor research has swelled in recent decades, filling countless pages in journals and monographs. Consider this tally from Science two decades ago: Only 45 percent of the articles published in the 4,500 top scientific journals were cited within the first five years after publication… In a 2009 article in Online Information Review, Péter Jacsó found that 40.6 percent of the articles published in the top science and social-science journals (the figures do not include the humanities) were cited in the period 2002 to 2006….

The avalanche of ignored research has a profoundly damaging effect on the enterprise as a whole. Not only does the uncited work itself require years of field and library or laboratory research. It also requires colleagues to read it and provide feedback, as well as reviewers to evaluate it formally for publication. Then, once it is published, it joins the multitudes of other, related publications that researchers must read and evaluate for relevance to their own work. Reviewer time and energy requirements multiply by the year. The impact strikes at the heart of academe.”

My wife, who is an epidemiologist, complains bitterly about the amount of crappy work that is published in her field – articles whose statistical analysis is so poor that all you can be sure of is that the conclusions are not reliable.


Joseph Brenner 02.24.15 at 8:51 pm

William Meyer at 26: “Obviously what is desired is competence, not credentials, and yet the relationship between the two is to put it mildly quite slippery.”

Actually, credentials are tremendously important– e.g. if you go
to a doctor you want to know about their credentials to ensure a
certain degree of minimal competence.

Much of the human intellectual enterprise is essentially a trust
network between people working in different fields. No one can
reproduce everyone else’s work in detail– the concerned citizen
needs to be able to trust the climate scientists, for example,
and if they can’t (or aren’t sure that they can, because of
doubts cast on the system of credentials), then we’ve got real

There are certainly problems with university degrees degenerating
into union cards, but we don’t really have much that can
substitute for them either, and we really do need something.


mdc 02.24.15 at 9:13 pm

To add to the cost analysis: it’s not often noted that technological advances for the most part only add costs to the low productivity (but probably maximally productive) education business. IT budgets, administrative recording mandates, special offices in admissions and development to handle “social”– these things haven’t made it possible to educate any more student per revenue dollar, and they’ve added to spending tremendously. In the distant future, spending on instruction will take up a vanishingly small proportion of college costs.


2slugbaits 02.24.15 at 10:02 pm

There is another, less charitable interpretation of undergraduate education being central to a university’s mission: by and large undergraduates overpay in order to subsidize very expensive graduate programs. The real economic cost to educate an undergraduate in most liberal arts majors should be fairly close to what it costs per semester hour at a good community college. Maybe a little more, but not much more. Afterall, in many cases adjunct instructors teach at one school in the morning and the other school in the afternoon or evening. You don’t need top flight faculty at the cutting edge of research in order to provide an undergraduate with a decent education. Seriously, Latin and Greek and Shakespeare and Newtonian physics and calculus haven’t really changed all that much in the last 300 years.

I’m not convinced that universities cannot find a way to effectively evaluate the teaching skills of a professor, associate professor, etc. Somehow community colleges manage to find a way, so this sounds like special pleading to me.

So let’s cut to the chase. The real reason universities try to attract undergraduates, and especially out-of-state undergraduates, is because universities need the surplus tuition in order to subsidize high end graduate programs, which in turn support elite faculty recruitments, which in turn support university rankings, which in turn drive the salaries and bonuses of university presidents and chancellors. It’s not a stable arrangement. In the not too distant future parents are going to realize that universities are ripping them off. In fact, there is some evidence that this is already starting to happen. I know of one Big Ten university that is feeling the competition from a nearby community college, and in a desperate act of predatory pricing is offering freshmen and sophomores free summer tuition. Community colleges are a lower cost, but they can’t compete with free. It’s a clear case of predatory pricing.


Jeff R. 02.24.15 at 10:13 pm

Harry@78: Isn’t a fairly high attrition rate part of being a good teacher in those lower-level classes? Not every student starts out in the program they’re going to get the most out of; better they figure that out as soon as possible and waste as little of their own and their professors’ time as possible, no?


Bloix 02.24.15 at 10:15 pm

More on research –

According to an article published last year by the well-known medical researcher John A. Ioannidis, author of the spectacularly famous 2005 article, “”Why Most Published Research Findings Are False,”

“Currently, many published research findings are false or exaggerated, and an estimated 85% of research resources are wasted.”

“How to Make More Published Research True,”

Ioannidis explains that the incentive structure for scientific research encourages bad practices that lead to unreliable results, and makes suggestions to improve incentives.

I don’t know if you could do the same sort of study in the social sciences and humanities, but I would expect that the incentives are just as bad.

I suppose this is something of a derailment of the thread, but to bring it back on track, in both teaching and research, universities do a terrible job of promoting efficient practices, and in both areas, there are modern research tools that could be deployed to discover practices that would reduce waste and improve results.


mdc 02.24.15 at 10:20 pm

2slugs: Doesn’t really explain why some of the most expensive schools are undergraduate-only programs.

Also, it’s sort of interesting to me that there are no courses in Latin, Greek, or Newton at my highly-rated local community college. There is one Shakespeare class, but none in which King Lear, or Richard the Second, or As You Like It, or the sonnets (for example) are studied. Just sayin!


Trader Joe 02.24.15 at 10:21 pm

Rather amazingly no one has mentioned that the REAL mission of the Wisconsin University system is to
1. Beat Minnesota at all sporting events
2. Win Big Ten Championships in as many sports as possible
3. Appear in the Rose Bowl at least once every 5 years and win it every time
4. Graduate more athletes than any other school in the Big Ten
5. Teach undergraduates, especially those that can dunk basketballs, rush for touchdowns and otherwise accrue praise and glory on the almighty Badger

Oh, and 6. Research a bunch of stuff and hand out degrees and that.


harry 02.24.15 at 10:53 pm

Jeff — yes… but, what I am saying is that the professor in the subsequent class cannot infer anything about the quality of the previous teacher from the fact that the students who made it to *her* class are well-prepared. Maybe the attrition was the result of good teaching, maybe it was the result of lousy teaching, maybe it was the result of something the teacher had no control over; and maybe the students entered the previous professor’s class well prepared anyway.


harry 02.24.15 at 10:54 pm

2slugbaits — could you tell me which university that is?


hix 02.24.15 at 11:15 pm

There is nothing particular special about jobs where the performance is hard to evaluate. Teaching is just one among many. Just because there are evaluation systems in many other fields where it is also hard does not mean those work. Management evaluation comes to mind as a particular sad joke.


Main Street Muse 02.24.15 at 11:17 pm

Harry – your post is fuzzy in places – the focus/undergraduate mission of the university should be on teaching – hiring, promotion, tenure practices do not reflect that mission – there are only poor ways to evaluate teaching – institutions embrace change slowly if at all – we need a master teacher track….

How would master teachers be evaluated – if tenure-track professors of today cannot really be evaluated for their teaching? What happens to researchers – they get to skip out of the classroom all together? The always-skyrocketing tuition should cover the salaries of people in higher ed who want to research but not to teach? Why are students subsidizing research? (Not all research is covered by grants.) Maybe UW-Madison has little need for adjuncts, but in the higher ed universe, the proportion of adjuncts to tenure-track/tenured faculty grows astronomically over time – along with the tuition. It will be expensive to replace those adjuncts with full-time teachers who get – god help us – benefits…

I view this issue differently than you, with a greater sense of urgency – not just because I am a member of the contingent faculty class – but because I have three children I’m currently pinching pennies for in an effort to send them to college with as little debt as possible. It is outrageous that students pay so dearly to learn in institutions so little interested in the actual thing families are investing in – that teaching thing. (I really cannot stand the idea that I am soon invest in institutions that (as you note) continue with “hiring, retention, and promotion practices” that do not reflect the educational mission of the university.)

You say that the pressure points for change lie at the graduate school level. I think that is really sad. And it’s nothing but a cop-out to say “I don’t see the market exerting much pressure to get us to adopt such practices, though.” Actually, the market IS exerting pressure – at least at the public university level – witness Scott Walker – witness the massive UNC budget cuts in the last few years – witness the decisions of UNC governors to chop off centers that examine poverty, biodiversity and social justice. Let’s see what Rauner’s going to do in Illinois. These politicians (and Megan McArdle) point to the things you yourself don’t like and say – chop the budget. Students drop out with debt and no degree. Employers ask for communication skills and get people who assume everything they do is awesome (see Academically Adrift.) The market is shouting…


Donald A. Coffin 02.25.15 at 12:02 am

Main Street Muse @ 80

Yep, tuition is up much faster than the CPI overall. But…at least at publics, a significant factor in that is the decline in state support. I taught in the Indiana University system from 1987 to 2012 (and then retired). At one point, using data from the late 1960s through the late 1990s, I discovered that per-student-credit hour spending, both across the university and on a campus-by-campus basis, had risen at almost exactly the same rate as the CPI (actually 0.2% per year faster, as I recall). But state support (which approached 70% of total spending on IU’s campuses in the 1960s) had risen at only half the CPI rate of inflation. By the 1990s, state support was less than 1/3 of total spending, and it is now around 25%.

So something had to give. Others have mentioned that technology cycles have gotten shorter, and the costs associated with being reasonably current in information technology. And one can look at delivery of education as an issue (although a lot of the efforts to increase the use of video, and then computers, as delivery mechanisms have not worked as well as people had hoped, and have not been particularly cost-effective, as yet, either).

It’s hard to figure out how to keep tuition increases at the CPI rate of inflation in the environment in which we’ve been operating, especially at publics.

On the other hand, I attended DePauw University from 1965 to 1969. Tuition and fees my first year (1965-66) were $1400 for the year. Tuition and fees now are about $42,500. The CPI is now about 7.5 times what it was in 1965. so had tuition at DePauw increased in line with CPI inflation, it would currently be about $10,500 per year. So, what happened there?

First, the faculty increased [from about 160 FT (and almost no PT) to about 220 FT (and still almost no PT)], while the student body shrank slightly (from about 2,400 to about 2,200)]. Average class sized fell significantly. Second, DePauw has upgraded its science labs consistently and at significant on-going expense (about 10%-15% of a typical graduating class has gone on the med school). Third, IT. Fourth, expanded off-campus (including overseas) programs (which are often subsidized by the university. Fifth, a significant effort to diversity the student body (99% white when I attended, much less than that now), which has led to expanded financial aid. (Or the “sticker price” is not the “average effective price.)

And that’s at an institution that values and tries to reward teaching…


harry 02.25.15 at 12:05 am

Thanks MSM — I don’t think we disagree a great deal about the facts on the ground, or even about how to evaluate them morally. One of the things about writing on CT is that I am trying to do two things — i) persuade colleagues in the institution (I don’t think I need to persuade anyone else really — and apparently I don’t need to persuade you) that there are real problems and ii) try to get feedback about what to do about those problems. Don’t think that because I write declaratively I write with certainty, I don’t. Lots of people in higher ed read CT, and I want to get them thinking about what they can do and, to some extent, guilt trip them. And I want to have a better understanding of what I can do both in my everyday practice (I teach a lot of students, and want to do it well) and in using what influence I have within my own institution — which is limited, but not non-existent.

My pessimism about tenure and promotion practices being a pressure point reflect a lot of discussions with both students and colleagues and my own experience. You can say that I should quit my job. Maybe I should, but I am not going to, and doing so would leave me completely without influence in the one institution which I know well and within which I can have some influence (at minimum by altering my practice).


P.M.Lawrence 02.25.15 at 12:14 am

Bloix at comment 60, I suspect you are also muddling the empirical versus normative aspect, and that you are still reading what I wrote from the perspective of what universities deliver.

“The modern university, particularly post-Sputnik, is not primarily an institution for the training of scholars” is empirically true, but it is not what a university ought to be for. And contrasting “primarily an institution for the training of scholars” with the educating of undergraduates is like arguing about whether cows are for milk or meat, when those are only the farmer’s purposes for cows; if anything, cows are for cows. I never suggested that universities were there to train scholars at all, I merely pointed out that that was also one of the things incidental to their surviving, just as educating undergraduates for money was – they are both things that are inextricable but not of the essence, i.e. those are not things that make universities what they are (or should be).

To repeat, universities ought to be about scholarship. If they are not, there is no point in scholars going into them, no matter whether they are viable educational institutions that successfully deliver educated graduates: the scholars would do better – for the purposes of scholarship – to seek other expedients, since those universities unworthy of the name would erode and frustrate that very thing more and more over time. It is a “failure of substratum”. Granted, these days there are ever fewer scholars with private means like Runciman, and there are ever fewer patrons to ask to endow scholarship, but there is no point in scholars settling for something they don’t want just because they can’t have what they do want. Better that they work on defence contracts for half the year to subsidise their true calling than work a whole year teaching with nothing over. And if that support for scholars is not to be had anywhere in this world, why, they should give up on their calling and turn to drink or worse sooner than be led on by false hope.


Bloix 02.25.15 at 12:33 am

Let me revise my post-Sputnik comment.

I don’t think American universities have ever been primarily about scholarship. At first they were training schools for ministers. Then newer ones were teaching training academies. Then came the land-grant colleges, whose purpose was, as established by Congress:

“without excluding other scientific and classical studies and including military tactic, to teach such branches of learning as are related to agriculture and the mechanic arts, in such manner as the legislatures of the States may respectively prescribe, in order to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in the several pursuits and professions in life.”

7 USC Sec. 304.

(Wikipedia is a wonderful thing.)

I think you’re suffering from nostalgia for a time that never did exist.

(PS cows never have been for cows. The cow was brought into existence by human beings and for human beings. Perhaps a sort of scholar exists somewhere in the wild, but the variety most of us are familiar with is the domesticated species.)


rosmarina 02.25.15 at 12:34 am

Harry (@92): it’s been the case at the University of Iowa for a couple of years now, and is even more important with impending changes in the division of state funding for the 3 regents’ universities.


Derek Bowman 02.25.15 at 3:46 am


I’m a bit late to the party, but I wonder about the ethics of this part of your proposal:

“At the graduate school stage it is possible to require participation in systems that promote continuous improvement—the teaching assistants and lecturers are, after all, graduate employees.”

The reasons that junior faculty are disincentivized from emphasizing their teaching is that doing so detracts from the activities that will reliably win them promotion (and employment should they need to apply elsewhere). The only difference with graduate students is that you can force them to do it, despite its being against their own career interests. Ok, they’re employees, but so are junior faculty, right?

What’s worse, the plan risks being self-defeating. If junior faculty are right in their calculations, that focus on improved teaching will not improve their employability/tenurability, then the graduate students who are forced to emphasize their teaching will be less competitive for tenure-track jobs. In that case, all these wonderful teachers will be great bargains for those who hire them as adjuncts (at least until they get burnt out), but they’ll just serve as a model for how little teaching excellence is rewarded.


harry 02.25.15 at 4:16 am

Derek — yes, I’ve thought about that. I think (hope) that the calculation actually works differently. I’m not proposing a wholesale shift of resources, time and energy (for the reasons you give, and also because it couldn’t happen in a reasonable time-frame): but the insertion of some serious on-the-job training and continuous professional development. I’ll try to elaborate more on this later, but for the moment, the only thing I worry about, which I didn’t worry about until people brought it up in the thread, is actual discrimination against high quality teachers by people who assume that good teachers can’t be good researchers. I have never encountered that first hand (nowadays I wouldn’t anyway, because nobody would say something quite that stupid in my presence: but earlier in my working life people might have done). One thing — I have some anecdotal evidence that universities and colleges in which faculty teach a lot have a preference for hiring people whom they have evidence will be competent teachers, and a good continuous professional development program helps enhance a dossier.


Derek Bowman 02.25.15 at 1:52 pm

Hi, Harry.

I hope you’re right. The people I know who – mostly on their own time – have spent a substantial amount of time learning to be good teachers are all stuck in adjunct jobs. When I tell current students at the program I graduated from about my Writing Center experience, I’m forced to say that it was tremendously important to my development as a teacher and, so far, of no evident use in getting a (non-adjunct) job.

But there’s no reason a well-designed program can’t integrate teaching development into an overall more effective pattern of professional development. And I agree that evidence of commitment to teaching can be a bonus to those who also have the other cv items that are likely to get them past the early filtering stages.

But be cautious in advising your students. There’s a big difference between institutions having a “preference for…competent teachers” and “selecting for excellent teachers.” Also warn them that many schools that claim to be (and even think of themselves as) ‘teaching focused’ prioritize research as well – often even moreso – especially at the short-listing stage.


harry 02.25.15 at 2:52 pm

Derek — so, in our particular situation, there’s not a huge dilemma. Our graduate students end up teaching so much more than anyone they are competing with in the job market, that they have a built in advantage. And because we require them to teach so much it really is in their interests to invest a bit of time to get good at it because it really does, probably, over the course of 6 or 7 years, pay off (they’re better teachers, and because they are better it is easier and less anxiety provoking when they are trying to do other things like write a dissertation and get a job). I think this is one reason, in fact, that our placement rate is so much better than that of departments that rank above us (but only one reason: we also have remarkably good students, and a brilliant placement officer).

This bring out something, though, that I might have said earlier, if I’d been willing to expose my slightly pollyanna-ish beliefs — I actually think that we do beginning tenure track faculty a disservice by not investing more in mentoring and continuous professional development in their teaching. For a lot of them, especially if they have not had the extensive teaching experience our graduate students have had, the first 2-3 years of teaching are extremely anxious, and more systematic mentoring and support (separated completely from evaluation) would be good both for their students, and for their careers, because floundering as a teacher for a few years detracts from time energy and attention you can give to research. (Eg, better teaching results in less time spent with students who are complaining about their grade). In other words, I do think there might be win-win solutions (not saying I know what they are, just that we shouldn’t rule them out).


Bruce Wilder 02.25.15 at 5:29 pm

I’ve long thought that the way “good” research gets defined for the purposes of evaluating the quality of publications is a major obstacle to the teaching mission of both elite and not-so-elite institutions.

Back in my long-ago day, it was a cliche of the most complacent that the good research, on fundamental issues in the field, any field, enhanced the organizational, if not necessarily the individual capacity to teach. And, on a more prosaic level, I think everyone who teaches, finds that having to explain concepts — especially fundamental concepts — enhances understanding.

Placing so much emphasis on “cutting-edge” research and on attracting research funding for “frontier” research works against the capacity to teach the discipline in subtle, but profound ways.

Economics, as most sentient people realize, has serious problems of corrupted taste, but these are compounded by the research priorities. The frontiers of research move away from the textbooks, which become places of empty convention and nursery tales. The middle ground, of refining and elaborating and restating, as opposed to advancing the research frontier is neglected. If economics were a healthy discipline, developing knowledge that could be used to educate an active citizen to participate in democracy or professionals to staff the bureaucracies of business and the public sector, it would need to generate a lot more middle-brow, quasi-journalism “research”, which didn’t push the frontiers, but filled in the details. Academic economists could get due credit for producing the equivalent of business school case studies, for example, or for following and documenting the course of the business cycle in quasi-journalistic detail. These kinds studies would feed the realism of classroom instruction in economics, supplying the vast, yawning deficit between theory and realistic appreciation of detailed reality.

Statistics and probability is an area with huge inter-disciplinary application, where there’s a vast yawning gap between the aridity of theory and practical application, because not enough academics do the kind of “research” of restating established theoretical results and arguments and developing the prosaic concepts of artisan practice that would be necessary as a foundation for educating students, and raising the bar of genuine understanding for the educated person.

It isn’t enough to give teaching skills more weight. Reshaping research priorities to supply the needs of education and to reduce, rather than build, the barriers of jargon and scholastic convention is needed.

P.S. Could someone, please, establish a liberal arts business school to compete with the damn social science business schools? A business school where the curriculum is driven toward business schools by teachers of the liberal arts of rhetoric, history and math? Where future executives study great literature rather than organizational psychology? Where teaching students the skill of effective public speaking isn’t treated as suspect or tertiary?


Bruce Wilder 02.25.15 at 5:31 pm

where economics was tertiary and ethics was primary


Derek Bowman 02.25.15 at 5:42 pm

Harry – I agree about the desirability of the scenario you describe. I hope you find a way to overcome the collective action problems to bringing it about, but I guess I don’t have as much hope for the future of the academy as you do.


TM 02.25.15 at 8:34 pm

102 and 103: I would put it more strongly than Harry. Time spent on learning how to teach is time saved, not time lost, for anybody whose job (or part of whose job) it is to teach. What is amazing is that most Universities (to my knowledge) don’t offer even elementary instruction in techniques such as classroom organization, assessment design, teaching tools, how to deal with students and so on. Like any profession, teaching involves using tools that have to be learned (not that that is all of it but it’s part of it). College teaching is really unique in that respect that its practitioners are forced to learn everything on the job without even having been shown the tools they need for doing their job. Of course what most in that situation resort to is their own experience as students. They either copy or try to improve on the techniques they have observed in their own instructors (with somewhat predictable success).

I have to agree with some other commenters – what stands out is really the extent to which institutions are not doing even the most obvious things to help their teaching faculty, such as explaining them the nuts and bolts of the job before letting them start teaching, and doing peer classroom observations. I also wonder what would happen if more students and parents knew about this state of affairs.


dr ngo 02.25.15 at 9:09 pm

College teaching is really unique in that respect that its practitioners are forced to learn everything on the job without even having been shown the tools they need for doing their job.

Not that unique – cf. parenting.


TM 02.25.15 at 9:49 pm

“College teaching is really unique in that respect” – unique among professions.


Derek Bowman 02.25.15 at 11:03 pm

TM: “Time spent on learning how to teach is time saved, not time lost, for anybody whose job (or part of whose job) it is to teach.”

I don’t disagree. But the point of my comments was that, given the limited role of teaching in the hiring and promotion process, time spent on learning how to teach can mean that you don’t get a (full-time, long term) job that involves teaching at all. It’s the difference between what it takes to get the job and what it takes to do the job.


Bloix 02.25.15 at 11:04 pm


mdc 02.26.15 at 12:12 am

By the way, I’d love to see a ranking of schools according to degree of adjunctification.


TM 02.26.15 at 2:31 am

110, my point was that if teaching is part of your job, it is in your interest to learn how to teach efficiently (and should also be in the interest of the institution to help you teach efficiently). That is not the same as teach well but I suspect that given time constraints, being efficient is a necessary condition for being a good teacher. If you want to be a carpenter, you need to learn how to use the tools of carpentry. That is not enough to be a good carpenter but is almost certainly a prerequisite.


Main Street Muse 02.26.15 at 3:10 am

UNC-CH – the flagship university within the NC system – and oldest public university in the country – has seen a dramatic increase in adjuncts in recent years.

In 2003, percentage of teachers not on the tenure track: 12%

Today, percentage of teachers not on the tenure-track: 59%

Pretty horrible stats. (source:


Main Street Muse 02.26.15 at 3:13 am

To Harry – please don’t quit your job!


sanbikinoraion 02.26.15 at 10:32 am

Dr Ngo @ 108 — seriously? Have you *seen* how many books there are on parenting out there? And prenatal classes? Supernanny on the telly? Never mind practicing on your elder siblings’ / cousins’ children.


Chris Hill 02.27.15 at 2:36 am

Wow, 116 comments. I’m late to the party.

As a science Ph.D. candidate at a prestigious R1 school 20 years ago I was given mentoring in teaching well, support and encouragement to develop that. It wasn’t mandated beyond some “basic training” but it was available and taken seriously. I had a great department. They really tried to help us develop in all kinds of ways.

As a professor, I’ve always wished that classroom visits went beyond the “seniors or chairs observing the juniors” model. Heck, as a starting assistant professor, I wanted to sit in on other teacher’s classes and felt I gained a LOT from that. So even though it was sometimes awkward, I’d ask on my own to sit in on their classes. And as a senior professor now, nobody ever watches me and if they did I would get useful feedback and maybe a kick in the pants. So that part of the original post (better and more continuous peer review) sounds great to me.


Derek Bowman 02.27.15 at 4:43 pm

@TM: I understood your point, which is frame on the assumption that the grad students receiving teacher training will get an academic job (“if teaching is part of your job…”)

My point is that for some students, time spent on teacher training means time not spent on the things that will actually get them an academic job, so that as a result many may end up well trained for a job they don’t get, instead of less well trained for a job they actually get. It’s the difference between training graduate students on the assumption that they’ll get a job that involves teaching, versus training them with the aim of helping to ensure that they actually get such a job. Insofar as hiring fails prioritize teaching excellence, those two models of graduate training can diverge drastically (though, for the reasons given, they seem not to do so for Harry’s department).


TM 02.27.15 at 4:52 pm

“frame on the assumption that the grad students receiving teacher training will get an academic job”

Well teaching is already part of their job. In most cases.

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