Monday, March 03, 2008

How to Avoid Incompetence

Jennifer Bandy has an interesting post up over at Dartblog. She was one of the students fortunate enough to sup with the Trustees over the weekend. On the whole, the recent trend of more trustee/student interaction is very positive—as was Haldeman's encouragement of the students to ask the trustees at their table tough questions. This, however, is a bit disconcerting:

My favorite moment of the luncheon was when Mr. Carson asked the students at the table if any of us ever had a truly incompetent professor at Dartmouth. He clearly expected to hear “no” and to make the point that to maintain a high level of quality, they aren’t always able to supply the quantity desired by students. Indeed, Carson seemed taken aback when the students noted that in fact we have all experienced such a professor during our time at the College. Instead of expressing regret over this situation and a commitment from the Board to continue searching for dedicated and talented professors, he blamed the students. He suggested that if we utilized the Student Assembly provided course guide, we would never take classes with incompetent professors.

As any student can attest, the SA Guide is far from the be-all and end-all of separating the professorial wheat from the chaff. Even a cursory stroll through the guide shows that the students who comment on classes or professors are students who either hated the prof. or loved the prof. This makes sense. Though SAD tries its best to get students to review all their classes, only about 5-10% do so. And the only significant motivation for reviewing is either to wish the professor harm or to wish him well. Case in point:

I will never take another class with [redacted]. I feel sorry for myself that I had to go through her class during my first term in college.

And from a different review of the same professor and class:

[redacted] did a great job of connecting all of the students -- she really created a free discussion atmosphere, where everyone could voice their opinion and really LEARN and UNDERSTAND what others were saying. The free-writes really helped me to get into writing.
The point is not that the guide is worthless, but that it's a rather laughable the trustees would chastise students for not making proper use of it.

18 comments:

Anonymous said...

One faculty member, noting how important the peer review process is in judging papers and thus scholarship, once suggested that a similar peer review process by faculty would improve their teaching. The proposal went nowhere. Why would a distinguished faculty, confident in their work and respectful of their peers, reject such a notion?

Anonymous said...

Furthermore, there are classes which are simply unavoidable as you make your way though your major(s). For example, in my day, Fillia Makedon taught CS99, the only way to get a CS degree without writing a thesis. She was truly awful. (Does anyone know what the situation in CS is now?)

Fun story about Makedon: she actually brought cookies and juice to our last day to sugar us up for the departmental professor reviews, and then refused to leave the tiny conference room we were squeezed into while we wrote them. A pox on Fillia Makedon!

Anonymous said...

Good for the trustees for actually speaking to students.

Now if they could only find the time to speak to members of the faculty.

For too long, they have been happy enough to read Jim Wright's reports on the College. Surprise: ALL IS GREAT!!!

Anonymous said...

Why would faculty reject yet another layer of peer review? Because it would be wasteful. Peers are off teaching their own classes and don't know how you teach yours the way students do. Peers have a much greater stake in your success or failure than students and are more likely to take out their petty jealousies and internal department politics in your reviews. The sample size is too small compared to the possible sample of students as well. It would take time away from teaching or research and be less useful or accurate than students' reviews, however ineffective those might be.

Anonymous said...

The Trustees, especially ones with buildings named after them, know what is best.

Anonymous said...

It sounds like the guy was just offering advice -- chatting, not giving official Board pronouncements.

Anonymous said...

No, that's just unacceptable: Carson hears that there are incompetent profs at Dartmouth, and his advice is that kids should check the course guide and avoid them?

Dartmouth should not have incompetent teachers. The story kind of proves how out of touch Carson and presumably others are.

Anonymous said...

Anon 9:11's arguments for not having faculty peer reviews is damning. Surely there are better answers. Quoting from his/her statements:

"Why would faculty reject yet another layer of peer review?"

What "other layer"? We are speaking of reviewing their teaching, not publishing. Is there already a layer of review by faculty peers?

"Peers are off teaching their own classes and don't know how you teach yours the way students do."

So do faculty members have nothing to learn from each other about teaching?

"Peers have a much greater stake in your success or failure than students and are more likely to take out their petty jealousies and internal department politics in your reviews."

So they prioritize their own success over improving how the entire faculty team performs for students? Exactly a characteristic of reserach universities where faculty careers come before the student experience.

"It would take time away from teaching or research"

Faculty do not have time to sit in a few classes each terms, and provide feedback? They must be incredibly overworked, with their average of one class per term schedules.

"and be less useful or accurate than students' reviews"

Professional educators cannot provide accurate and useful insight into educational performance?

This is not a condemnation of Dartmouth faculty! One guesses that the best and even a large majority are confident enough to engage in a peer review process, and may informally do so already. So what forces prevent it from being made the norm?

Anonymous said...

All it would take would be a courageous president, already respected among the faculty, to pull them together and say:

"We all want great teaching to accompany our scholarship. We all believe that is what students are getting today. But without a feedback review process, we do not know for sure. Instituting such a process will verify what we already believe, and possibly provide a more formal vehicle for disseminating best practices. So this is something we will do. Department chairs--- make it so."

It will also take a Board to find such a president, and a Board to support him/her through an inevitable period of outcry. They have already made decisions upsetting to alums (the parity business) and administrative employees (reducing retirement health benefits); the faculty should be no more off limits. But first and foremost it takes a Board that is more in touch. Hopefully the luncheon with students was only a first step to a regular meaningful dialog.

Anonymous said...

"Dartmouth should not have incompetent teachers. The story kind of proves how out of touch Carson and presumably others are."

The guy is out there, talking to students, taking tough questions and asking them whether they've really had incompetent teachers. The story, which is one tiny anecdote about a larger meeting, doesn't prove anything about the trustees other than that Carson is getting in touch with students.

Anonymous said...

Anon. 1:49's uninformed questions prove why alumni should never be allowed to affect the management of faculty...

He asks, for example, "What 'other layer'" of peer review. Duh!?!? It's called frickin' hiring and tenure. Even adjuncts not on the tenure track have their teaching reviewed extensively by their peers.

"So do faculty members have nothing to learn from each other about teaching?" Blah, blah, of course they do. They learn that from talks with each other, and from tenure reviews, and from DCAL and whatever other resources the school has for the improvement of teaching.

"So they prioritize their own success over improving how the entire faculty team performs for students?" The "faculty team"? Do you work for a consulting company or something? No faculty has ever acted as a "team," but that's beside the point. Of course individuals place their own success over marginal and insubstantial and unquantifiable goals such as "improving" other people's performance for students. That's why faculty demand salaries: they are not a charity.

"Exactly a characteristic of research universities where faculty careers come before the student experience." You've got it mixed up. A "faculty career" involves success in research (in some schools) or teaching (in some schools) or, ideally, both. Dartmouth faculty are required to put their careers, which include teaching, ahead of other considerations. The more faculty do this instead of watching TV or doing all the other things anyone might rather do, the more students benefit.

"Faculty do not have time to sit in a few classes each term, and provide feedback?" Of course they do, if you can find a less important part of their employment you'd prefer to cut. Grading a few papers each term, or teaching a few classes each term? Faculty time is finite, just like everybody else's. The information gained would not be worth the time taken from more important tasks.

"Professional educators cannot provide accurate and useful insight into educational performance?" Of course they can. One prof's opinion of one class every year or two will be less useful than a dozen students' opinions of every class, every term.

If they are conducting peer review informally already, then there is no need to mandate your proposal. It would be even more of a waste.

Anonymous said...

"All it would take would be a courageous president, already respected among the faculty, to pull them together and say" we need more bureaucracy. We need to expand the number of reviews you are already conducting. We need to grow the amount of time you spend on administrative work rather than on teaching. We need to hire more department secretaries and other administrators to schedule your reviews and tally the results. All because the reviews we have from the clients themselves are not unanimous.

Anonymous said...

"Frickin' hiring and tenure" reviews are one time occurrences, hardly in accord with the value of regular reviews.

The complaint that there is not enough time is bogus.

The point that people put their careers ahead of students (taught by all) is honest, but not honorable.

The concern that while good in theory, peer reviews could not be efficiently performed without a stifling bureaucracy that would itself distract faculty from their teaching is legitimate, and a sad commentary on how universities are managed.

Anonymous said...

Hiring and tenure reviews are not one-time occurrences. Adjuncts are reviewed every time they are hired, which may be once a year or more. Tenure-track faculty are reviewed before hiring and at intervals thereafter, often one, three, five, and seven years.

"The complaint that there is not enough time is bogus." Okay, let's see you create a 25th hour in the day for faculty. Maybe if you paid them for conducting reviews they would go for it, but you haven't suggested that.

"The point that people put their careers ahead of students (taught by all) is honest, but not honorable." So you think faculty, unlike all other professionals, should sacrifice themselves for the betterment of the children who are our future?

John Bruce said...

The other issues, such as bureaucracy and professional back-biting carry some weight, but not enough time? As I understand it, at Dartmouth, tenured profs teach four courses per year, which suggests that for two terms, they teach only one course. Many have release time that waives even this requirement.

This probably boils down to a need to be on campus 9 hours a week or less. I'm dubious, frankly, that many Dartmouth profs spend 50 hours a week engrossed in the philosophy of Aquinas.

Anonymous said...

Oh, of course, the lectures just come flowing off the tongue without anyone having to research, write, or prepare them... Faculty also have obligations to serve the existing bureaucracy (department and school committees, tenure review panels) and to publish. Writing books takes time.

Again, faculty might consider taking on this extra work for extra pay, but I'm not sure it wouldn't still be a waste then.

Anonymous said...

The comments have wandered a little far afield. To get back to the main issue, does anyone really think it's defensible that: (1) there is a significant number of professors at Dartmouth that students would describe to a trustee as "truly incompetent," and (2) that a trustee would suggest that the solution is to put extra effort into finding out who the incompetents at Dartmouth are, so that they can be avoided?

Now, perhaps there's some context that would explain this. Perhaps Ms. Bandy's account is inaccurate or incomplete (though I have no reason to suspect that it is). Perhaps the students are being unfair in evaluating their professors.

But if the account is true and fully accurate, it's shameful.
At a school whose claim to superiority is based, in part, on its commitment to undergraduate education, there should be no "truly incompetent" professors at Dartmouth. And if there are, something should be done to address it. And if nothing can be done, the trustees should at least have an explanation or be concerned about it in some way.

John Bruce said...

1:40, I'm afraid that often the lectures do in fact come flowing off the tongue without writing or research -- this is called coming to class unprepared, and even a freshman can discern that profs do this. Writing books, especially at a place like Dartmouth, will get you release time from classes, so that often simply cancels itself out.

1:54, a tenured prof can basically be dismissed only for a felony conviction, abandoning his or her position, truly egregious academic fraud, or insubordination. Coming to class unprepared doesn't count.

However, two of the current batch of petition Trustees are themselves tenured profs, and neither answered the questions I put directly to them on what they might propose for tenure reform.

I did chat with a friend who's a retired Dean of the Faculty at a community college -- he said student evaluations in the short term are simply students giving it their best shot, but if you see a pattern year after year, there's clearly a problem. The best he and his colleagues can do is facilitate their transfer whenever possible.