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?

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