Monday, April 28, 2014

I tell horrible groaners. I am not an entertainer!

"I am not sufficiently entertained by these materials" replied the student when I asked him for his views during the class discussions.  The entire class and I had a good laugh because it was directed at the dry subject content that the students had to endure even if they did not enjoy it.

While the students in that class are well on their way to graduating, that particular funny comment is also a tongue-in-cheek statement on contemporary higher education and the expectations that students have. Increasingly, students seem to be conveying an impression that if the classes aren't "entertaining," for want of a better word, then maybe they will shop around for a class that will be more interesting.

A couple of years ago, during the first day of introductions when a term began, I asked students why they had opted to register for that particular class.  One student said, "my friends told me you show Onion videos."  Indeed, I had used a few of the Onion's hilariously satirical videos in order to engage students in thinking about economic geography.  In fact, at one academic conference my talk was about how we faculty can use those videos as starting points in order to help students think about topics like economic development in sub-Saharan Africa or outsourcing.  But, I would never have expected students to sign up for a class only because of the laughs.

Rarely do I use those videos anymore, worried that students might be getting the wrong message.  I am not Sriram the entertainer, nor are my classes merely for fun.  Learning is a serious activity.

In such an educational context, we also have a system of students evaluating faculty.  What significant evaluation can a reasonable person expect out of a student who signed up for a class because of the Onion's videos?  How about the concept of students evaluating faculty on their teaching, even if we set that "Onion videos" student aside?

"Student evaluations of professors aren’t just biased and absurd—they don’t even work" writes Rebecca Schuman:
[Asking] students to evaluate their professors anonymously is basically like Trader Joe’s soliciting Yelp reviews from a shoplifter.
I’m sorry—a bigoted shoplifter. Because student evaluations aren’t just useless: They’re biased.
But, universities continue with the system of evaluations anyway.

Years ago, before the union leader issued a proclamation in which he directed other faculty from paying attention to me, I suggested to him that we rethink the purpose of evaluation.  In an email, in November 2004, I wrote to him:
As an institution, and as a society, our interest is in the outcomes, and not in directing faculty colleagues on how they should engage their students in the classroom.  
Of course, measuring the outcomes is not easy and we could get bogged down in highly contested issues.  But, isn't that all the more the reason for academics to take that up--aren't we interested in solving puzzles?

I am reminded of this quote from a couple of years ago:
"Students are the inventory," Mr. Crumbley says. "The real stakeholders in higher education are employers, society, the people who hire our graduates. But what we do is ask the inventory if a professor is good or bad. At General Motors," he says, "you don't ask the cars which factory workers are good at their jobs. You check the cars for defects, you ask the drivers, and that's how you know how the workers are doing."
As I noted, even then, the analogy is crude, but the fact is that society does pay attention to the outcomes.  Society does not care whether or not I was entertaining in the classroom, but does deeply care about whether or not the graduates know what they are expected to know.

Thus, at the end of it all, when Robin can't put together a meaningful analysis, and when Leslie has no idea about India and China and the other emerging economies, I am not at all surprised that the world outside the academy largely discounts the college diploma.  And that is not an entertaining result, is it?


Anne in Salem said...

I must disagree with at least part of your premise. My daughter at U of O has evaluated several professors - but not anonymously. A signed evaluation is to be read not only by the professor in question but also by the department chair. She signs the evaluations when the professor fails to keep basic commitments to the students, either by not attending his own office hours or by not responding to requests for help via email or in person when a response was promised. She hopes to bring the failings of the professor to light so other students will not face the same difficulties she did. She has never commented on the quality or style of teaching.

Perhaps there is a relationship between the need for entertainment in the classroom and the inability to sit and do nothing, as you discuss in your boredom blog post. They get so much stimulation from external sources, especially technological sources, that they seem incapable of creating thoughts for themselves or entertaining themselves. If there is no input, they don't know what to do. If you don't feed them Onion videos, they would have to think or draw conclusions on their own, skills many teens seem not to have. Thankfully many are reading, so there is hope.

Ramesh said...

Well, there are two issues here. One is whether classes should be entertaining. The second is whether faculty evaluations by students are of any use.

On the first, I suggest if you substitute interesting for entertaining, the answer is a resounding YES. Of course learning is a serious activity. But if it is made dry and boring, as many teachers at all levels do, its a deep disservice to the student. If it is made interesting, then it facilitates learning. The student who made the Onion comment was perhaps being flippant, but underneath that I think he made a serious point. You make classes interesting in a variety of ways and that's any day preferred over another Professor who may try to achieve the same objective by employing an instant magic cure for insomnia.

On the second issue, I couldn't disagree more with Mr Crumbley. A student is not a car. He pays a fair bit of the Crumbley wages , even if the state pays an equal bit - so he better listen to the student.

As you have observed before, faculty should pay attention to student feedback although it cannot be the be all and end all of professorial life. The Professor is not in a popularity contest. However he should listen to genuine feedback and consider it - but as I have observed repeatedly, academic types (you excepted) have a major problem with the concept of humility.

Sriram Khé said...

Oh, hey, you two representing the "society" I referred to bring up points that all of us need to think about. Here is how I would respond to your points:

Absolutely yes that faculty ought to be in classes when they are supposed to, be in offices when they are supposed to, ... There is no question about that.

but, faculty merely showing up and being regular and punctual is neither a sufficient nor a necessary condition for student learning. When I refer to a focus on outcomes, I am referring to various value-added aspects of student learning. Sure, students might learn to be punctual, learn to stick to schedules, following the instructor's lead. But what about the learning itself? What if, for instance, a faculty goes in to the biology class only to rant about the civil war in Syria? How does that contribute to student learning?

Student evaluation is often only on mechanistic aspects. (One of the questions in the evaluation questionnaire at my university is this: "The instructor's command of spoken English" on a zero to five scale. you think I will get an all-five-rating on that? I do not! hehehe!) In these mechanistic questions, studies repeatedly show that students can be easily influenced by "good looking" faculty (men or women) or by the kind of clothes they wear to classes, and even by the height of the instructor. Yep, as in other aspects of life, taller faculty tend to get more respect!
Thus, in many ways, evaluations tend to become the popularity contest that you two want to avoid.

Thus, if our focus is then turned to student learning, then we get into some serious discussions on whether they are learning what we expect them to be learning. We can then get into discussions on how best to engage students so that they will understand issues and concepts really well. It was for that engagement that I was using the Onion videos. (BTW, in a class earlier today, I showed them a video, to get some life into them.) My worry is that we have co-opted students and society by showing them that we have faculty evaluations by students, which then gives us a wonderful way of distracting everybody from what really matters--student learning.

And, yes, I do pay attention to student feedback--from their body language in class to the formal evaluations. And students also know that. Which is also why I was not surprised to read what one student wrote in "First off, I am commenting this because I know that he reads this"

There. I am done ;)

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately, a reference to a reference that might have been lost due to generational or internet cultural differences

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