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Class dismissed: universities should start caring about how well - and how much - teachers teach.

One day in the mid-eighties, during a course in philosophical ethics at the University of North Carolina that had randomly featured movies about the Chilean labor movement, political screeds about Central America, and chats about local news, the professor dutifully handed out forms for students to rate the class.

"This had just been a very unremarkable course," recalls one student. "What we talked about in class wasn't connected to what we read, and the movie wasn't really connected to anything. And, when he distributed the forms, the professor announced, very matter-of-factly, that whatever the students said would have no effect on his career."

The professor was right. A scholarly publishing star, he soon left to chair the philosophy department at one of the country's largest research universities. He's there now, presiding over an academic Olympus, while the undergraduates whom he unremarkably taught a few years back are probably as long forgotten as the janitors who cleaned his office. That he wasn't a particularly good teacher didn't interest the universities which courted him. So long as the professor wrote books and presented professional papers, that was good enough. And in a way, that's fine. Complaining that research scholarship is antithetical to the university is silly, an argument that belongs to people who take George Wallace's caricature of "pointy headed professors" literally.

The real issue is why universities have let research become the alpha and omega of their culture. Because good teaching is simply assumed, the present system of professorial evaluation allows bad teaching to go undetected and unremedied. This means that professors who do well in the public sphere of publication rise to the top, leaving teaching stars in a professional steerage class.

So why is there so little emphasis on teaching? According to the Carnegie Foundation, just 58 percent of faculty in four-year schools say their chief interest lies in the classroom; since 1969, the percent of faculty agreeing that teaching should be the primary criterion for promotion fell from 78 percent to 62 percent.

The rules of the academic road have followed those sentiments: Since the seventies, average faculty workloads have dropped from 15 class hours a week to about 6, and college costs have risen at five or six times the rate of inflation. Semesters are shorter, classes fewer. On average, full professors make $65,000 for about 90 minutes of class time a day for the eight months a year that school is in session. Not a bad deal at all.

And, significantly, professors who teach the least make the most money. A new study from the National Center on Postsecondary Teaching, Learning, and Assessment finds that professors who spent fewer than six hours a week in class made $50,927, stomping on colleagues who made $36,793 for 12 hours of teaching. The best-known and highest-ranked professors teach sporadically, if at all. In other words, the reward for scholarly success is time away from students.

When professors do teach, there is little sense of how well they're doing it. And when teaching is evaluated, the results are often overlooked. What's lost, of course, is a simple thing called education--the thing students and parents and taxpayers are writing checks for. The disturbing levels of American collegiate academic achievement are well-known: Our college graduates read and know mathematics at a lower level than their counterparts in other industrialized countries, and, in 1989, a National Endowment for the Humanities survey found that half of college seniors couldn't identify the Emancipation Proclamation or The Federalist Papers.

If any other business--an auto manufacturer, a bank, a supermarket--cut services and raised prices, customers would walk out. Universities, however, occupy an inviolate place in American life. Since the GI Bill made higher education a broad right instead of a privilege in the years after World War II, a university degree has been our intuitive engine of social mobility.

The engine's chief operators, the professors, like all other respiratory mammals, respond to systems of reward and sanction. Right now, the rewards are in research, and there are no significant sanctions for bad teaching over the years. Young academics swiftly pick up on that and tailor their careers accordingly. "The message in graduate school is, 'If you want to get ahead, focus on publishing,'" says Robert Speel, a young political scientist at Penn State's Erie campus. Curiously, too, Americans train their college teachers by forcing them to do labor-intensive research projects, and then expect them to emerge, after years in Ph.D. darkness, as engaging teachers.

Cultural change only comes in times of stress, and the conditions which cause stress are growing in higher education for the first time since 1945. Professors who took Ph.D.s--the wonder credential--and began their careers in the sixties are retiring; William Bowen, the former president of Princeton, projects that 153,000 new arts and sciences faculty will have to be hired between now and 2012--a virtual 100 percent replacement rate for the 156,000 professors now at four-year institutions. And the number of people seeking a Ph.D. is not keeping pace with expected enrollments. It's an opportune time, if there ever was one, to cut through the credentialist kudzu and recognize that not every good teacher is good at research, and not every good researcher is good at teaching.

Why do we pretend otherwise? For one thing, when it comes to pay and promotion, it's easier to count publications than assess teaching. Though the results of undergraduate surveys are published in student course guides at Harvard and a handful of the largest state universities, they are frequently undervalued by the institutions themselves. "Schools always say, 'We have a file on every teacher,"' says Patrick Callan, executive director of the California Higher Education Policy Center in San Jose. "But when the tough decisions come around, like tenure and promotion, teaching still doesn't count for much."

Goodbye, Mr. Chips

How to assess classroom performance? For starters, ask the students. Measured over time, student evaluation is an invaluable resource. Too often, however, the formulaic questions (''Was the professor well-organized?") are too soft to extract critical information. Formal interviews with students and tough questioning are obviously in order, but it's extremely rare to find evaluation that requires any faculty participation, as interviewing would of course have to do. According to a three-year study published in 1993 by the North Carolina Center for Public Policy Research, only half of the nation's academic departments use peer evaluation. The American Association of Higher Education estimates that 70 percent don't review course materials.

That lassitude provides cover for a multitude of teaching sins. At a graduate school at the University of Mississippi, for example, one teacher uses a lit overhead projector, a machine that displays material printed on clear plastic sheets on a screen for students to read. This man whisks the sheets on and off the machine so quickly that students, despairing of copying down things like biochemical purine ring formulas, try to calculate the professor's TPM rate--transparencies per minute. The record is seven; the average is usually five. "So every 10 seconds or so, he's whipping off the sheet that's chock full of information," says one student. "Sometimes, when he slaps the sheet on the machine, it will slip off. But, instead of putting it back on, he just tosses it in the out pile." Without formal review and meaningful sanction, stories like these pass into student legend instead of getting corrected.

North Carolina's university system is fairly typical of the large institutions where a third of all American college students are enrolled. While 99 percent of North Carolina's departments use student forms, only 45 percent ask for self-evaluation; 30 percent have peer review; 26 percent review a teacher's course assignments, syllabi, and tests; and one department in the state--one--conducts exit interviews with graduating majors, presumably the most knowledgeable sources available. Oversight for tenure and promotion decisions is vastly more stringent than the evaluation full-time faculty get after they are permanently appointed--a moment which usually falls when a professor is 38 or 39. That leaves three decades or so of general unaccountability.

Even when evaluation forms are circulated, they often get filed with little review. "Routinely, I think chairmen fail to look at them," says Ted Leinbaugh, a tenured professor of English at North Carolina's Chapel Hill campus. What is reviewed is research. At North Carolina, for example, every March or April, full-time professors submit a report to their chairman detailing annual scholarly activity to be assessed for salary increases. "In my experience, teaching is not explicitly mentioned," says Leinbaugh. "There's a temptation to measure production, and it's easier to measure publications ."

A few years ago, Leinbaugh won a three-year distinguished teaching award that paid him a bonus of $5,000 a year; after the award expired, the university didn't give him a permanent salary boost. Another winner of that teaching award makes $40,000; the median for his rank in the English department is $60,000. Publishing scholars are more likely to win the university's endowed chairs, marks of professorial distinction which are held for life. The teaching awards, however, run out. And it's significant that one of the fastest growing segments of the nation's academic labor force is in "non-tenure track" jobs in which temporary faculty do the bulk of the teaching--but aren't rewarded with full, permanent status.

Research is of course important, but that doesn't mean it can't be combined with good teaching. In Ohio, one campus has a plan in place that merits a serious look. At Ohio University in Athens--a 19,000-student school with 16,000 undergraduates--there's a flexible way to figure salaries. If a physics professor, for instance, wants to be judged more on teaching, his annual salary can be computed 60 percent for teaching performance, 20 percent for research, and 20 percent for service instead of the more familiar 40/40/20 formula. For each course the professor teaches, students fill out evaluations, usually 13 questions to rate different factors from "poor" to "excellent"; a salary committee assesses all the evidence, and a final rating is computed. Raises run from 31 percent to 7 percent. That's the system's carrot. The stick? If the department doesn't attract students, the state denies it new positions and money. By asking faculty to be realistic about how they spend their time, Ohio is doing more than mouthing quality control bromides--it's forcing teachers to decide where their best effort will repay them financially, and students benefit from teachers whose salaries are tied to the classroom.

For teaching to become important again, reputations built on publishing scholarship and research grants will have to be recast to showcase teaching, a tougher sell. Instead of building sports and fitness centers, alumni ought to endow teaching chairs and bang the alumni highchair for low student-faculty ratios and pay scales commensurate with teaching ability. And parents and alumni need to cultivate a keen sense of reverse snobbery. Snobbery, after all, pushed us into this. The press for research is really the press for prestige, something legislators, alumni, and parents covet as much as professors do. In fact, accreditation and foundation funding depend, in part, on the percentage of faculty with doctorates, the number of research grants won, and how many graduate students departments can attract.

Solutions more radical than declaring good intentions are needed, beginning with how teachers are trained. It's one of the curiosities of the American university that a degree earned by independent research--dissertations on "01igopolistic structures" in political science, for example, or "Anorexia in Dickens" (both real topics from recent years)--is required to teach desultory young people. This isn't a new complaint. Jacques Barzun, the wise Columbia professor and dean, called the ranks of the Ph.D. "the most expensive and least luxurious club in the world." He went on: "The doctorate of course shows nothing about teaching. After seeing degree holders and reading their theses, it is hard to say what the title shows." That was in 1944.

No question, the aspiring research chemist or literary theorist reasonably wants to immerse himself in a Ph.D. program for six years to prepare to write or experiment throughout a career. But we're curiously wedded to the idea that a Ph.D. is the central prerequisite to teach, not just research. That's mostly because World War II and Cold War defense research drove science faculties to require advanced degrees, and the impression quickly developed that all faculty had to be treated uniformly. "A research degree, which is what we all have, doesn't say anything about how you might teach," says James Shinkle, a professor of biology at San Antonio's Trinity University.

By definition, of course, a good teacher keeps working in his field, reading widely. But why the pressure to produce arcania? "There's an obvious distinction between those who are breaking new ground with original research and those who, under pressure to produce anything, digest and regurgitate other people's original research," says Daniel Cheever, the former president of Boston's Wheelock College and president of the American Student Assistance Corporation. "But academe doesn't make that distinction."

Ph. Doldrums

And there's no sign the university is even interested in such distinctions. "I'm not being trained to teach anything, even in my speciality," says one doctoral candidate in the humanities at Northwestern University. "I am being trained to come up with increasingly outlandish ideas. Because these topics, even in something as broad as literature, have been gone over so relentlessly for so long, you end up pulling your hair out to find the tiniest niche possible." In a lot of ways, the Ph.D., because of its coursework and the depths candidates have to plumb, has a salutary effect, at least in making the young teacher confident he knows his stuff. Not everybody needs that formal training, however, and right now, because of university and union regulations, there's no way around it. Except, of course, to bury blind credentialism and base college hiring on ability and general scholarship, not byper-specialization.

It's not as radical as it sounds. Such a system worked here two generations ago, and even later at Oxford, where as recently as the sixties a B.A. graduate who took a "first"--the Oxonian equivalent of summa cum laude--could get a fellowship, the English equivalent of an assistant professorship. If a candidate who hadn't taken a first wanted to impress a college, he did what used to be called a Bachelor of Letters, a limited research degree, to prove his intellectual stamina. And it was simply assumed, both at Oxford and in the American university, that these bright young dons or professors would, under their own power, keep up with their fields.

In 1968, Barzun made a proposal: Do away with the dissertation and instead judge a candidate's writefly scholarship with his undergraduate senior thesis or master's thesis. Already, master's degrees are occasionally awarded by examination only, a convention that demands student accountability without extracting a tortuously long paper. If the bachelor's or the master's degree results from rigorous work, the Ph.D. is of increasingly dubious value. Past attempts at creating what was derisively called the "A.B.D." degree (All But Dissertation) didn't go anywhere. But changing the requirements for the Ph.D. is a sound idea. Since all universities have a seven- to eleven-year probation period for faculty, there's plenty of time to correct mistakes. If the Ph.D. lock is picked, other institutional checks could go, too. Permanent tenure could perhaps be replaced by longterm, renewable performance contracts--another reform that is periodically proposed and rejected.

Princeton's Institute for Advanced Studies and Oxford's All Souls College are two places that honestly acknowledge their missions. Their faculties, interested in research, happily supervise others who are interested in research. There's no make-believe that a good teacher of graduate students necessarily wants to teach undergraduates. Those who want to do the work of teaching can spend their time, equally paid and equally pleased, with younger students. Sabbaticals and summers allow plenty of time for the research most professors do. Frequently, in fact, the buslest and best teachers are the best publishers. Columbia's Lionel Trilling, for example, produced some of the most popular essays of mid-century criticism while teaching 11 hours a week; he wrote his novel during a sabbatical. Similarly, C.S. Lewis once noted: "I found, as always, that the ripest [teachers] are kindest to the raw [students] and the most studious have most time to spare."

Reward is the rub, of course: Division of labor-an old idea that somehow never penetrated the ivy thicket--can't mean division of prestige. If the distinction between genuine research and make-research is made, the faculties are back where they were before the herd mentality took hold. As George Lyman Kittredge, the legendary Harvard professor, is supposed to have said early in the century when asked why he had never taken a Ph.D.: "But who would examine me?" Presumably, no one was qualified to. It's too bad Kittredge's successors in academe have inherited his attitude rather than his skill.
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Author:Meacham, Jon
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:May 1, 1993
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