I grew up among academics. And I have never since met a class of people so contemptuous of teaching. You’d think they were being asked to chew mud.
When in the course of making blanket statements based on what amount to personal anecdotes, Ezra should probably pause to consider whether he knows any academics who value teaching. Like, say, me, or Scott. It’s true that some academics are contemptuous of teaching, and that undergraduate education isn’t well supported institutionally in either the production or employment of most academics. However, many (in fact, most) others enjoy teaching, and make every effort to do it well; it’s shocking that people actually try to do well at aspects of their jobs that don’t lead directly to promotion. Moreover, the academics that Ezra grew up among may not have been representative of the profession as a whole; many academics have to worry quite a lot about their evaluations, because they work at institutions that value teaching over research, or because they’ve been forced into a succession of teaching oriented adjunct positions.
As for the substance of the proposal (paying $10000 to some lucky professor on the strength of evaluations), I can say that evaluations (and I get fantastic evaluations) have almost nothing to do with teaching skill or effectiveness. They’re a useful metric for evaluating student satisfaction, but this isn’t the same thing as teaching. Off the top of my head I can think of half a dozen ways to pump evaluations, none of which have a positive impact on student learning. As an academic, I’d be happy to have $10000 floating around the system (maybe the winner would feel generous enough to buy me a beer), but it’s absurd to expect anything useful in terms of teaching outcomes to result from such a prize. Given his wide experience with the academy, I’m rather surprised that Ezra would believe that such a stunt could actually improve outcomes. Measures to improve the training of academics in graduate school would help, as would stronger institutional support for innovative undergraduate education. Indeed, if I had $10000 and was tasked with improving professorial teaching effectiveness, I’m not sure I could come up with a less helpful way of spending it than instituting such a prize.
Also see Erik.
Cross-posted to Tapped.
Nor does Rob Farley, who notes that he gets “fantastic” student evaluations, but believes they “have almost nothing to do with teaching skill or effectiveness.” He goes on to say that he “can think of half a dozen ways to pump evaluations, none of which have a positive impact on student learning.”
I’m sure he could also think of a half dozen ways to pump evaluations such that students would enjoy going to class more, and would learn more. A clear class outline put on the projector, for instance, so students could follow the verbal presentation and understand the structure of the argument. An animated lecture style. If these incentives compel some efforts that make teaching better and some that simply make class more enjoyable, I’d consider that a policy success.
Ezra continues to miss the point, on a couple of levels. Sure, better teaching can lead to better evals, but it doesn’t necessarily do so. In fact, (and as several commenters have noted), objectively bad teaching can produce good evals. Most importantly, gaming the eval system is easier than teaching well, which is why an prize based incentive is quite like to produce the former, rather than the latter.
Second, Ezra notes correctly that physical characteristics and personal mannerisms have a large impact on evals. This is quite clearly true; reams have been written on how women have more difficulty getting high evaluations that men, for example. Any construction under which high evaluations receive a prize will inevitably be out of reach for teachers who don’t have these specific characteristics. I may or may not be a fine teacher, but I am 6’1″ and have a beard, which means that I have what amounts to a high evaluation floor. If I were 5’3″, the story would be much different.
Unfortunately, Ezra doesn’t really engage with the critique that student evaluations don’t measure learning outcomes, and as such don’t measure teaching effectiveness. “Give it a try and see what happens” is the last bastion of desperation for the policy wonk who’s been given lots of reasons why giving it a try would be useless at best.