Class Dismissed: Universities Should Start Caring about How Well - and How Much - Teachers Teach

By Meacham, Jon | The Washington Monthly, May 1993 | Go to article overview

Class Dismissed: Universities Should Start Caring about How Well - and How Much - Teachers Teach


Meacham, Jon, The Washington Monthly


One day in the mid-eighties, during a course in philosophical ethics at the University of North Carolina that had randomly featured movies about the Chilean labor movement, political screeds about Central America, and chats about local news, the professor dutifully handed out forms for students to rate the class.

"This had just been a very unremarkable course," recalls one student. "What we talked about in class wasn't connected to what we read, and the movie wasn't really connected to anything. And, when he distributed the forms, the professor announced, very matter-of-factly, that whatever the students said would have no effect on his career."

The professor was right. A scholarly publishing star, he soon left to chair the philosophy department at one of the country's largest research universities. He's there now, presiding over an academic Olympus, while the undergraduates whom he unremarkably taught a few years back are probably as long forgotten as the janitors who cleaned his office. That he wasn't a particularly good teacher didn't interest the universities which courted him. So long as the professor wrote books and presented professional papers, that was good enough. And in a way, that's fine. Complaining that research scholarship is antithetical to the university is silly, an argument that belongs to people who take George Wallace's caricature of "pointy headed professors" literally.

The real issue is why universities have let research become the alpha and omega of their culture. Because good teaching is simply assumed, the present system of professorial evaluation allows bad teaching to go undetected and unremedied. This means that professors who do well in the public sphere of publication rise to the top, leaving teaching stars in a professional steerage class.

So why is there so little emphasis on teaching? According to the Carnegie Foundation, just 58 percent of faculty in four-year schools say their chief interest lies in the classroom; since 1969, the percent of faculty agreeing that teaching should be the primary criterion for promotion fell from 78 percent to 62 percent.

The rules of the academic road have followed those sentiments: Since the seventies, average faculty workloads have dropped from 15 class hours a week to about 6, and college costs have risen at five or six times the rate of inflation. Semesters are shorter, classes fewer. On average, full professors make $65,000 for about 90 minutes of class time a day for the eight months a year that school is in session. Not a bad deal at all.

And, significantly, professors who teach the least make the most money. A new study from the National Center on Postsecondary Teaching, Learning, and Assessment finds that professors who spent fewer than six hours a week in class made $50,927, stomping on colleagues who made $36,793 for 12 hours of teaching. The best-known and highest-ranked professors teach sporadically, if at all. In other words, the reward for scholarly success is time away from students.

When professors do teach, there is little sense of how well they're doing it. And when teaching is evaluated, the results are often overlooked. What's lost, of course, is a simple thing called education--the thing students and parents and taxpayers are writing checks for. The disturbing levels of American collegiate academic achievement are well-known: Our college graduates read and know mathematics at a lower level than their counterparts in other industrialized countries, and, in 1989, a National Endowment for the Humanities survey found that half of college seniors couldn't identify the Emancipation Proclamation or The Federalist Papers.

If any other business--an auto manufacturer, a bank, a supermarket--cut services and raised prices, customers would walk out. Universities, however, occupy an inviolate place in American life. Since the GI Bill made higher education a broad right instead of a privilege in the years after World War II, a university degree has been our intuitive engine of social mobility. …

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