In all of the previous threads we've started on Academically Adrift, there's a common theme: the crisis in higher education and the need for us to wake up to it, analyze it, and figure out some solutions. Becko says that there's a "disengagement compact" (I like this phrase) in which parties are given incentives not to ask for, demand, or offer good teaching; Mike says that part of the problem is that we don't recognize the desperate need to institute virtues into the curriculum, and Jason, mindful of the crisis, wants us to be careful in our attempt to capture "good teaching" (it's not something that can be captured simply in quantitative terms), pointing out that we also need the humility to acknowledge that many undergraduate teachers simply do not know how to teach well.
That's a lot to chew on. To be honest (and I'm in agreement with all of their concerns), it's a bit depressing and overwhelming! The problems are so large and systemic that it's hard to imagine any way out. Below the fold, after a brief overview of what I take to be the main claim of the book, I want to move to a more empowering subject: how to take some stabs at fixing the problem. I don't have a lot of solutions, but I know where, as teachers, we need to devote our attentions: tenure and promotions procedures. Let's talk about them.
Before taking some stabs at "what to do", let's take stock of some of the larger claims that Arum and Roska make in the book. As I see it, and as I argued in an earlier post, their main claim (or at least a central one) is that critical thinking (and likely education as a whole) results from strong habits. The biggest predictors of CLA gains were, they argue, (a) the presence of strong and rigorous habits in the K-12 time frame (supported by schools, parents, communities, etc), (b) one's previous CLA score, and (c) whether the habits developed and cultivated in (a) were built upon and reinforced in college. Much of A&R's attack on the undergraduate experience, when it fails, is a way of pointing out how colleges are not doing enough to fulfill the mission of (c).
I don't want to get caught up too much on the "CLA" or "using critical thinking as the measure of learning" (I think Jason makes some good critical points about too much focus on this), but I think we can all agree that, at the heart of the successful educational enterprise, are habits -- virtues as Mike stressed (intellectual and otherwise, I don't want to quibble, that's a separate debate).
Unfortunately, there are powerful counter-incentives to assure that good habits are developed in a college setting. Parents don't want to see their kids fail (as long as the college is seen as hard, it's fine if it's really easy), and have a vested and personal interest in seeing their kids acquire a credential that will get them a job. Employers don't try to ascertain in any meaningful way whether potential employees can critically think or whether they've actually learned much, they mostly go by credentials and interviews. Students see parents and educators pushing for credentials, and so they push for the disengagement compact; professors get pressure from students not to push them too hard and themselves recognize that research is the inter-collegiate stamp of exchange value, not teaching, and also realize that administrators are often concerned more with perceptions of good teaching more than actual good teaching anyway. Why? Well, for the most part, perception drives enrollments, and administrators have to keep enrollments up; moreover, Boards care about endowments, and those are driven by tuition, enrollment, and donation. And none of those really is driven by great teaching. As long as the school is seen as reasonably demanding -- a perception -- it's all good.
That's a thick matrix of bad incentives. How do you get your foot in this door? Of course, as professors, we can individually "hold the line" and just insist to do what's right, but that's not a solution, it's a suicide pact, especially for people with no tenure. So I would propose that we need to change tenure and promotion. Two clear areas in which these needs to be done:
A. Less emphasis on research, more emphasis on teaching.
B. Teaching must be evaluated in a thoroughly different way.
I would say that (A) and (B) probably have little chance of ever happening at large research institutions. So I'm going to hold out here for smaller liberal arts colleges, where teaching is supposed to matter in the first place (at the very least, I suspect that changes at research institutions would be forced - if ever - by first changing liberal arts colleges and creating a successful market pressure for such things). Even still, at liberal arts colleges, I don't hold out much hope for (A). At least not right away. If people disagree, feel free to do so! I'd love to be wrong. Instead, I'm going to move to (B).
How can we evaluate teaching in a different way - one that gives strong incentives for good teaching? This is a huge question, and I don't have any quick answers. I simply have some simple intuitions and vague directions. For one, I think the numerical system of evaluation, which is here to stay and won't be changed, would need to be restructured so that the questions actually get at quality teaching. So why not start there? Imagine:
1. Questions that get at how many hours a week the student needed to study for, or think about the concepts within the course in order to acquire the grade they suspect they will get in the course.
2. Questions about the level of feedback one received from the teacher on assignments.
3. Questions that get at the level at which the classroom experience itself was demanding - did you need to read the texts/do preparatory work in order to follow along? (how many hours of prep reading did you do? What was your level of comprehension during lectures?)
4. Questions that aim at finding out the percentage of the material the student actual read over the course of the semester.
5. Questions that aim at finding out whether students felt grades were assigned in close tandem with the standards laid out in the syllabus.
These are just some questions. What I'd like to hear from people here is: what questions would you add? What current questions in numerical teaching evaluations should be dropped? What I've tried to do here, albeit briefly, is point out the need to get away from "so and so is an excellent teacher" or "such and such is an excellent course" questions, which tend to be the ones that T&P and administrators focus on. As one might suspect, these questions are likely not meaningful in terms of learning, and probably reflect more than anything whether the student likes the person teaching, or whether they had fun, or whether they found the course "agreeable" in some general way. They are more perception driven. We need to move away from such questions, and towards questions that get at habits, and whether teachers are cultivating them in the ways that they are teaching their courses. We also need questions that aim to see whether students who do put in the time and effort into courses are succeeding in those courses (if they are not, this could be evidence of bad teaching).
In a sense, we need to be willing to do things that annoy our students, and this means being demanding and being willing to hand out lousy grades. Annoying students is dangerous. That means that T&P must actually develop ways to assess teaching that reward such teaching when it is effective. The instructor must see it as worthwhile, in terms of professional incentives, to make some students unhappy. The only to do that is for us to push for such changes in teaching evaluations, and to get P&T committees to highly value and recognize such things. Not a small task.
This would not be an easy thing to do, make no mistake. But it's something in our control that we could try for, something that makes the effort towards good teaching not a suicide pact. Moreover, such an institutional shift in priorities (on P&T) would have the inevitable effect of leading to an institutional climate shift. Students would know that "this is a pain in the ass university where the teachers will work you to death". They'd expect it and eventually the incentive for the disengagement compact might lessen, as they would realize that "kicking their asses" is a value too widely held across campus. I would assume that the incentive on the part of students to push for the disengagement compact increases as they suspect that "kicking their asses" is not a universally valued aim across campus. Hell, who knows - administrators might actually - eventually - see the value in it and try to figure out how to market it. But the important point would be that teachers are rewarded for doing the right thing.
I don't want to make things too simplistic. Even doing what I'm talking about above is tremendously complicated, and I don't want people to think I've overly simplified things. Hey, it's a dream. It's got to start somewhere -- a blog thread, perhaps.