29 June 2010

Are Student Evaluations of College Faculty the Beginning of the End for Higher Education?

I teach at a smallish liberal arts College embedded in a largely vocational University. I say 'vocational' in the sense that a good many of the students are in undergrad and graduate programs leading to some professional degree (Business, Medicine, Music (performance), Education, Engineering, and so on). There is nothing wrong with any of those enterprises. Indeed, the various professional schools serve as a model in which there are some things one simply has to know in order to be deemed well trained or educated. Faculty know those things, students are on campus to learn them. By contrast, the entire curriculum in the College, by design, is driven by student choice. There are really very few substantive requirements. Worse, in my own department, it seems that most students can get a degree without ever really writing a paper more than ten pages long or so. By that I mean they face few demands either. All I have to do is mention a longer writing assignment - or one that requires independent research and thinking - and students drop the course in droves.

In that sense I have been impressed by this series of essays that Stanley Fish has written for The New York Times. In general, I think he is on the right track. Two things, at least*, are important to note, however.

First, it mostly is the conservative types, those who insist on a 'classical' curriculum, who also think there are right answers to every question, or who think that education consists in providing answers instead of priming students to ask and explore smart questions. There are, of course, right and wrong answers even in my field. I expect my students to know what John Stuart Mill or Hannah Arendt said about, say, freedom and why they said it. Beyond that, there is no reason to think that there is a single, unambiguous answer to the question as to whether either Mill or Arendt gets 'freedom' right or that their reasons for being preoccupied with freedom are cogent. The conservatives are simply out to lunch on that score. The whole point is that freedom (and other political concepts) are deeply contestable. The same is true in other domains and disciplines too. That hardly is a conclusion likely to attract support among conservatives.

Please note that I am not saying 'anything goes' - one surely can advance better and worse arguments (reasons) or more or less sound evidence for a given position. That said, at the end of the day, neither your reasons nor your evidence is likely to be decisive. Others will still disagree with you and, despite what you think, be reasonable in doing so.

Second, a good part of the problem is due to the fact that faculty often simply are not willing to defend some body of knowledge or some modes of inquiry as crucial to proper training or education. There is what we might call 'canon' aversion. This is driven in part by fear that students will find the resulting requirements too taxing or irrelevant or whatever. But it also is driven by unwillingness to take a stand, to make a judgment. Those most willing to take a stand often those who have least grasp of substantive material - we get consensus on 'methods' but not on the point of learning those techniques in the first place. And that is easier than having serious, contentious conversations about what students need to know and what faculty, therefore, need to teach.

I am not painting a particularly pretty picture. But it doesn't make sense to say that the dire trends in post-secondary education are all due to taking student evaluations seriously.** After all, if you don't want to rely on the judgment of students whose judgment do you plan to rely on?
* Another thing to wonder about is whether the education that Fish received in high school is an appropriate model for a college curriculum. I suspect that the answer to that question is complicated. Moreover, there is the problem that Fish neglects, namely that Colleges operate on a market. So even if something 'classical' and hence suitably demanding, is what Colleges ought to be selling, it might nonetheless fail on the market.
** As Fish seems to do: "And it all began with student evaluations, or, rather, with the mistake of taking them seriously. Since then, it’s been all downhill."

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Blogger Steven Brown said...

Fantastic blog!! I've been following for a couple months now and am hooked. I'm sure you've gotten a million encouraging responses from writing instructors on this post. I'm a grad student at present, but I've taught freshman comp for the past five years. I've never understood the consumer model of student ev(a/i)ls. I like Fish's statement here:

"They [student evals] measure present satisfaction in relation to a set of expectations that may have little to do with the deep efficacy of learning. Students tend to like everything neatly laid out; they want to know exactly where they are; they don’t welcome the introduction of multiple perspectives, especially when no master perspective reconciles them; they want the answers."

They want answers. Who doesn't? I like what you say about knowing how to ask the right questions. Questions like: What does an education which depends on market constraints offer me? Are they "good" restraints? Is there a world outside those particular constraints? And will I be prepared to function without those constraints? Questions which one must answer for him or herself, you know?

Thanks again! Looking forward to reading more.--Steven

29 June, 2010 12:45  

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