Wednesday, July 29, 2009


A mentor of mine said recently that I was wrong when I told my students that the purpose of education was to get smarter. No, he said, the purpose of education is to get wiser. The difference, you ask? A smart person knows when he’s right; a wise one knows when to say it.

I raise the point because last week I received an intriguing invitation to address the incoming class of undergraduates during their September orientation. I'm going to do it, but I'm not sure what to say. Certainly not that I’ve always been mildly irritated by "O-Week" – the initiation of first year students to university life. Twenty years ago, I attended the first few events of my own and then headed for the hills. How I hated it. Everything about it: the binge drinking; the compulsory “fun” (two words that should never go together); the uniformity of, well, uniforms; the inane group cheers; the shabby slogans; the unimaginative activities; the inculcation of "school spirit" amongst students who have not yet had time to decide for themselves if their school is any good, struck me then and strikes me now as antithetical to one of the larger purposes of university education: to produce independent thinkers.

On my very first day, twenty years ago, a trio of third-year students, complete with painted faces and enormous excesses of personality, made me sing the national anthem – readers of this blog know my feelings about that song – before handing over $20 for my "mandatory frosh kit", which turned out to be a bag of flyers, pamphlets, and junk being freely distributed elsewhere. Well, hell. I left high school hoping to escape precisely that sort of nonsense and precisely those sorts of people, and there I was in the thick of it two months later.

Over the years, I’ve had a great many students, and even organizers of these events, tell me that they found none of it "fun" in the least. But try being the one who says, "Actually, I don’t want to paint my face and wear this t-shirt another day and chant this, well, rather insipid and offensive cheer. And my roommates are binge drinkers who won’t do dishes and think it’s funny not to flush the toilet. This isn’t quite what I was promised at the University Fair, where all the talk was about cultivating the mind and the human spirit."

A few years back, during "O-Week", members of my former faculty's "student fun team" scrawled "Social Science: the Biggest and Best Faculty!" in chalk on the sidewalk outside of our oppressively ugly faculty building. (Some wag respond by writing: "Would you like fries with that?" underneath.) Later, I saw students practicing a cheer on the same theme. But a good education in the social sciences should actually call such conclusions into question. A proper slogan might read: "Objective, long-term consideration of the available evidence leads to the highly tentative conclusion that for a significant portion of motivated undergraduates in the social sciences, their undergraduate experience is, on the whole, intellectually fulfilling. More longitudinal studies are required to determine whether or not social science degrees are of actual utility in the rapidly-reorienting job market in terms of both starting salary and lifetime earnings. " But try making that into a cheer.

Anyway, there I will be, during O-Week, and when the time comes I hope I'll have the wisdom to not say what I'd really like to say, which is that if you’ve come to university to learn to think for yourself, now is the time to start. In fact, consider O-Week your first test.

Twenty years. Did you catch that part, students? It was twenty years ago this month that I hopped on bike, rode up to the university, and chose my classes. English, History, Political Science, Philosophy, and Psychology (stupidly, I did not take French.) I remember all the profs. They seemed unfathomably old and learned to me, but I know now that two of them were ABDs, and a good deal younger than I am now. Twenty years. I can scarcely believe those words as I type them. And so I've decided that there is one thing I'm going to say for certain five weeks from today, and it's this:

"You’re seventeen or eighteen. I don’t mean to condescend, but it’s hard to appreciate at that age the rapidity of the passage of time. Twenty years ago this week I started university. The intervening years have passed so quickly I can hardly describe it. I still have projects, left over from high school, that I’ve been meaning to work on. For me, there have been good things and bad things in the past twenty years. I wouldn’t go back, even if I could, but I can tell you that I would like an extra twenty years before me. So my essential message to all of you is this: the greatest asset you possess is time. It is also the one asset that you have less of with every passing second. It is therefore urgent that you use your time well. If there's one thing that you derive from your education, I hope it's a better understanding of how to do that."

Time. Hear that ticking sound, students? It gets louder with every passing second.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009


"This course should have had a textbook, with weekly assigned readings." - Comment from teaching evaluation, 2005.

It did. It did have a textbook, and it did have weekly assigned readings. Evaluations often tell us more about our students than about our teaching.

I'll get this out of the way so that nobody thinks it's sour grapes. Despite the occasional barb hurled my way, I get very good teaching evaluations, and you can check if you don't believe me. I've even won a couple of teaching awards, and you can check up on that, too. But I also believe that we could improve the quality of education overnight by abolishing student teaching evaluations – or at least by abolishing the kind that we have now. I also know, as I write these words, that I feel quite vulnerable. As a relative academic newcomer, still in a probationary period, I pay my rent by the good graces of administrators for whom teaching evaluations are a sacred cow. But therein lies the rub: I haven't met a sessional or newly minted full-time professor yet who wouldn't, behind closed doors, admit to lowering standards in exchange for better evaluations. Not to mix metaphors, but for the indentured servants who carry, if not the bulk, then certainly the dead weight of the university's teaching burden, teaching evaluations hang over them like the threat of the slave driver's whip. Every deserved "F", every blunt assessment of a lazy student's performance, every admonishment to stop surfing the wireless web and pay attention, is tempered by that threat. Reading loads get reduced, content gets thinned out, expectations get lowered, and lo, yea and verily, the light of the highest grades is shed upon work of the shadiest character. Don't kid yourselves – evaluations make our teaching worse.

They also rest upon the assumption that the great majority of undergraduates are qualified to say what is and what is not good teaching. On what grounds do we assume this? Have undergraduates lectured? Marked? Led discussions? Studied pedagogy? Any parent of any teenager will tell you that young people seldom are objective adjudicators of adult authority, yet an evaluation from a sincere and diligent student gets no more consideration than one from a full-time party-animal who slept, skipped, or surfed his way through my class, and who departs thinking that Rosa Parks "invented the national parks system." (Yes, it really happened). Well, hurrah for the new academic democracy, down with the hidebound old guard that just doesn't get it. Times have changed: they're customers now, not students, and they have every right to demand customer satisfaction – even the ones who have come to shoplift. Thus do good teaching evaluations become an end in themselves, when the "end", if there is one, is not so much better teachers as it is better students, students who no longer need teachers in order to learn. If my institution's administrators really want to assess my teaching, they're welcome to drop by my class any day. They can show up unannounced, if they like. Or I can show them my class websites and the contents of my teaching portfolio and the articles I've published on andragogy. We could discuss it over lunch. I welcome their insight and their expertise. All this could be done. As it stands, we let students define what constitutes good teaching.

In fairness, this is not about administration. In my working career I've stepped into managerial roles often enough to know that the grass is not greener on that side of the desk, and I certainly wouldn't want to endure the automatic accusations of ill-faith that come packaged with the job of Dean, Principal, and President. These colleagues are not my target. My target is the assumptions that lead them to take the present system of teaching evaluations seriously. The point of having better teachers, after all, is to produce better students, and for those purposes student teaching evaluations are not so much a sacred cow as they are a golden calf.