Chewing our mud

I’m too busy this week to do much writing here, but I do want to link to the current round of posts on teaching evaluations, triggered by this Inside Higher Ed article on a recent teaching enhancement initiative at Texas A&M;

It’s not like professors to think that they are so well compensated that it’s not worth hoping for a $10,000 bonus. But out of more than 2,000 faculty members at Texas A&M University’s main campus, only about 300 have agreed to vie for a bonus being offered for their teaching — and all they would need to do is have a survey distributed to their students.

The reason for passing on a chance at $10,000 is that many professors are frustrated by the way the money is being distributed: based solely on student evaluations. Numerous studies have questioned the reliability of student evaluations in measuring actual learning; several of these have noted the tendency of many students to reward professors who give them higher grades. Further complicating the debate is a sense some have that the university is endorsing a consumerist approach to higher education. The chancellor of the A&M system, Michael D. McKinney, told the Bryan-College Station Eagle: “This is customer satisfaction…. It has to do with students having the opportunity to recognize good teachers and reward them with some money.”

That comment didn’t go over well with many professors who believe that their job responsibilities include — at least sometimes — tough grading, or challenging student ideas or generally putting learning before student happiness.

and a response from Ezra Klein:

I grew up among academics. And I have never since met a class of people so contemptuous of teaching. You’d think they were being asked to chew mud. In part, that’s a structure of the rewards system. Teaching takes a lot of time but doesn’t play a big role in tenure or promotion.

This is both incorrect and offensive. Klein has now apologized for it, so I won’t slam him further. All the same, the responses here, here, here, and here are still worth reading, especially for the comment threads. There’s a very good discussion of teaching quality in general and teaching evaluations in particular: the good and bad uses of teaching evaluations, the actual role they play in tenure and promotion cases (quite substantial, at most schools), their correlation with the quality of teaching, as well as other factors that can influence them, from gaming the system to the instructor’s physical attributes. Yes, a 5’3” female professor with a foreign accent does have to work a little bit harder.

I could say more, but it will have to wait. Right now, I have a class to prepare and a few more Putnam problems to write.