To Teach or Not to Teach

On May 10, the Pope Center hosted an event in Washington, DC entitled “Higher Education Reform: Where the Right and Left Meet.” The concept was to bring together higher education critics from across the political spectrum for a free-wheeling discussion of what has gone wrong in higher ed and how to salvage it.

Our six speakers—Kevin Carey of Education Sector, Claudia Dreifus (co-author of Higher Education?), Murray Sperber (author of Beer and Circus), Naomi Schaefer Riley (author of the soon-to-be-released The Faculty Lounges), Richard Vedder of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, and Peter Wood of the National Association of Scholars—hit upon a wide array of topics, but the one that dominated was the fact that quality teaching is not a priority at most schools.

That is perhaps the dirtiest and most hidden of all higher education’s dirty, hidden secrets. Most outsiders assume that because colleges and universities are educational institutions, excellence in teaching is their top priority.  The speakers were unanimous that most schools don’t make it a priority at all.

The moderator of the event, Mark Schneider, testified from personal experience (as a department chairman) that many professors hate teaching classes and regard it as a punishment if they are told to do more teaching because they aren’t doing any research either.

Of course, there are counter-examples of professors who love interacting with their students and would rather teach than work on some esoteric research project that they know will never be read by more people than you could stuff into a Prius. But to a shocking degree, professors think of actual teaching as drudgery to be avoided at all costs. When they can’t avoid it, they do it with the absolute minimum of effort.

Professor Sperber, whose field is English, pointed out that most college students (even graduate students at top universities) write poorly and more than anything else need professors who will edit their written work line by line. Unfortunately, very few still do that. (I remember an English professor who did so for every student’s papers when I was an undergraduate in 1970; her kind is a vanishing species.) Rather than the time-consuming work of editing, most professors just make a few general comments at the end like “You have interesting ideas.”

The problem, several of the speakers observed, is one of incentives. Almost never is a professor rewarded for doing an exceptionally good job of improving his or her students’ ability to write good, clear English. Almost never does a professor come under criticism for failing to do that, much less risk the loss of money or employment. Professors are hired to teach courses, which means showing up for the class most of the time and turning in grades for the students at the end of the semester. Exactly how they go about this “teaching” is their business and as long as their subject matter is in the same constellation as the course description, administrators will leave them alone. (Occasionally a professor will go too far, as in this case of course “squatting” but disciplinary action against professors for just teaching what they want to teach is extremely rare.)

What is to blame for this? The panelists identified tenure as one of the culprits, although Professor Sperber thinks it is worth keeping as a protection for free speech. Faculty members who are working toward tenure are usually so completely absorbed in the obligatory research and writing that they minimize the time and effort they put into teaching. No one tries to measure good teaching, but superiors in the department can and will measure the number of publications.

Tenure also figures in this problem indirectly. Because tenured professors are very costly and reduce a school’s ability to respond to changing demand for courses, colleges have been hiring more and more adjunct professors. But adjuncts have no more incentive to devote a lot of time and effort to working with students to teach them than do tenure-track professors.

In her forthcoming book The Faculty Lounges, Naomi Riley focuses on the illuminating case of Nancy Jimeno, who (at a rather advanced age) decided that she wanted to teach about environmental politics and therefore embarked upon the necessary steps for a Ph.D. at her alma mater, Cal State-Fullerton. After several years, she had completed the coursework and thought that she would find an academic position while completing her dissertation. The only academic work she could find was a low-paying job as a teaching assistant at UC-Riverside, sixty miles from her home.

Eventually, Fullerton offered Nancy a job as an adjunct, but for even less money.

Nancy wanted badly to help her students. Riley quotes her: “Ninety percent of them come from homes where English is not spoken and 60 percent of them are not ready for college. If I had the time I would go over the papers with each one. I wish I could do that. It would make such a difference in their lives.”

In a nutshell, tenured faculty teach so little that adjuncts must be hired, but adjuncts teach so much that even if they tried they couldn’t devote the time needed to working with their students.

Tenure, however, can’t be singled out as the only villain. From personal experience, I know that the incentives for good teaching are weak to non-existent at schools that don’t have tenure at all. Professors are still employed to “teach courses” rather than to ensure that students learn anything. Therefore, many will easily slide into what Murray Sperber calls “the faculty/student non-aggression pact.” That is, the professor gives a light load of work and grades easily in return for the students not expecting much of his time and writing favorable end-of-term evaluations.

What is to be done? How can we change the incentives so that professors will devote their best efforts to real teaching?

One suggestion advanced by several of the speakers is to have colleges administer a learning assessment to all students in their senior year. The concept is that administrators will start to insist on actual learning rather than letting professors get away with the work-avoiding tactics that have suited them so nicely until now.

I’m not opposed to such testing, but don’t think it would come close to solving the problem.  If Professor A burns the midnight oil to carefully critique each of several papers she assigns, that does little to improve the overall performance on the Big Exam. Conversely, if Professor B continues to give few written assignments and merely slaps on some comments at the end of papers, that doesn’t make the student body much worse. (This is the same common resource problem that crops up when land is owned “by society.”)

What we need much more are incentives for professors to do their utmost to see that students make great strides in learning mathematics, history, literature, writing, and so on. How can that happen?

That will only happen when administrators start to insist on it and can penalize or terminate professors who don’t do that, much as a business manager can penalize or terminate a worker who doesn’t perform his job.  Why don’t they do that now?

Claudia Dreifus put her finger on the reason–very few students and parents are determined to hunt for schools where teaching is prized. When parents and students visit a campus, she lamented, they usually ask about sports, parking, student amenities, but they almost never insist on sitting in on a class.

There’s the essence of the problem—few higher education consumers are informed shoppers.  Students and parents are for the most part so mesmerized by the “experience” that colleges market that they don’t scrutinize the one aspect of it that truly matters, whether the courses offered are educationally sound, or just junk food for the mind.

Next week’s Clarion Call will continue this discussion: what will make colleges pay attention to teaching quality?

Editor’s note: Watch short videos from the conference here.