Thursday, January 15, 2009

Next stop: Academic Idol

From The Chronicle :

The chancellor of the Texas A&M University system wants to give faculty members bonuses of up to $10,000, based on student evaluations, but some professors are raising concerns about the plan, saying it could become a popularity contest, The Bryan-College Station Eagle reported.

Faculty members can decide whether to participate in the pilot program, which is being offered at the system’s flagship, in College Station, and at its Kingsville and Prairie View campuses. Though details are preliminary, officials said, the goal is to offer awards starting at $2,500 to the top 15 percent of participating instructors.

Instructors, you've won a ticket to College Station to compete on Academic Idol, except that the voting will be without the benefit of comments by Simon Cowell and company.

What might this change?

1. Teaching styles. There's no question that this could affect people's teaching styles, but would it do so for the better? Philip J. Tramdack, one of the commenters at the Chronicle, says that if he had to teach again (he's a librarian), he'd pull out his popular "lounge act" style of teaching instead of the "casino act" in which he actually asked students questions. Sometimes you can teach students difficult concepts AND entertain them, but not always.

2. Syllabus. Hmmm, what to choose--800 pages of Bleak House or the graphics novel version of Bleak House? Or Bleak House in text-message format?

And what about writing assignments? Writing is hard, and no one likes to hear anything but "superb job! brilliant!" when turning something in. We all, professors included, have to learn to take criticism about our writing, however, and it's only natural to have a hard time separating the messenger from the message. With a fortune like $2500-10,000 hanging over your head, would you be more likely or less likely to wield the red pen as usual, even it if means student displeasure?

3. Academic rigor. Another commenter mentions that the evaluations ask about things like "this course challenged me" and so on--in other words, students are asked to judge the academic rigor of the course.

Here's the problem with those kinds of questions: students all want to take challenging courses as long as they can get an A in them. There's no glory to getting an A in an easy course. On the other hand, if the student doesn't get a good grade, it's the instructor's fault for making the course, as students sometimes put it, "to hard" with "to much writting."

It would be nice to reward good teaching, but making evaluations the sole criterion is daft. To quote our soon-to-be-ex-president, the question that's not being asked is "Is our children learning?"

8 comments:

The Bittersweet Girl said...

Oh, good lord. It's bad enough that teaching evaluations play any role in hiring, promotions, tenure, or raises -- but now linking them to competative bonuses? What a dumb, dumb idea.

Bardiac said...

Then there's the sexism.

Any time a student makes a comment about the instructor's physical appearance, clothing, and such (positive or negative), the prof automatically wins a $5000. sexism offset, right? That could build up a lot in some classes!

Fretful Porpentine said...

Have these people ever actually taught a class? More to the point, have they ever taught two sections of the same course in the same semester, using identical assignments and methods, and gotten wildly divergent evaluations?

Hmm, maybe all chancellors should be required to teach two sections of freshman English a semester. I'll happily give up mine for the cause...

naptimewriting said...

Bardiac has a point...if ratemyprofessor.com has a tally of effectiveness and then a "hotness" rating, surely Cowell and crew will reward us for quality of syllabi, usefulness of feedback, and entertainment value of wardrobe choices. Maybe they'll even cover the cost of postdoc injectable biotoxins, since your thoughts are less important than the absence of unsightly wrinkles. It's way uncool to *look* like a professor if you can write and think like one.
I take one for the team and donate a few English 1A classes with Fretful Porpentine...

naptimewriting said...

creepy. my word verification was thong.

undine said...

Bittersweet girl--as if this won't raise academic jealousy to new heights. Heck, academics get bitter if one person gets more whiteboard marker than another. I can't imagine what throwing this kind of money into the mix will do.

Bardiac, I like your addendum and am mightily afraid that anyone who would come up with a plan like this would never come up with anything to dampen down the sexism.

undine said...

Fretful, I've wondered the same thing. I'm thinking that they must have had this experience so long ago that they've forgotten, or maybe they had their memories erased when they went into administration.

undine said...

naptimewriting: "thong"-creepy and appropriate. I'm waiting now for the MLA panel on injecting botox.

Another creepy thing about those injectible face things: I first read about Restylane and Juvederm a long time ago. That's what they use on corpses to make them look "lifelike," or so Jessica Mitford said in _The American Way of Death_.

They make the dead look natural. The living? Not so much.