Recently I have noticed a number of news stories focussing on issues of higher education. These have examined topics from the dwindling number of tenure-track positions, states’ decreasing ability to subsidize public education, and the related problem of escalating tuitions at public universities. One would certainly get a sense from the media attention that higher education in the United States is in a state of crisis. Now comes a new study by two sociologists at New York University and the University of Virginia that purports to show American college students study and learn little in their first two years of schooling. Publication of the study led to further debate in the New York Times and an astonishing number of reader comments and responses. If the point is to focus attention on the issue of academic standards and the value of the higher education in the U.S., then mission accomplished.
I found the debate and a number of the comments fascinating. As a young teacher I also found the debate directly related to my experience as someone at the start of her academic career. I am teaching at a highly selective, liberal arts college with high academic standards. My students would definitely not be in the category of those who read less than 40 pages a week and write less than 20 pages a semester. In many respects, then, it would seem that I am in a happy minority of professors at academically rigorous institutions with good and hardworking students. Yet, at the end of the semester, at this school, as at pretty much every college, the tables are turned and students are given the opportunity to evaluate their instructors. The course evaluation commonly ask students to rank (from 1 to 5 or 6, usually) the difficulty of the course, the relevance of the readings, the timeliness of grading, among other questions. The first time I read through the survey, my first reaction was that the questionnaire placed the weight of learning upon the intructor. More reading, more essays, and tougher grading, the laudable markers of stringent academic standards, would also likely result in a lower “grade” for a course. Since course evaluations are taken into account in tenure review, there is then every incentive for instructors to increase the popularity of a class by creating an “easier” syllabus and handing out higher grades.
If teaching is a vocation, it is also a job. I believe we are paid to teach, with research and time to write as nice perks. The idea of course evaluations makes a lot of sense. Ideally it keeps professors accountable to their students. Ideally it would also help instructors to change aspects of their teaching that do not work. In reality, however, 99.9% of student comments are complaints about 1) the grade and 2) the amount of reading. Evaluations and grading of instructors also reinforce the apparently now culturally acceptable idea in the U.S. that students are primarily consumers, and that they have the same right to shop around in education as they would on Amazon or Ebay. Clearly there are a lot of fundamental issues within higher education. One place to start, I believe, is to get a conversation going about the goals of teaching and learning at the college level and decide whether the current practice of having students “grade” teachers still make sense.