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.