Thursday, September 21, 2006


Hooray! It's Defective!

When I was still on faculty, I was visible to students. Since moving into full-time administration, I've become invisible to them. I think invisibility is one of the powers we get when we trade in our souls.

So anyway, I was in the cafeteria last week when I overheard several students talking. One of them asked the second one which classes he should take. The second one said “take anything with profs. X or Y. They're great. They cancel class a lot, and you don't have to do shit.”

Had this been the first time I'd heard such a comment, I would have filed it under “miscellaneous student myths,” like the A you get if your roommate commits suicide or the friend of a friend of this guy whose nephew works in Roswell. But I've heard this comment a lot, and have independent reason to believe it.

Unlike almost any other industry, in higher ed we have a substantial number of customers who are happier if the product is shoddy, or not delivered at all.* The incentives this creates are awful.

Part of the problem is the distinction between teaching and credentialing. Many students want the credential, but prefer not to be bothered with actual learning. They're busy, and it's hard, and there are just so many other things they'd rather be doing. If there's a relatively education-free way to get the credential, some students will be more than happy to take it.

A small but non-zero number of faculty have decided to exploit this quirk of our industry, and establish a sort of arms-control agreement with students. I won't ask much of you, and you won't bad-mouth me. In certain programs, people can make careers doing this.

To me, this is the real scandal of higher education. If David Horowitz were to change the object of his witch-hunt from liberals to layabouts, I'd be right there with him. The true parasites are fewer than in the popular imagination, I'd say, but they exist.

I've heard some say that over-reliance on student evaluations is at the root of the problem. I don't buy it.. If that were the case, tenured full professors wouldn't coast. Some do. I agree that charismatic goof-offs can get undeservedly-glowing student evaluations, but that's a symptom, not a cause.

Back in high school, I remember teachers invoking college as a sort of “wait 'til your father gets home” device to get us to study. In college, depending on the program, there sometimes isn't a credible threat. (Obviously, this wouldn't hold in hypercompetitive fields, like pre-med.) Contra Stephen Karlson, I've seen little evidence at this level that employers pay much attention to GPA's outside of a few specialized fields, so that threat isn't terribly persuasive. If a kid believes that a degree with a 2.5 GPA will get him what he wants, and he sees college as purely instrumental in the first place anyway, then why shouldn't he seek out the professors who won't make him work?

Aside from the obvious moral issues, there's a political issue here. Higher education has come under increased political scrutiny of late for many reasons, both good and bad. To the extent that we tacitly agree that what we teach doesn't really matter anyway, we undermine our own reason to exist. Those who attack us for having Democrats on the faculty are invited to bite my ass. But those who attack us for empty credentialing need to be made wrong.

Is there another industry in which the folks paying the bills are happier when they don't get what they pay for?

* Yes, yes, I know, I'm not supposed to refer to students as customers. Corporatization, blah, blah, blah. But if I'm going to do any kind of cross-sectoral comparison, it works reasonably well. Still, the comparison works if you substitute 'patients' or 'clients' for 'students.' How many patients want their treatment to fail? How many defendants want to lose their cases? I'm guessing the percentages are much lower than the percentage of students who don't want to be bothered learning.

DD, I think that there's a slight flaw in your argument. I DON'T think that students would characterize it as preferring to pay for a shoddy product. I think, rather, that in the "arms agreement" with certain professors, what the students are "paying for" is not to learn something but rather to get the credential (as you note) AND to maintain a high GPA. To an extent, what the student believes he/she is buying is the grade, and you can bet that the evaluations of the prof. would plummet if in addition to "not asking much" of students (in terms of attendance, assignments, etc.) that professor also was a tough grader. Since this is the case, students who take a series of this kind of professor can actually have better GPAs than those who do perceive that they are buying an education and take classes in which they'll learn something.

I agree with you that evaluations aren't really the root cause of this phenomenon. Perhaps, though, coming up through a system in which the perception is that what matters is "outcomes" and "assessment" from the customer's perspective - when arguably the customer isn't informed enough to make those determinations - perhaps people at a certain point just say "screw it" and feel like it's not worth the effort to put much effort into their teaching? I know there are days when I feel that way....
I completely agree with you about the "arms agreement." One of my colleages hasn't returned a student paper, to my knowledge, in 5 years. (As Dr Crazy points out, though, he's also a fairly easy grader, so most students don't complain about the lack of feedback.)

As much as I'm enjoying tenure, I really, really question the fact that there is virtually no check on people like my colleague. And as much as I am an advocate of academic freedom, to me that shouldn't mean freedom to ignore one's students and classes entirely.
Good post, as usual.

When you talk about easy graders, you seem to be referring to one particular type of easy grader: the tenured professor who wants to do as little work as possible. I have certainly encountered a few of those. However, most of the easy graders I've come across seem to be of a different variety: what I call the "nice guy" (or gal) professor.

The "nice guy" professor isn't trying to coast; genuinely wants students to learn; and often assigns an amount of work appropriate to the course in question. However, he is loath to give a bad grade to any student who he perceives as putting forth a good faith effort. And, of course, the bar for "good faith effort" is often quite low, the result being that the student who works his/her tail off will often end up with the same grade as the student who did the bare minimum. Obviously, this is unfair to the former group.

"Nice guy" professors are often (but not invariably) adjuncts, so perhaps their overly lenient grading is motivated in part by a desire for positive student evaluations, which in turn might help their chances of getting invited to teach again in the future. For the most part, however, they just seem to want their students to like them, and think that being an easy grader will accomplish that. (Which it does, albeit at the cost of respect.)
This problem isn’t confined to the US – in the UK, students have reacted in similar manner to the expansion of the higher education sector. I think the heart of the problem is credentialism. The basis of credentialism is a lie about the role of academic qualifications in modern economies. Too often, teachers and academics are complicit in the persistence of the myth that there is only intrinsic, rather than positional, value in the possession of a degree.

Prospective students of school-leaving age are told that possession of a higher qualification is essential to their economic future (and, by extension, their future happiness, since increasingly the happiness of material possession is the only happiness most of us are encouraged to anticipate). One problem is that these students have already seen that, for the most part, their school-leaving qualifications have served one function only – to grant them a pass into higher education.

As a greater proportion of the population moves year by year into higher education, new students learn two more things. First, in many subject areas, the absolute value of a basic degree has already been seriously diminished by ubiquity. In response, periodically the employment goalposts move, so that the qualification doesn’t really ‘perform’ in the market as promised. In the UK, for example, it is becoming normal for students to seek an MA even when they have no intention of pursuing an academic career, simply in order to differentiate themselves in the eyes of employers from the hordes of holders of mediocre BAs.

Second, it becomes obvious to the cannier of these students, if only anecdotally, that the differential value of a really good degree against a pass degree is exaggerated everywhere except in areas of legitimate technical specialisation. Since students with no such aspirations are being taught by people who work in such an area (academia), it’s hardly surprising that the students see the mismatch between how the qualification is being sold and its utility in the world outside the academy, and form early the opinion that they are more worldly-wise (or more honest?) than their teachers. The significant difference for non-academics, especially in the humanities, is not good degree vs. bad degree: it is degree vs. no degree.

We may lament the fact that a passion for learning per se is now seen as a quaint irrelevance, a holdover from the days of the leisured gentleman scholar, but really – who taught these kids their cynicism? Everywhere in our celebrity culture they see minimal effort and talent of questionable social value gain vast unearned rewards. The existence of highly visible ‘coasting’ academics is merely one confirming instance of what may easily come to seem a general truth: that economic value (or even application) and reward are not linked. The employment system starts to look like a scam, and credentialism merely a ploy to restrict access to the plum sinecures and to secure the future of the awarding institutions.

The truth is that securing a pass degree with minimum effort is a rational career strategy for most uncommitted students, because they aren’t in the game for the academic glory. The extra effort involved in securing an excellent rather than a passable outcome has no proportional payoff. In their own eyes, they’re just jumping through random hoops set out by others – responding to institutional hypocrisy and arbitrariness with cynicism and guile. The new ubiquity of incompetent graduates with poor quality degrees takes away whatever stigma may once have attached to poor performance. In the humanities in particular, the results are clear. We now have recent graduates in English who can’t fill out an application form or write a business letter, but demand entry-level access to particular strata of employment because they’ve satisfied the principal public criterion for admission. For them, the fact that they haven’t ‘learned’ anything is irrelevant, since the credential was never more than a means to an unrelated end.

Thus the cynicism spreads, as employers learn at interview that credentials are no guide to competence. Ironically, when it is no longer possible to distinguish between large numbers of candidates with indistinguishably similar and equally irrelevant qualifications, the ‘best’ candidate may prove to be the one who spent his or her time at university networking and acquiring social skills. But in a credentialised world, even that candidate will have to have the barest of passes.

Perhaps it was foreseeable that when ‘careers open to talent’ replaced open nepotism, without any corresponding guarantee that the supply of desirable jobs would keep pace with the explosion of candidate numbers, the consequence would be an arms race of increasingly irrelevant credentials. This leads to all the familiar absurdities. As a mature student, I have been taught in the recent past by a very capable older academic, who, in common with most of his generation, lacks a PhD. In today’s market, he would not be able to apply for an entry-level job in the profession that he has served well.

All of this is visible to anyone who cares to look. This includes students, who can see well enough when their own vital interests are concerned. They may not speak to faculty, but as Dean Dad observes, they do compare notes with each other. They see that whatever the university system may once have offered it is now increasingly about supplying credentials to customers – customers who treat those credentials like any other purchasable commodity. At the lower end of the market, it doesn’t have to be good, just good enough – ‘fit for purpose’, like a junker car that nonetheless get you from A to B.

I don’t worry about the constitutionally lazy and the intellectually incurious, who have always existed and who have their reward. I worry about the much larger numbers of well-intentioned, curious, competent but not outstanding school leavers – surely always the majority – who buy into the degree system and make the necessary investment of time, money and effort only to discover later that credentialism and institutional cynicism have emptied out the market value of their qualification, without providing any compensation in the form of a genuinely first-rate education. Surely this is both literal and pedagogical fraud?
Annoying-ous, just above, should refrain from painting too many adjuncts as "nice guy/gal" easy graders. Weak egos in need of stroking cut across all faculty--tenured and non.

While I might agree with some of the assertions of anonymous (Annoying-ous), (s)he is painting with too large a brush.

BTW, as a long-time adjunct, there are also fiduciary motivations as well. To get an idea, take the typical adjunct stipend for a course, divide by time in class (times 2 or 3 for grading and prep)...the per hour rate is a negative motivator for hard work, extensive feedback, etc.

Missionaries notwithstanding.
I completely agree with Piss Poor Prof. To assign dispositional motivations to the teachers, but market- and climate-based motivations to the students, is wholly unfair.

I can only speak for myself, but my teaching appointments literally depend upon good evaluations. Without good - even stellar - evals, I don't get reappointed. The pressure is enormous. That everyone at my university hasn't caved is amazing.
This puts me in mind of a prof we had in grad school. Author of two classics within his field, well known as a raconteur at conferences, despised as a notorious lech and hopeless drunk within the department. As a man I was immune from the first part, but benefitted from the second. Since he couldn't go too long without a drink, two-hour scheduled seminars rarely lasted more than half an hour (when he showed up), which gave him just enough time to repeat the jokes that he had been using for twenty years, slightly altered to fit the course topic, with no time for discussion so we didn't have to read anything. He never read any papers of course, and gave everything an A so that he would never have to defend a grade. As an experiment, I once reproduced two pages at the beginning an end of a twenty page paper. He didn't notice.
We used his course as time management, when we needed to fill up our credit load and needed the time to devote to more serious courses, you took one of his seminars.
I've since learned that what was really remarkable out him was that he was the only one of his kind in our department.
In answer to DD's final question: therapy and gym memberships spring to mind. It's not that students are paying for "shoddy product," it's that they're paying for image, for the illusion that they are doing something to better their lives.
Someone I read a while back called this the "teacher/student non-aggression pact". Others would call this 'picking your battles'....

Frankly, although I see some of this at the CC level, I see a lot more where research and service are a higher priority.
I had a philosophy prof who used to say that education is the only good people pay for in advance and then cheer when it's not delivered.
My student have to pass a licensing exam at the end of their program and I beat them to death with this while they're taking my class. That said, I flunk those that I think aren't going to pass the exam. And they invariably are upset - as though if I'd just let them pass the course their total lack of work ethic and understanding would be OK.

It isn't just faculty with this mentality. There are administrators who pressure faculty to make their classes easier to boost the numbers of students enrolling.
And do-nothings, or at least do-as-little-as-possibles, aren't exclusive to academia. They live in corporate America, in politics, and in the blue-collar trades, too.
Here are two comments I received recently from students....(1) "I really enjoyed your class and it was challenging- my mom always told me that professors are people who couldn't make it in the real world- now I'm not so sure that is true!" This was not a joke, the student was really considering whether his mother was correct; (2) In an attempt to discuss our new counseling policy, we were debating about the fairness of policies for faculty versus students. One student said "I pay her (as he was pointing to me) salary and she is my employee. So she should be under the same rules if not stricter rules than I am". For me to teach another 20+ years, I have to find a way to come to terms not with my own teaching and the grades that I give, but how I am so conscientious about what I teach and how I teach, when it may not even matter to the students! Sorry this is a little off topic, but I wondered what this group thought about those student comments. Those types of comments make me wonder why I keep doing what I am doing....
Does anyone think there is a difference between public and private institutions with respect to accountability (student and faculty)?

Great post!
Timely post. Let me just preface this in saying I'm probably not part of the intended primary audience, but because the issue is quite personal, my interest is quite substantial in the topic. Consider my comments something other than debate or formal criticism, but at most, color for the backdrop of student attitude.

I am one of those non-traditional students who tried to forge his place into the workforce and become a successful member of society without participating in a credentialing program. Instead of dolling out several tens of thousands of dollars, either out of pocket or subsidized by tax dollars for the “typical college experience,” I developed my skills through independent study & practice, organized training, and OJT via the United States Air Force as a computer systems software programmer.

After serving my enlistment service, and gaining significant experience in programming languages, system design, project management and coordination, I felt I was well-prepared and armed with the tools to enter into a lucrative, civilian-side defense-sector software engineering position.

It worked very well for several years, until the supply of former MBA candidates and history majors (ED: characterization based on anecdotal evidence) turned programmers, who possessed the piece of paper stating they were certified; yet, lacking of all practical skills and reasonable intuition for the general tasks required of a skilled developer and designer, outpaced the demand for software engineers. Skills/competence, networking, recommendations, and trustworthiness credentials supplied by the government were no longer adequate to secure a position, despite being described as "equivalent" with that of a “certified” candidate. A certificate from a four-year program had become the de facto requirement of all major human resource departments in the sector I desired to remain a part of.

Facing a losing battle to remain "competitive" in an industry where my only disqualification was a "technical" credential, I entered into my current endeavor as a student. Needless to say, my interest in pursuing a certificate, or degree, in something I already knew quite well would be both boring, and a significant waste of money; I have essentially abandoned the field, relegating my interest and continued practice of skills as mere secondary assets.

With this in mind let me suggest that the customers are not students or prospective students, but instead industry, and the individual employers who comprise the industry are the customers in the relationship. Industry places demands on the supplying institutions for labor. Supplying institutions largely use, and let me explicitly underscore that, use students as mere resources to serve their own ends.

Students instead serve two basic economic purposes -- first, and as previously mentioned, as raw material/resources to be shaped by the requirements of human resource staffing by supplying/preparatory institutions. The second function students perform is financing the rationing device that works against their own access to the chosen field. Subsequent students who choose an emphasis ensure the enduring value of their predecessors’ emphasis. If there were ever to be a growing trend of labor without a certificate in an emphasis proving their worth to an employer, the value of the certificate would diminish – obviously not in the interest to previous certificate winners and the supplying institutions.

My mother, also an educator, has long privately held that the current structure and emphasis of successful, degree-granting institutions generally serve not students nor industry, but only the longevity of the institution itself. A student who pursues and commits to a degree program faces a lottery situation – placing huge sums of time and money on a gamble that has marginal odds and payoff, with only the realistic hope of finishing the program, potentially receiving consideration for a non-skilled, entry-level position, and if successful, years of ladder climbing and payments against financed debt. The only upside for the student is that the certificate or degree cannot be repossessed. The school gets paid regardless of the student’s capability beyond the text of the transcript or diploma, without even mentioning future success.

If certificate and degree granting institutions were truly interested in motivating their students to pursue a deeper interest, appreciation, and immersion into a given subject matter, they are going to have to change their fundamental relationships with certain actors in their relationships – starting with the Department of Education and the Bureau of Labor Statistics – the chief financier and chief measurer/forecaster of trained labor, respectively. Market forces will eventually correct shortfalls and surplus situations of trained labor; yet, just as the President, Congress, and the Federal Reserve Board try to influence trends in the overall economy, these two agencies need to do more to shape the labor supply. For example, if there are 40,000 unemployed software developers, temporarily retard the funding for new applicants to those degree and certificate programs. If there is a shortage of nurses, doctors, and teachers, lower the cost of entry into existing programs and develop additional programs at other, possibly “competing,” institutions. Along the same line of thought, schools need to do a better job of advising about labor trends and future employability, instead of providing no guidance away from a field with a surplus labor supply, or of extremely limited labor demands.

Again, thank-you for providing both an interest into this topic, and an opportunity to convey some of my own feelings on the situation.
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