JUNE 21, 2010
Deep in the Heart of TexasSTANLEY FISH
A number of responses to my column about the education I received at Classical High (a public school in Providence, RI) rehearsed a story of late-flowering gratitude after an earlier period of frustration and resentment. “I had a high school (or a college) experience like yours,” the poster typically said, “and I hated it and complained all the time about the homework, the demands and the discipline; but now I am so pleased that I stayed the course and acquired skills that have served me well throughout my entire life.”
Now suppose those who wrote in to me had been asked when they were young if they were satisfied with the instruction they were receiving? Were they getting their money’s worth? Would they recommend the renewal of their teachers’ contracts? I suspect the answers would have been “no,” “no” and “no,” and if their answers had been taken seriously and the curriculum they felt oppressed by had been altered accordingly, they would not have had the rich intellectual lives they now happily report, or acquired some of the skills that have stood them in good stead all these years.
The relationship between present action and the judgment of value is different in other contexts. If a waiter asks me, “Was everything to your taste, sir?”, I am in a position to answer him authoritatively (if I choose to). When I pick up my shirt from the dry cleaner, I immediately know whether the offending spot has been removed. But when, as a student, I exit from a class or even from an entire course, it may be years before I know whether I got my money’s worth, and that goes both ways. A course I absolutely loved may turn out be worthless because the instructor substituted wit and showmanship for an explanation of basic concepts. And a course that left me feeling confused and convinced I had learned very little might turn out to have planted seeds that later grew into mighty trees of understanding.
“Deferred judgment” or “judgment in the fullness of time” seems to be appropriate to the evaluation of teaching.
And that is why student evaluations (against which I have inveighed since I first saw them in the ’60s) are all wrong as a way of assessing teaching performance: they 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.
But sometimes (although not always) effective teaching involves the deliberate inducing of confusion, the withholding of clarity, the refusal to provide answers; sometimes a class or an entire semester is spent being taken down various garden paths leading to dead ends that require inquiry to begin all over again, with the same discombobulating result; sometimes your expectations have been systematically disappointed. And sometimes that disappointment, while extremely annoying at the moment, is the sign that you’ve just been the beneficiary of a great course, although you may not realize it for decades.
Needless to say, that kind of teaching is unlikely to receive high marks on a questionnaire that rewards the linear delivery of information and penalizes a pedagogy that probes, discomforts and fails to provide closure. Student evaluations, by their very nature, can only recognize, and by recognizing encourage, assembly-line teaching that delivers a nicely packaged product that can be assessed as easily and immediately as one assesses the quality of a hamburger.
Now an entire state is on the brink of implementing just that bite-sized style of teaching under the rubric of “customer satisfaction.” Texas, currently in a contest with Arizona and South Carolina for the title “most retrograde,” is signing on to a plan of “reform” generated by the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank dedicated to private property rights and limited government. Backed by Governor Rick Perry (yes, the one who thinks secession is a viable political option), the plan calls for college and university teachers to contract with their customers — that is, students — and to be rewarded by as much as $10,000 depending on whether they meet the contract’s terms. The idea is to hold “tenured professors more accountable” (“A&M regents push reforms,” The Eagle, June 13, 2010), and what they will be accountable to are not professional standards but the preferences of their students, who, in advance of being instructed, are presumed to be authorities on how best they should be taught.
A corollary proposal is to shift funding to the student-customers by giving them vouchers. “Instead of direct appropriations, every Texas high school graduate would get a set amount of state funds usable at any state university” (William Lutz, Lone Star Report, May 23, 2008). Once this gets going (and Texas A&M is already pushing it), you can expect professors to advertise: “Come to my college, sign up for my class, and I can guarantee you a fun-filled time and you won’t have to break a sweat.” If there ever was a recipe for non-risk-taking, entirely formulaic, dumbed-down teaching, this is it. One respondent to the June 13 story in The Eagle got it exactly right: “In the recent past, A&M announced that it wanted to be a top ten public university. Now it appears to be announcing it wants to be an investment firm, a pharmaceutical manufacturer, and a car dealership.”
The people behind this cockamamie scheme wouldn’t be fazed by this description or regard it as an accusation. They actively want their colleges and universities to be like car dealerships, with an emphasis on the bottom line, efficiency and consumer choice. This means that the middleman has to be cut out, and in this case the middleman is the faculty member. Jeff Sandefer, whose presentation at a 2008 meeting with Governor Perry and the university Board of Regents established the tone and contours of “reform,” makes no bones about it. Professors, he complains, seem to believe “that our colleges and universities belong to them” (“Public Universities Belong to the Public, Not the Faculty,” Texas Public Policy Foundation, May 6, 2009). It’s time, he says, to stop writing “blank checks” to faculty members who occupy themselves “writing academic journal articles that few people read.”
That of course is an accurate description. Senior faculty members do in fact write articles that only their peers at the top of very rarefied disciplines can read.
That is what academic research is all about: highly qualified scholars working on problems that may have no practical payoff except the unquantifiable payoff of advancing our understanding of something in philosophy or nature that has long been a mystery.
More than occasionally in these columns I have mocked the pretensions of those faculty members who cry “academic freedom” at the slightest infringement of what they take to be their god-given liberty. But academic freedom does in fact have a meaning and a legitimate purpose: it protects faculty members from external constituencies intent on taking over the enterprise for mercenary or political reasons. The Texas “reform plan” is just that; its so called reforms would be funny were they not so dangerous. And it all began with student evaluations, or, rather, with the mistake of taking them seriously. Since then, it’s been all downhill.