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.

Help with course planning!

As I mentioned in my previous post, I’m going to be offering a course on the Qur’an next semester. One thing I didn’t factor in when I volunteered to do this, however, is how quickly I need to complete the book order (due to some changes in how Shimer is managing its book ordering). So I have two questions:

  • Is there any standard, classical commentary on the Qur’an by a major figure (like al-Ghazali) that is readily available in English translation?
  • Is there any specifically Sufi commentary on the Qur’an that plays a role similar to that of the Zohar in Judaism? Is it readily available in English translation?

I welcome other recommendations as well, but those questions are the most urgent for me.

Thoughts on teaching Islam in a “Great Books” style

At Shimer College, we pride ourselves on teaching “primary texts” as much as possible. The goal here is to make sure that all the reading we assign is “discussable,” which secondary sources providing background usually are not. In general, I prefer this approach, but so far in my Islam class, I have begun to see its limitations. Class discussions have a greater number of uncomfortable silences than usual, and it seems to be mostly because the students don’t feel equipped to approach the texts.

On one level, this is strange, because although Islamic intellectual traditions are of course different from their various “Western” counterparts, they’re not that different. Indeed, in many cases they are drawing from literally the same broad traditions as the “Western” sources we discuss in other classes — above all, the biblical prophetic tradition and Aristotelian philosophy. In the grand scheme of things, the surah “The Cow” from the Qur’an is more similar to Deuteronomy than different, and ibn Khaldun’s political philosophy is more similar to Machiavelli and Hobbes than different. Yet in both cases, the latter would most likely produce a much more fluid and comfortable conversation.

I’m not sure the problem is that the students lack background. It’s not as though the Islamic world has radically unintelligible social standards, and I’m confident that the texts I’ve provided have given them at least as good a rough and ready background on the general shape of cultural life as they tend to feel like they have of Greek society or medieval times. Most of their assumptions about the Greeks and medievals probably wouldn’t stand up to serious scrutiny, and I do sometimes cringe when students pull out a facile argument about how something would’ve made sense “in the culture of the time” — but that sense of initial familiarity, even if partly unfounded, gives them confidence.

Yet it’s not simply foreignness as such that’s at issue. I don’t have direct evidence here, but I suspect that students would be more prone to jump right in with texts from other “Eastern” traditions. They would come to those texts expecting to find fascinating new ideas unparalleled in the boring Western traditions with which they’re familiar — and even if their sense of knowing what to expect is unfounded, it gives them the confidence to get started.

With Islam, by contrast, American culture conveys a consistent impression of inscrutable Otherness, utter impenetrability. Orientalist scholarship of course exacerbates this, as even introductory works throw an unconscionable number of Arabic terms at their readers, creating the impression that Muslims make use of bizarre, foreign concepts that we Westerners can’t fully understand. Further, engaging with Islam feels much more fraught and dangerous than engaging with Buddhism. Political circumstances give us the sense that it’s urgently important to “understand Islam,” but fear of making insensitive remarks or perpetuating stereotypes produces a unique degree of reticence and caution.

In the short term, I plan to deal with this problem next semester by simply giving up and using more secondary sources in my course over the Qur’an, for instance by opening the course with Sells’ much-recommended Approaching the Qur’an and using a translation of the Qur’an with much more robust explanatory notes. If students feel like they need more background to get started discussing, I’m probably not going to achieve much by repeatedly insisting they don’t.

In the long term, though, I think the only solution for Shimer College, if it wants to remain faithful to its general approach while doing the needed work of exposing students to Islamic thought, is to include Islamic sources alongside Western sources as a self-evident part of the dialogue that we’re trying to create. This doesn’t mean that every course must include Islamic sources, but I do think we would be well served to include Islamic texts beyond the obvious realm of philosophy and theology — why can’t ibn Khaldun appear alongside Hobbes and Machiavelli, or why couldn’t we read portions of ibn Rushd’s commentary on Plato’s Republic? Why can’t we read Hallaq alongside Foucault?

Yes, this would mean cutting something out in order to make room, but maybe every “Great Books”-style curriculum would do well to give up on the self-defeating goal of “covering everything” and think more intently about what we want students to get out of the texts and their juxtaposition (aside from checking them off the list of books that “everyone must read”). I’m sure that if we really had to justify every choice on a pedagogical level, we would find that no, we don’t actually need to read every single canonical early-modern political theorist, for instance, since our students are not at the level where they can detect the fine distinctions among them anyway. And in some cases, we may indeed find that the Islamic sources are actually more accessible and more suited to a background-free, “Great Books”-style approach than some of the Western texts we throw at them.

Questions on online ed

A few questions for those of you more familiar with the landscape in online education:

  1. In your view, is the current state of video conferencing technology adequate to simulate a lively, seminar-style discussion session?
  2. Do you know if any schools have tried to offer such a thing, as either a substitute for or supplement to “traditional” online pedagogical methods?
  3. Do you believe that there would be a significant market for such an approach? (I ask this particularly in light of the fact that the necessarily synchronous nature of such class sessions might cut down on one of the primary appeals of online ed, namely its flexibility.)

Music about art: Fragmentary thoughts on Pictures at an Exhibition

Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition is one of the classical pieces that is most familiar to me. Ever since my high school marching band did a show based on it, it has been a constant companion, at least in the version orchestrated by Ravel. More recently, however, I have been spending a lot of time with the original piano version, in part out of simple curiosity, but more directly because I plan to use it in my fine arts course — not only because of its unique status as a piece of music “about” visual art, but also to highlight how orchestration affects our reception of a piece of music.

For those who are familiar with the orchestrated version, it can be difficult to believe that Mussorgsky ever intended it as a solo piano piece to begin with. Leaving aside its unwieldy length, some segments seem to be screaming out for full orchestral treatment — most notably the majestic horns of “The Great Gate of Kiev.” The orchestrated version is so much better known, in fact, that the original can seem like a work of subtraction or abstraction, taking away the variety of a full orchestra. In a way, though, it also adds an element. The dissonances are much harsher and stand out more clearly when they’re not spread across a variety of sections, so that some of the segments (like “The Gnome”) can even sound like precursors to atonality.

The question that has returned to me again and again, though, is why exactly Mussorgsky would have started out with a piano version in the first place. It seems so counterintuitive in so many ways, and it’s not as though he lacked the ability to write for a full orchestra. If we take seriously the notion that this is meant to somehow resonate with the effect of an art exhibition, though, I think it makes more sense. Contemplating art is, after all, a very solitary and cerebral pursuit in most cases — hence why a solo instrument could seem more appropriate. In the piano version, the one aspect that struck me as manifestly more convincing are the recurring “Promenade” interludes, which when performed on the solo piano seem much more evocative of the act of reflection while walking between two canvases.

Further, the very inadequacy of the piano (most striking, perhaps, in “Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle”), the manifest limits the performer (even a very gifted performer like Evgeny Kissin, whose recording on Spotify I recommend highly) strains against, seem to speak to the difficulties of responding to art, the sense that there’s “something more” that one can’t quite capture. With the full arsenal of the orchestra, it’s almost too easy, and this very perfection betrays the experience that it’s meant to recreate.

“Theology and Politics of the Devil” syllabus

Here is the syllabus for my devil course at Chicago Theological Seminary, which begins on Thursday. As you can see if you compare and contrast on my CV page, it’s substantially, though not totally, different from the Kalamazoo and Shimer iterations.

Posted in teaching, The Devil. Comments Off

Help me with a course on the Qur’an

Let’s say I were to do a course next semester on the Qur’an only, with some attempt to achieve coverage over the whole of the text and to strike a balance between contemporary and historical commentators. Do you have any recommendations?

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