Academic Life Respect Teaching

How Much of a Problem Is College Teaching? Less than You’d Expect

For years, I’ve been thinking about writing a piece about college teaching now finally got it down on paper. 

Everyone complains about the quality of teaching colleges, and there’s a lot of truth in the critiques.  But what has struck me over the years is how college teaching is better than it should be in light of the institutional incentives facing professors.  Here’s the overview of my story.

As a long-term professor of education myself (at Michigan State and Stanford), I’m willing to concede to the validity of much of this critique while at the same time suggesting some factors that undermine much of its force.  First, people don’t pick the college they want to attend based on the quality of teaching.  Second, the socioeconomic payoff of graduating from a college comes from its scholarly reputation regardless of teaching quality.  And third, college professors actually teach better than they need to.  Let’s consider each in turn.

For me the best part of the analysis is the third, which focuses on the importance of respect.

The incentives that matter in academe are less material than semiotic.  What we crave is recognition.  The prime motivation for being an accomplished professor is the accumulation of the kind of symbolic goods that are pervasive in the profession. 

Most of these honors come with added duties for which we are not paid, but we still doggedly pursue them.  This is one of the things that oils the scholarly machinery – the unpaid labor professors are willing to assume in order to win tokens of recognition.  And our CVs exist to large extent as a place to display these badges of merit for the world to see.  Adding lines to your CV becomes a key motivation for scholarly accomplishment.

Like members of a street gang, members of a college faculty operate within an economy of respect.  We work hard to achieve the respect of our peers, and – this is key – we are particularly concerned about avoiding any signs of disrespect.  We don’t want to be the faculty’s “dead man walking,” the one whose scholarship is no longer up to standard.  And as with investors in the stock market, the glory of success carries less weight that the shame of failure. 

I want the word on the street to be that I’m a good teacher.  But most of all, I don’t want to occupy a place in the college teacher hall of shame. 

Enjoy.respect different opinion

How Much of a Problem Is College Teaching?

Less than You’d Expect

David Labaree

            College teachers are an inviting target.  Not only do they have a much easier job than elementary and secondary teachers (voluntary students, no disciplinary problems) and much lower teaching loads (3-15 contact hours a week vs. 35 hours), but they also get paid a lot more, have their own offices, and sport the esteemed title of professor.  And yet, even with all of these advantages, they apparently do a terrible job of actually, you know, teaching.

            These themes have been prevalent in the writing about the subject for years, and the latest example is a book by an insider to the profession, Jonathan Zimmerman (from the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education), the highly acclaimed Amateur Hour: A History of College Teaching in America.  In this work, he explores the historical roots of bad teaching by college professors, finding most of the problem in an incentive system that rewards research rather than teaching.  We professors teach badly because we weren’t hired to be good teachers in the first place.  Unlike schoolteachers, college professors receive no prior training in the pedagogical arts (thus “amateur hour”) and only get help with their teaching if they are in a college that offers it and they actively seek it out.  No training, no incentive – no wonder the outcome is so dismal. 

            As a long-term professor of education myself (at Michigan State and Stanford), I’m willing to concede to the validity of much of this critique while at the same time suggesting some factors that undermine much of its force.  First, people don’t pick the college they want to attend based on the quality of teaching.  Second, the socioeconomic payoff of graduating from a college comes from its scholarly reputation regardless of teaching quality.  And third, college professors actually teach better than they need to.  Let’s consider each in turn.

No One Chooses a College Based on Teaching

            The issues that shape a person’s choice of college are legion.  It let me in.  It’s affordable.  It has a good football team.  It’s a well-known party school.  Its coach recruited me.  Its brand carries prestige.  My parent went there.  My girlfriend/boyfriend is going there.  My friends are going there.  It’s big, it’s small.  It’s religious, it’s secular.  It’s public, it’s private.  It’s close to home, it’s far from home.  It’s urban, it’s rural.  It’s a commuter school, it’s a residential school.  It’s full-time, it’s part-time.  It’s vocational, it’s academic.  It’s an undergraduate institution, it’s a full-service university.  It’s the most selective school that would admit me.

            The American system of higher education is fiendishly complex, radically differentiated by type and sharply stratified by prestige and selectivity.  In a highly competitive market of 4,000 degree-granting institutions, colleges have a strong incentive to find ways to attract the educational consumer with features that distinguish them from their peers.  The result is a system with a bewildering variety of choices designed to snare prospective students.  It offers something for everyone, and applicants need to figure out which factors matter most to them. 

            One factor that doesn’t seem to enter into the decision is quality of teaching.  Instructional programs matter, but that’s not the same thing.  You may want to attend a particular school because of its program in computer science, special education, interior design, international relations, civil engineering, biotechnology, marine biology, graphic arts, history of science, creative writing, or renewable energy.  Programmatic offerings are part of the menu of choices designed to lure you to apply.

            But knowing that a particular school offers the program you want doesn’t mean that you know how good the teaching is.  The problem is that quality of teaching is both difficult for an insider to measure and difficult for an outsider to discern.  Colleges and universities all have some form of internal measures for instruction in individual courses, but these rely on student evaluations, which are notoriously unreliable.  An instructor’s rating in a class is composed of a heterogeneous array of factors shaping student opinion.  Is the instructor entertaining?  Are the grades high or low?  How much work is required?  Is this the style of instruction you like (discussion, lecture)?  The kind of knowledge you’re seeking (practical, theoretical)?  Are you reacting based on your personal experience during the course or on its longer-term value to you?  (Typically the former.  I’ve often thought that the most telling evaluations would come six months or ten years after the class.)  So it’s not clear what you can really learn about instructional quality through these evaluations.  In addition, the results are generally available only to members of the college community and not to prospective students. 

            There are external review services available, such as Rate My Professors, which are open to the public.  But they use the same kinds of unreliable popularity-poll measures used internally and have the added problem of relying on a small fraction of voluntary submissions by members of each class.  When you look across institutions, it’s hard to see differentiating factors because of a recurring mix of hot and cold reviews in college after college around the country. 

The Socioeconomic Payoff to College Comes from Research not Teaching

            If measuring teacher quality is hard, measuring research quality is easy.  At the simplest level, you can just count up the number of publications per faculty member and compare this with the college down the road.  But the number of measures of research productivity out there is remarkable, especially compared with the single metric for teaching, student evaluations.  These metrics have arisen for internal use in order to evaluate the quality of research by individual faculty for the purpose of determining who should be hired, promoted, and granted pay increases.  The result is an array of highly sophisticated, if not actually very valid, measures of research quality. 

            In addition to the simple count of publications per year are many others.  There’s the number of citations your publications received, which seeks to measure how much impact your work has on other scholars.  And there are more sophisticated versions of this measure, such as the h-index (the largest number h such that h publications have at least h citations), which aims to show in a single metric how highly cited your papers are.  Both of these measures are available to anyone by typing a professor’s name into Google Scholar.  There’s also the impact factor of the journals in which you publish (the total citations of articles in that journal for a year divided by the number of articles published in the previous two years), which seeks to demonstrate quality of these journals.  These too are readily available online.

            These measures of research quality can be critically important for the careers of individual professors, and in aggregate they can allow comparison of faculty research productivity across institutions.  But, of course, prospective students are unlikely to use measures such as these in deciding where to attend college.  They do, however, use online systems that rank colleges.  The most widely used ranking system in the US is provided by US News and World Report, which not long ago gave up being a weekly news magazine in order to specialize in the more lucrative endeavor of producing college ranks.  The ranking criteria it uses are heavily weighted toward research.  None measures teaching.  Academic reputation is worth 20 percent, which is based on ratings of scholarly eminence by administrators at peer institutions.  Other key measures are factors that are heavily correlated with academic reputation:  graduation and retention rates at 22 percent (colleges with the best scholars are the most selective and have the fewest dropouts) and faculty resources at 20 percent (faculty pay, faculty-student ratio).

             Students are not crazy to be using college rank in choosing where to attend.  The job market relies on the same rankings.  As numerous sources show, college rank is highly correlated with the pay of graduates.  The logic is simple.  If you want to hire the best graduates, hire those who went to the best colleges.  It’s worth paying them more because they have already been preselected by the colleges themselves (top schools have the most selective admissions) and because they were educated by the most accomplished professors (as measured by their research productivity).  No one knows if these professors actually teach well, but the assumption is that somehow their research expertise transfers value to their students. 

            Given this reward structure, it makes good sense for students to enroll in the highest-ranking college that will admit them, regardless of the quality of teaching there.  Research quality pays off in the work force, teacher quality doesn’t.  Even if you know (through friends) that the teaching there is terrible, it doesn’t matter.  You still get the benefit of the faculty research that provides the basis for the college’s reputation.  You’re buying a brand not an education.  The use value of the learning you acquire there is independent of the exchange value of the degree you acquire there.  The point is not to get the best education but to graduate from the best college.  And the latter is purely a function of research.

Professors Teach Better than They Need To

            The institutional incentive structure for college professors is heavily weighted toward research.  The key determinant of your chances for getting hired, promoted, and well-paid is your rate of publication in high impact journals.  A second factor is your ability to win outside funding to support your research, which not only increases your research productivity but also provides the institution with overhead money and support for doctoral students.  Teaching quality is at best a weak third factor.  When you come up for promotion, your file will pro forma include summaries of your teaching evaluations and some letters from students.  But the crucial component of the file is review letters submitted by outside scholars, and these focus entirely on the quantity and quality of your research production.  In my experience, teaching quality becomes a factor only in cases where the candidate’s research record is on the borderline of acceptability.  Good teaching can rescue such a case; bad teaching can kill it.

            The college faculty who are most accountable for their teaching are the part-timers.  They are being hired to cover particular classes, and if their performance is substandard they won’t be hired back.  These instructors now constitute three-quarters of all college faculty, and they teach a hefty share of lower-level classes.  As someone who taught part time for eight years before and during graduate school, I know what this life is like.  You get paid a pittance on a piece-work basis.  If you want to do research, that’s fine; but it’s on your own dime. 

            Tenure-track college professors, however, are in a very different position.  They’re paid to do research, and they have a strong incentive to focus heavily on scholarship rather than teaching.  On the face of it, a professor can thrive by being a star researcher and a dud instructor.  The whole system would seem to encourage university faculty to blow off their teaching.  But in practice this is not the case.  Professors spend more time and energy on their teaching than would seem rational in light of the incentives that push in the other direction.  They end up teaching better than they need to.

            To understand this, you need to develop a deeper understanding of the reward structure of American higher education.  Professors get paid much better than I expected when I went into the business, and, when combined with tenure, they enjoy a cushy job with ultimate security.  But it’s not a way to get rich.  Most systems offer some sort of merit pay process, but this means the difference between a three percent or four percent pay increase.  Compared with industry, the material incentives are relatively weak.  No year-end bonuses or whopping pay increases.  The only big increases occur when you change jobs.

            The incentives that matter in academe are less material than semiotic.  What we crave is recognition.  The prime motivation for being an accomplished professor is the accumulation of the kind of symbolic goods that are pervasive in the profession.  Consider some of the possibilities:

  • Named fellowships
  • Journal editorships
  • Officer positions in professional organizations
  • Awards for all manner of scholarly accomplishment (best book/article of the year for every subfield; early career/lifetime achievement; and so on)
  • Memberships in prestigious review committees for awards and fellowships
  • Membership in editorial boards of journals
  • Committee chairs
  • Endowed professorships

            Most of these honors come with added duties for which we are not paid, but we still doggedly pursue them.  This is one of the things that oils the scholarly machinery – the unpaid labor professors are willing to assume in order to win tokens of recognition.  And our CVs exist to large extent as a place to display these badges of merit for the world to see.  Adding lines to your CV becomes a key motivation for scholarly accomplishment.

            Like members of a street gang, members of a college faculty operate within an economy of respect.  We work hard to achieve the respect of our peers, and – this is key – we are particularly concerned about avoiding any signs of disrespect.  We don’t want to be the faculty’s “dead man walking,” the one whose scholarship is no longer up to standard.  And as with investors in the stock market, the glory of success carries less weight that the shame of failure. 

            This same logic carries over to teaching.  In general, professors lack direct knowledge of the quality of each other’s teaching; we normally never see our peers teach unless we coteach a class.  But our students, particularly our advisees, bring us word about who’s a good teacher and who’s not.  Students and faculty both love to gossip, and professors gleefully hoover up student information about how colleagues behave in the classroom.  We hear about peers whose teaching is inspiring, challenging, engaging, responsive, deeply informed, and helpful.  Such good news is reassuring about the quality of the faculty but it’s also unnerving because it makes us feel deficient. 

            It’s nice to have capable colleagues but it’s worrisome to find they’re more capable and more popular than we are.  There’s more comfort in the knowledge of peers who behave badly, falling below the norm for acceptable teaching.  It’s hard not to revel on student tales of instructional malpractice: failing to return papers on time; failing to provide adequate feedback; giving high grades for minimal work; wasting time on happy talk rather than substantive discussion; boring or outdated assigned readings; and worst of all, earning the judgment, “This class is a waste of time.”  I want the word on the street to be that I’m a good teacher.  But most of all, I don’t want to occupy a place in the college teacher hall of shame. 

            Despite the bias toward research in the institutional culture, therefore, professors spend a surprising amount to time, effort, and, yes, worry in preparing for class and in thinking about their teaching.  Our reputations are at stake and reputation is everything.  We are eager to please, and we are particularly concerned about earning disrepute. 

            One additional factor enters into the equation when professors think about their teaching.  As with teaching at any level, college teaching is a highly personal endeavor.  It’s not just the subject matter of your course syllabus that is on display in my class, it’s you.  If students don’t respond well to your class, it’s hard not to take it personally.  They don’t respect me.  They don’t like me.  You’re alone at the front of the class, so it’s hard to deflect the blame.  Once the class begins, you’re on stage, sweating under the lights until the class is over.  You can try to blame failure in the classroom on the students, and often this is in part justified, but that only takes you so far.  There’s no escaping the judgment that you didn’t manage to pull off a performance that would win them over.  It leaves a bad taste in your mouth.  And it doesn’t help to imagine what they’re saying about you down the hall.

            When professors decide to retire, they frequently give teaching as a key reason for the choice (another is faculty meetings).  I know that was true in my case.  It’s not that they dislike teaching; many talk about teaching as one of the most satisfying parts of the job.  It’s that the stress of struggling to be a good teacher gets to them over time.  The emotional wear and tear is considerable, hovering on the precipice of disaster in class after class.  Time to give it a rest.  You can keep doing research in retirement; combined with release from the stress of teaching, this makes retirement a win-win situation. 

           

            Where does this leave us in this story about college teaching?  Overall, the takeaway is that the quality of teaching by professors is less of a problem than it first appears.  It’s not an issue that determines which colleges students choose to attend.  A long list of other preferences take priority over good teaching.  It’s also not an issue that affects the payoff in prestige and lifetime income that college provides to graduates.  That comes from the college’s brand, which is shaped primarily by the quality of faculty research independent of teaching quality.  And, in spite of organizational incentives that emphasize research over teaching, professors work surprisingly hard to be good teachers.  In the professors’ all-consuming pursuit of respect from colleagues, bad teaching poses a serious reputational risk.  We may be amateurs compared to schoolteachers, who have much more training and face a much more difficult classroom challenge, but we’re not immune from the fear of failure.

2 comments

  1. Thanx for this post, which I found most convincing.

    I understand it is not very common in North America, but I suggest that peer review of courses would be valuable. It is increasingly used in Australia and the UK, tho it is still not widespread. While it is often used formatively, it is increasingly used summatively to inform tenure and promotion decisions.

    There is now quite a bit of literature on peer review of courses, which I wont set out here, but I find Brent & Felder (2004) useful in combining peers’ ratings with students’ ratings and self reflection in a comprehensive evaluation of teaching performance.

    I suspect that by this ‘Instructional programs matter, but that’s not the same time.’ You mean ‘Instructional programs matter, but that’s not the same thing.’

    Brent, R., & Felder, R. M. (2004). A protocol for peer review of teaching, Proceedings of the 2004 American Society for Engineering Education annual conference & exposition.

    https://www.researchgate.net/publication/265997249Aprotocolforpeerreviewofteaching

    Like

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