Paper Chase Prof

Why Tenure Makes Teaching Better

It’s impossible not to notice a contradiction on the pages of Minding the Campus. My friend Bill Voegeli seems to be saying that tenure makes teaching in our colleges and universities worse (“Tenure, Kipnis and the PC University,” June 22). The shameful goings on at Northwestern over Kipnis show that tenure doesn’t really protect the intellectual freedom of professors from the tyrannical political correctness emanating from administrators. And so tenure has been exposed as nothing but a job protection racket.

Bill has been writing in support of Governor Scott Walker’s scheme to end tenure in the Wisconsin state system. That would give administrators better control over the self-indulgent behavior of the tenured, allowing them, for example, to force lazy teachers to teach more and surrender the “release time” they received for their trivial articles and books that no one reads and no one in the free market actually would pay for. Let’s make professors work 40-hour weeks! And let’s fire them if they’re not serious and effective in their primary responsibility of teaching. The closer our campuses come to the “right-to-fire” situation we find in our more entrepreneurial states, the better.

Offend No Student

The invariably astute George Leef shows us (“Student Ratings Bait Profs into Lowering Standards,” June 24), although that surely wasn’t his main intention, that tenure makes teaching better. He makes the point that untenured faculty–that includes those on a tenure tack, temporaries, and adjuncts–have little choice but to be pretty obsessive when it comes to getting good student evaluations. Given our administrators’ misguided (but deeply rooted) tendency to identify “the good” with “the measurable,” a good set of evaluations has become one on which virtually every student gives the instructor the highest possible scores. So “being good” means to have produced no evidence that any student was offended or disturbed or unduly burdened by the instructor.

This situation seduces faculty into being more entertaining, more affirming, and less challenging than concerned about student learning or even student habituation (say, for the 21st century global competitive marketplace). It seems cruel (and contrary to everything we learn from the science of economics) to blame faculty for the way they’re being incentivized. Faculty would rather not suck up to the students, but what real choice do they have if they want to remain on the faculty?

Student evaluations can’t be made much better by experts trying to refine them with subtle questions that allegedly actually measure student effort and student learning. The more questions there are–and the more complicated they are–the less likely it is that students will actually read them. And as Leef rather wittily reminds us, the real goal of the faculty member is that students not read them at all, but automatically assign the highest score all the way down the line. That’s why (and I’ve noticed this first-hand) there’s an emerging science of getting students in a euphoric mood on evaluation day, to get them to surrender their critical faculties on a doughnut high or through a feel-good exercise in collective self-affirmation. After all, even if a student realizes that he or she has learned much, had a transformative emotional/intellectual experience, and feels the love and respect from a particular instructor, it’s very unlikely, if he or she deploys his or her critical faculties, that the result would be top marks all the way down the line.  The untenured faculty member wants the student to be feeling (feeling good, of course), not thinking, when evaluating.

Students Free to Choose

The incentive here, as Leef says, is to get the student to fill out the evaluation quickly and happily and without taking time to write comments. The numbers do the talking, the thought is, and the comments are bound to be ambiguous and subjective. Now, at my college, there’s a kind of doubling down on this incentivizing by an administrative concern. Our students are free to fill out the evaluations online whenever they please in a two-week period.  Left to their own devices, even with numerous emails of encouragement, a clear majority of them choose not to bother. For myself, I think they should be free to choose, and there might be some honor in refusing to evaluate someone anonymously.

It seems the administration is too consumer sensitive to develop some mechanism to compel compliance. So the burden falls on faculty (with, in principle, our accreditation on the line!) to get students to fill them out. And the one and only time I was judged by some administrator to be deficient on my evaluations is when my turnout was pretty low, and it was suggested to me that there was the rumor out there that I tell students the evaluation process is stupid. (I actually do say, when teaching the Republic, that Socrates says that a weakness of democracy is that it’s so relativistic that students even get to evaluate teachers. But I now add that we live in a democracy so you can’t blame Berry College, do your duty as a democratic citizen and fill the bleepin’ thing out.)

The trouble with low turnout for untenured faculty, of course, is that either it can become a reason to discount their high scores or leave their scores too much to chance by allowing the negative feedback of one disgruntled customer to count too much.  It also can curtail their academic freedom, at least a little, by keeping them from turning student evaluations into a teachable moment about a great text. One method faculty use to increase turnout is to have all the students pull out their smart phones (or tablets and laptops, but at Berry most students don’t bring computers to classrooms–yet another reason why your kids should come here) and fill out the evaluations in class. Well, talk about a comment-suppressing method! Nobody likes to type on those touchy keyboards.

A More Reliable Guide

I never do that. But when I did remind those in my con law class to man up (in the nonsexist sense) and do their evaluative duty, one woman five minutes later thanked me for the reminder and told me she had just filled out the evaluations for all five of her classes.  I’m guessing there were a bunch of fives (the highest score) and no comments, as she is a classy and charitable person.

The truth is that the comments, although far from foolproof, are a much more reliable guide to the quality of instruction. From my view, a really impressive set of evaluations has comments about what was actually learned, complaints (mostly ironic or appreciative) about the amount of work required, some feeling of love, in many cases, for the books read, and a good deal of affirmation of how smart, hard-working, informed, and fair the instructor is.

Comments that are somewhat hostile about the irksome requirements or strange perspectives of the class should also be regarded as positive.  And much better than a vaguely positive vibe from everyone is lots of evidence that some students really loved the class for the right reasons, but not all of them and maybe far from all of them. So there is, in truth, only a loose correlation between genuinely excellent evaluations and really high numbers. One reason is that there’s no denying that some faculty become adept at generating the numbers by prioritizing them over the learning.

The untenured faculty member, especially at a fairly large institution, can’t count on anyone reading the comments with the appropriate discernment and rightly fears being unpopular or even controversial for any reason. So he or she operates with the cynicism that accompanies the observation that virtue is not rewarded.

Virtuous Un-cynical Teachers

That means tenured faculty members typically have more incentive to be good–that is, authentically virtuous and un-cynical–teachers. They have less reason to be concerned about blips in evaluation numbers and often become confident that their reputation as teachers, developed over the years, trumps the quantitative data. It’s true that tenure protects some cynical teachers too, but it does less than the absence of tenure to facilitate excessively consumer-sensitive behavior.

Now there are some who say that if we got rid of tenure, we could break what many experts perceive as the corrupt bargain between students and faculty that leads to both grade inflation and very high scores on the evaluation. I’ll give you high marks for no good reason if you do the same for me. The main priority could be firing instructors who don’t grade with the measurable intention of whipping inflation now. But, to instructively over-generalize, we can see that the main priority of most of our institutions is enrollment and retention, and the main fact, especially among residential colleges, is the almost cutthroat competition for the increasingly scarce resource of the student.

When Princeton, for example, decided to get a little tougher (to improve its reputation) in its grading (getting the average GPA below 3.5!), it quickly decided that that point of distinction was an unacceptable competitive hindrance in the marketplace for the best and the brightest. So at most places most of the time, there’s not nearly enough reason for untenured faculty to risk low or even mediocre evaluations by getting tougher. That’s the type of experiment that might more reasonably be performed after tenure.

Let me conclude by mentioning the most inconvenient truth for those who oppose tenure.  At most of our colleges and universities (most private residential colleges and regional state universities), the teaching load is pretty demanding and salaries aren’t so great. Anyone who dedicates his or her life to teaching in such a place is a sucker–a sucker we should believe in.

It’s said that a downside of tenure is that it keeps faculty from being entrepreneurial by making them feel too secure.  The value of a good teacher in the marketplace goes down over time, and that’s one reason for the (probably somewhat avoidable) salary compression. Everyone really in the know knows that excellent teaching is nearly impossible to measure–or at least that the people doing the measuring don’t know what they’re doing. Not only that, teaching excellence is, in part, contextual–a teacher can flourish one place but not another for a variety of reasons. So when an experienced teacher looks for another job, he or she finds out that all the devoted and effective teaching he or she has done doesn’t count for much.

What does count in the marketplace (far more than it should at the undergraduate level) is publication.  The kind of excellence displayed in publication is easy to see and for many even easy to quantify. So the entrepreneurial professor at a small college has the incentive to get the teaching on the kind of auto-pilot that reliably generates the scores on the evaluation and spend most quality time on publishing. Tenure provides the kind of security (if often not the kind of money) that discourages that kind of behavior.

Contrary to Voegeli’s suggestion, a really good way to have a topflight undergraduate teaching institution is to make sure that most faculty have tenure, so that most faculty are devoted to spending most of their time helping students get what they most need. Tenure certainly discourages a career deformed by the behavior of mechanically generating marginal articles just to produce a more marketable resume, a behavior Voegeli rightly outed as often a trivial pursuit not worthy of support by either the taxpayers or the student’s tuition dollars.

 

I think it’s easy to see that the best teaching is going on at small colleges where most faculty are tenured and almost all are tenure track. Send your kids to one of them! The faculty members at my college are remarkably un-cynical about the secure career the institution offers good teachers, whatever they might think about other administrative initiatives. But nationwide, the number of credit hours generated by tenured and tenure-track faculty shrinks as the number generated by adjuncts and temporary faculty explodes. I hope nobody really believes that it’s good for genuinely higher education that our “instructional workforce” takes on many of the qualities of a proletariat. It’s not even good for cost control, but that’s an issue for another day.

4 thoughts on “Why Tenure Makes Teaching Better”

  1. I thank Professor Lawler for his good words about my essay on the bad effects of student evaluations on teaching, but I don’t agree that tenuring faculty members necessarily leads to good teaching. That creates a different set of incentives that can also undermine diligence and rigor.

    1. Well, very few things necessarily lead to other things. But I still thought it was ironic that you wrote such a pro-tenure article by highlighting the terror that fills the untenured, the adjuncts, and such when it comes to their “quantitative evaluations.” And you have to deal with the issue that administrators these days rarely privilege rigor over consumer satisfaction (retention). Good to hear from you too, and please keep up the great work.

  2. Hi Peter,
    Nice defense of tenure. Your description of teachers and teaching at Berry College brought back warm memories. No doubt I would send my own kids to a small liberal arts college if they had a desire. Cost differential between in-state tuition and private tuition is painful though. Here at KSU we are practically giving it away in comparison, even though our costs of operation are not cheap. Thanks for paying taxes to build up a subsidized competitor! You should write on the distorting effects these subsidies make. Also write on the size of these state institutions. We are at 25,000!

    Michael

    1. Mike,
      Great to hear from you. To some extent, it’s true, you get what you pay for. But at Berry (among others) there’s a huge difference between the sticker price and what students actually pay. For a lot of particular students (smart or poor or both), there’s little real difference. And at Berry you get a lot more. Come up and visit!
      Peter

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