Teaching evaluations and student buy-in

This article on the limited value of teaching evaluations makes for bracing reading. It is based on experiences in UK universities, but I assume many of the lessons would be applicable to similar mainstream institutions in the US. Broadly speaking, the study referenced concludes that positive teaching evaluations actually correlate negatively with educational outcomes, meaning that students basically hate professors who actually make them learn. What’s more, it claims that a narrowly functional view of education actually increases over the course of the students’ college career — many come with a real love of learning, and it’s gradually beaten out of them.

On one level, of course, it’s satisfying for us as faculty members to imagine that negative course evaluations mean that we’re bold truth-tellers resisting the lowest-common-denominator model of education, etc. I’d suggest, however, that this negative correlation only holds in institutions without a clearly articulated set of pedagogical commitments. In institutions that do have such explicit commitments — like Shimer College, for instance — I imagine that teaching evaluations and educational outcomes correlate fairly closely, at least if students have significant buy-in and investment in that pedagogical model.

And for student buy-in to happen, you absolutely must have faculty buy-in. Faculty should all be able to answer questions about why courses and programs are structured in the way they are, and those answers should be consistent. Whatever the preferred pedagogical model, whether it’s lecturing or discussion or some mix, everyone involved should be able to give an account of why that method is preferable and what purpose it’s serving. Not every professor has to do the same thing, but there should be some sense of what benefit students are supposed to derive from a variety of styles — and people should actually mean it, not just be hand-wavy.

This sounds totalitarian, I know, but we already see what the alternative is: a relative indifference to pedagogy as a topic of explicit reflection, leading to each individual instructor re-inventing the wheel in near-total isolation from their colleagues. Why shouldn’t students “shop around” for pedagogical methods that come easiest to them when we’re doing literally the same thing with our own pedagogical approach?

If students know what they’re getting and know why it’s supposed to be beneficial, then education and satisfaction should go together. In a total vacuum of explicit pedagogical reflection, students will default to non-academic standards for satisfaction, because we’re giving them nothing else. If students don’t know how to evaluate whether we’re helping them to learn, it’s not because students are stupid and ignorant and we shouldn’t ask them anything — it’s because we’ve failed to teach them that. And the only way to lay the groundwork for actually teaching them that is to make focused discussion of pedagogical commitments, with both fellow faculty members and with students, a pervasive feature of the culture of a given school.

Failing that, each individual faculty member should be able to give an account of why they’re doing what they’re doing and of what it would look like for students to be really making progress. If we don’t have an answer — for instance, if we just assign a mid-term and final paper because we need something to grade — then we should change our approach to something that has an actual rationale. And I want to emphasize that I’m not advocating for any particular pedagogical model (such as Shimer’s), but for any explicit model at all. We at least need an ethos if we’re going to fight against the inertia of nihilism.

A tic in academic writing

I’ve noticed a strange tic among academic writers, a tic to which I fall victim myself: a compulsive overuse of connective particles. In some cases, it seems that there must be some type of connective particle in literally every sentence of every paragraph. It’s as though we can’t trust our readers to infer that our sentences are related to each other by virtue of being placed in sequential order in the same paragraph, etc.

As Voyou said when I voiced this concern on Twitter, “what makes it clear that it is a tic is that they’re always the most general connective particles (like ‘thus’), so they gesture at a connection without saying what the connection is.”

My hypothesis as to the origin of this tic is the increasingly frequent experience of over-hasty and dismissive readers of academic writing. Reading half-attentively, ready to jump on any pretext for criticism, these readers simply cannot be trusted to, you know, read our work. Instead, they dip in and out, reading every third sentence while scanning over the rest.

And this is where the connective particles come in. They remind the inattentive reader that each individual sentence can’t be taken in isolation and criticized as though nothing else had been said. No, they’re connected to the rest of the piece, which must actually be read and assessed as a whole rather than as a collection of isolated monadic sentences suitable for target practice.

In other words, the “thus” tic is a kind of verbal cringe, a wincing attempt to dodge the inevitable arbitrary criticism. Every time we throw in a “thus” or “in other words” or “that is to say,” we’re saying: “No, see, I wrote these other sentences, too, and what I’m saying here depends on what I said there. You can’t just take this one sentence in isolation!” It’s an attempt to shame the impatient reader into at least glancing at the previous sentence before pouncing on the one their judgmental gaze happened to fall upon.

Contra Dad Rock Pedagogy

I woke up this morning to a retweet of JKAS’ Wall Street Journal “Has Anyone Seen Last Year’s Promising Freshman?” It was, umm, “interesting” to read a pedagogical perspective dripping with utter contempt for his students especially as I had gone bed late last night reading bell hooks’ Teaching to Transgress. hooks encourages her readers to foster an openness in the classroom driven in part by student desire but also that recognizes that every pedagogical decision is a political decision, that when one teaches only the canon that one has advocated something. Teaching is never simply teaching and if you think it is you’re either not thinking or being willfully ignorant. Now, if we take JKAS at his word at being “invited into this exclusive club” of “liberal enlightenment”, would should, I suppose, trust that he is smart enough to know how insulting his article will be taken as an insult. After all, in it he lambasts professors, his very colleagues (I suppose tenure makes rascals of folks), for not simply  extolling the virtues of the Western and instead “confuse teaching with advocacy”. But setting aside the veracity of such a claim (it seems to me to lack merit) we may assume that while JKAS is aware enough to know it will cause offense we may also assume, since he wrote the article, that he enjoys the fact that it will be offensive. He may even feel that he’s struck a blow against the complex of PC college professors whose only taste for intolerance is against the intolerant. In other words, JKAS is a contrarian and so shares less in common with the lover of wisdom than he does with the sophist who likes the way the words feel in his mouth. Ironically this means he shares more in common with the common right-wing caricature of “social justice warriors” who get off on their outrage as he clearly is enjoying his own smug denigration. Read the rest of this entry »

On bad academic writing

The article on bad academic writing that’s been going around strikes me as perhaps a little cruel, and as unlikely to actually get through to the people who most need the message — after all, it’s notoriously difficult to see the flaws in one’s own writing. As a peer reviewer, I’ve seen many articles that amount to a “paper in search of a thesis,” so I think there’s definitely a grain of truth in the problem the author diagnoses. And as an academic writer, I can testify that it’s good prudential advice. I’ve had disproportionate success in getting through peer review, and I credit that in part to the fact that I’m a clear, fluent writer.

Nevertheless, there’s something a little suspicious about the notion that every academic must be a “good writer.” First of all, nearly all the important theoretical sources academics study violate multiple norms of American academic writing — Europeans are much looser in their citational practices, for instance, and in general the authors who have entered into the Theory canon are much more comfortable with indirection and density. Reading these types of authors in translation certainly militates against the development of a fluent English style.

Further, I’m uncomfortable with the implied uniformity of style demanded here, particularly since an important motivation is not to make undue demands on editors and readers. It seems like we’re not too far from grading papers based in large part on how easy they are to grade. I understand that editors and readers are pressed for time, and I also realize that it’s unrealistic to think that a significant percentage of “bad” articles are actually using advanced stylistic and rhetorical approaches that enhance their meaning — but maybe some of them are, and the risk is that they will get thrown out because they didn’t follow a more convenient formula.

What do you think, dearest readers?

Helpful Feedback for Derrida on “Structure, Sign, and Play”

Perhaps [weasel-word!] something has occurred in the history of the concept of structure that could be called an “event,” if this loaded word [loaded according to whom?] did not entail a meaning which it is precisely the function [is this really its only function?] of structural–or structuralist–thought [which is it?] to reduce or to suspect [again, which?]. But let me use the word “event” anyway, employing it with caution and as if in quotation marks. In this sense, this event will have the exterior form of a rupture and a redoubling [why? Unpack this].

It would be easy enough to show [then show it! This is a big generalization that you never support!] that the concept of structure and even the word “structure” itself are as old as the episteme [is this a reference to Foucault? In that case, cite]–that is to say, as old as western science and western philosophy [this is a big claim, citation?]–and that their roots thrust deep into the soil of ordinary language, into whose deepest recesses the episteme plunges to gather them together once more, making them part of itself in a metaphorical displacement [unclear -- I think I see what you're getting at, but it could be expanded and unpacked a bit more]. Nevertheless, up until the event which I wish to mark out and define [maybe you should lead off with what this event is supposed to be, rather than making the reader wait? I'm already losing the thread], structure–or rather the structurality of structure–although it has always [careful with these generalizations] been involved, has always been neutralized or reduced, and this by a process of giving it a center or referring it to a point of presence [this feels jargony to me], a fixed origin. The function of this center was not only to orient, balance, and organize the structure–one cannot in fact conceive of an unorganized structure–but above all to make sure that the organizing principle of the structure would limit what we might call the freeplay of the structure [what does this mean? Unpack]. No doubt [this does not seem as immediately obvious to me] that by orienting and organizing the coherence of the system, the center of a structure permits the freeplay of its elements inside the total form. And even today the notion of a structure lacking any center represents the unthinkable itself [this seems a bit overblown -- maybe nuance?].

If you see something, say something: On academic representation

A couple years ago, I was invited to contribute to a reference volume. I was honored to be included and eager to have the chance to demonstrate my expertise on the topic. Yet as I looked at the proposed table of contents, I noticed a problem: no women. I told the editor that I did not feel comfortable contributing to a volume with such a lack of diversity.

I have never mentioned this incident publicly, out of fear that I would come across as boasting about what a Nice Guy I was. Yet as I was talking about writing up one of the pieces, The Girlfriend insisted that I must say something, because what happened next may surprise you: the editor admitted it was a problem but said that he simply didn’t know where to begin in fixing it. I didn’t know anyone personally who would be a good fit, but I recommended he look at a very diverse edited volume on the topic and contact the editor. Within a few months, the entire contributor roster had been revised.

If the story had stopped with the first paragraph, it would be hard to recommend my course of action — a pointless act of martyrdom that would only lead to a “worse person” (someone unconcerned with such matters!) being invited to take my place. Yet it doesn’t seem to be a likely outcome. Even people who are not “directly” concerned with diversity are surely aware that a conspicuous lack of it will cause protest and embarrassment. The earlier they’re able to correct the problem, the less inclusion will look like a patronizing “tokenism.”

Those of us white guys who are in dialogue with women and minorities in our scholarly work know that it’s not a matter of “eating your vegetables” so that you can get the dessert of all the exciting white dudes — a more diverse set of interlocutors makes academic dialogue more interesting and improves our own work. We shouldn’t selfishly keep that goodness to ourselves, nor should we allow academic publications and conferences in which we play a part to be mired in monochrome mediocrity. In an ideal future, of course, this kind of inclusiveness would be the normal course of events — but in the meantime, it’s regretably often the case that white guys more easily gain a seat at the table, and they need to use their power for good.

Peer review: What’s the alternative?

In what is increasingly becoming a tired schtick, Rebecca Schumann rehearses the most inflammatory cliches about academic practices — in this case, peer review. David Perry’s response reflects my own experience: I’ve had a generally good experience, but I’ve heard about friends who had a much harder time.

Schumann suggests that anyone submitting to a journal should be required to do a “constructive,” timely review of an article for said journal before their piece will be considered. The gap here is that the same editors who let people get away with harsh reviews are going to be in charge of assessing the required reviews — why would we expect anything different? It’s also striking that the solution to the badness of peer review is to get more people to do peer review (especially in the case of the “crowd-sourced peer review” solution she also discusses). Yes, I agree: the solution to the problems of the system is a good version of the system without the problems.

I would like to gently suggest that there are factors other than the badness of reviews themselves that contribute to the bad reputation of peer review. First, it makes sense that an increasingly high-stakes “publish or perish” mentality would lead to a higher volume of lower-quality material. Many articles that I’ve reviewed struck me as simply needing more incubation time — including the time and distance necessary to say, “Okay, so I’ve done all this exposition… but what am I trying to say here?” Students who let the deadline sneak up on them are not the only ones turning in “papers in search of a thesis.” And in some cases, I honestly think the editor should have simply rejected the articles out of hand without involving me. It’s not the author’s fault, but I can understand being irritable when you’ve volunteered your free labor and your input isn’t actually warranted.

Second, the high stakes involved amplify people’s usual defensiveness of their own work. This may lead to an overdiagnosis of “harshness” of tone and an exaggerated suspicion of the reviewer’s motives — isn’t it a little convenient that peer reviewers are so often presented as promoting their own work and viewpoints? We’re all willing to call bullshit when blog commenters say that we’re just afraid of how right their views are and can’t tolerate dissent. There’s always going to be something uncomfortable about getting criticism of one’s work from an anonymous source — I mean, I was sweating bullets when a very close friend was reading my draft of Creepiness, and I can’t imagine how nervous I would have been if it were a total stranger — and while some reviewers may come across as unduly harsh, maybe you wouldn’t read it that way if you knew them personally. The disadvantages of anonymity go both ways.

So here’s my proposal: get rid of the anonymity. Turn the process into a genuine dialogue between peers rather than a high-stakes, up-or-down evaluation by some random person. You could even require people to do some peer review on their own beforehand and submit a signed statement from one or two readers along with the piece. To make sure people aren’t constantly relying on the same two people, you could make it a norm for CVs that your initial reviewers are included in the listing for any peer-reviewed work. If you want an independent assessment, have a named peer reviewer respond to the full package.

Yes, there is potential for abuse with this system, in that it could amplify “old boys network”-type effects — but my #slatepitch position is that many of the cruellest and most pointlessly time-consuming aspects come from pretending that the profession is an impersonal meritocracy and feigning ignorance of the importance of reputation and social networks.


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