I once worried about the importance of student evaluations of my teaching for my job prospects in academia. How could students evaluate the effectivness of their instructors? Isn’t it the instructor who evaluates the effectiveness of his or her teaching, at least in part, by the performance of students on graded work? At present, everyone takes a nuanced view. The evaluations are at best a measure of a student’s satisfaction with the course, which is distinguished from teaching effectiveness. Unfortunately, we have escaped the frying pan only to land in the fire. The student evaluations by themselves no longer pose a direct threat to the integrity of college pedagogy—but the institution as a whole appears to be trading its integrity away by adopting the student evaluation as a model for describing success. Towards understanding the state of the institution of college at present, I share a few observations from personal experience.
- Colleges are under threat in several quarters. The already absurd cost of college is increasing. Students and their parents view college as probably necessary for securing a white-collar job, but would gladly avoid it altogether if there were an alternative that offered better dollar return on investment.
- There is a specter haunting higher education—the specter of the Internet. No one can quite see how it will happen, but everyone feels anxiety and excitement about the prospect of free online courses that can be substituted for college credit, or, what is worse from the college’s point of view, certification obviating college courses altogether. That these concerns are so strong reflects essential aspects of the environment. College is understood primarily as a means to economic security and advancement.
- “Online course” has slipped into our vocabulary, although there are few courses online. Mostly, there are materials for courses, such as lecture notes, taped presentations by an instructor, problem sets, essay questions, and course texts. A college course, unless “course” is simply to be redefined, requires a group of students who interact, whether in person or online, and an instructor, who is a leader and facilitator. The success of a course depends on more than acquisition of information or skills. A class is a social entity. Success requires direct engagement with others taking the class at the same time. The “content” for these “courses” is in general created by college faculty, although college faculty are not needed to “teach” them.
- Because there are so many colleges, and because so many of them can barely be distinguished from any of the others, colleges compete intensely for the limited pool of students. Tuition funds the college. There is no way of demonstrating that a college provides better pedagogy than others, so this has largely ceased to figure into relative assessment of one college over another. Faculty are encouraged to attend conferences about pedagogy and publish articles in journals about teaching in their discipline as a way of creating evidence that teaching is valued at the college.
- As a result of the intense competition, colleges have invested in the students’ quality of life and experience. This does not include pedagogy. Improvements such as new dorms, athletic facilities, better cafeteria food, and new technology are more easily recognized by potential students and their parents. Successful athletic teams, and their mascots, also differentiate colleges from one another.
- There is significant investment in advertising (“branding”) and Internet presence. Slogans, mottoes, and the college’s emblem are refined and widely distributed. The college’s image is the subject of retreats, town hall meetings, and committees, guided by a professional public relations firm. The college’s image need not be tied to its history or previous mission; indeed, any such connections are a part of the college’s image itself. If it is not seen as essential to the attracting students, a college will not promote its culture of teaching and faculty-student relationships.
- Student success is measured in part by how many of its students win academic awards or publish and present research or creative works. The success of faculty is judged by how many of their students succeed by these measures. Events such as an undergraduate research day are created so that students are guaranteed a venue for presenting their work.
- Much like in primary and secondary schools, new regimes of quantitative assessment are being put in place. “Learning goals” are articulated, and students are rated by how well they have met the standards. This is so that academic departments and deans can claim that the students are being taught effectively. Courses are designed for the purpose of satisfying the learning goals and meeting the standards for success. The goals and standards are created internally and are not subject to external review. None of the measures are validated as legitimate measures of student abilities; data are not audited for quality; and data sets are not evaluated by statistical measures of robustness, significance, or reliability.
- Because pedagogy is effectively invisible, there is no incentive to invest in pedagogically useful resources for faculty and students. Class sizes are as large as possible so that enrollment can be maximized. There is no reason to promote faculty members’ careers as teachers or scholars. Adjuncts teach courses when the number of course sections is too large to be covered by full-time faculty. Teaching loads are heavy.