Tag: undergraduate pedagogy

Neoliberalizing the academy

Josh’s post on his experience with course evaluations has gotten me thinking about the practice of using course evaluations. Because my personal circumstances differ from Josh’s (e.g. I do not have children), I have been able to avoid some of the painful tradeoffs he discusses and have not yet had to confront ‘bad’ evaluations. Reading his post, however, prompted me to connect some dots that have been floating around in my head regarding the ideological underpinnings of practices in the academy with recent pieces I have seen in the media—specifically a NYTimes report on the release of the follow-up to Academically Adrift and a report in the Economist on the upward march of grade inflation.


I assume the original intention of course evaluations was a reasonable one. Professors spend most if not all of their time in the classroom unsupervised, and course evaluations provide a basic mechanism for administrators to make sure faculty are doing their jobs. They also, for reflective teachers like Josh, provide valuable feedback for refining pedagogical approaches and techniques. Today, however, they have come to serve a different purpose. Evaluations have become part of a broader shift within universities as they increasingly adopt neoliberal economic norms. This includes conceiving of students as customers and universities as job training centers. In this context, course evaluations become less about improving pedagogy and more about ensuring the customers are satisfied. But, as Aspiring Adults Adrift—the follow up to Academically Adrift—demonstrates, students are not well placed to assess the quality of their education. From the New York Times piece reviewing Aspiring Adults Adrift:

When asked during their senior year in 2009, three-quarters reported gaining high levels of critical thinking skills in college, despite strong C.L.A. [Collegiate Learning Assessment] evidence to the contrary. When asked again two years later, nearly half reported even higher levels of learning in college. This was true across the spectrum of students, including those who had struggled to find and keep good jobs.

Through diplomas, increasingly inflated grades and the drumbeat of college self-promotion, these students had been told they had received a great education. The fact that the typical student spent three times as much time socializing and recreating in college as studying and going to class didn’t change that belief. Nor did unsteady employment outcomes and, for the large majority of those surveyed, continued financial dependence on their parents.

This brings me to grade inflation. The Economist story only reports on the dynamic on Ivy League campuses, but where the Ivies go many others follow (exploding research productivity expectations for example). To me, these indicators connect to the neoliberalization of American universities. If universities are simply providing a service to customers, then happier customers produce greater revenues (higher enrollments) for departments, colleges, and universities. Course evaluations are the primary metric for establishing student satisfaction, and studies demonstrate that higher average course grades correlate with higher course evaluations. From a 2010 study in the Journal of Political Economy:

Student evaluations are positively correlated with contemporaneous professor value‐added [higher course grades] and negatively correlated with follow‐on student achievement [performance in subsequent courses]. That is, students appear to reward higher grades in the introductory course but punish professors who increase deep learning (introductory course professor value‐added in follow‐on courses). Since many U.S. colleges and universities use student evaluations as a measurement of teaching quality for academic promotion and tenure decisions, this latter finding draws into question the value and accuracy of this practice.

Even units supportive of faculty that seek to prioritize rigor over easy As will have a hard time holding the line as enrollments (and thus revenue) drop because students migrate to courses and majors where such rigor is lacking.


The solution is not to eliminate course evaluations. Used properly, as part of a holistic assessment of teaching, course evaluations provide an opportunity for students to provide feedback and for faculty to understand how they are connecting with their students. Instead, the solution lies ultimately with students. The neoliberalization of American universities is not going away. So it will be up to students to demand more of their universities—not in terms of climbing walls or campus Starbucks—but rather in terms of educational rigor. The problem, of course, is that students are the least well placed to recognize rigor. Ultimately, they will have to ask themselves: Did the course challenge me? Did it push me outside the bounds of my conventional thinking? Do I think (about issues and problems) differently? If so, students should take more classes with that professor and reflect those qualities on course evaluations. Students in the end will have to change the ‘rationalist’ cost-benefit calculations underpinning the system.


How does this come back to Josh’s experience? I do not know the particulars of why his students evaluated him as they did, but the dynamics I discuss above suggest that perhaps the evaluations really are not as bad as he thinks.

So You Want to be a Liberal Arts College Professor: Is there a Future for the Liberal Arts?

Last year I wrote a post titled “So You Want to be a Liberal Arts Professor.” At the time, I promised a series of pieces on the subject, but then my job as a liberal arts college professor got in the way…. Oh well. Among other things, I got mired in a faculty committee examining the future of the liberal arts, developing our college learning goals, and revamping the college’s distribution and graduation requirements.

Throughout the process, we spent a lot of time looking at the literature and debates on question of the relevance of the liberal arts in the 21st century – and especially on the instrumentalization of knowledge and the concerns about the practical turn in higher education.

And, while I’m concerned about many of the trends in higher ed – the corporatization of the academy and the emergence of a new managerial class — one thing that has struck me about much of this debate about the relevance of the liberal arts is how divorced the discussion tends to be from what many of us actually do in the classroom. Continue reading

In Defense of Teaching (and Grading) the Long Research Paper


There’s a Slate article titled “The End of the College Essay” circulating in various Facebook and Twitter circles critical of assigning long essays to undergraduates. The gist of the complaint mirrors the complaints I’ve heard over the years from students and colleagues (and others outside the academy) about assigning long research papers. Last summer, I attended a conference in Toronto on the future of liberal education in which a number of participants criticized the long-form research paper by noting that, unless students go into Ph.D programs, most will never write a long paper again in their lives. I heard from quite a few people who argued that faculty should give students assignments that reflect the new communication technologies and skills associated with those technologies — and, failure to do so, will only exacerbate the increasing irrelevance of the liberal arts.

I really disagree with all of this. Continue reading

Podcasting Killed the Lecturing Star

The first video ever played on MTV, back when MTV played music videos most of the time, was the one-hit wonder “Video Killed the Radio Star” by The Buggles. A lament about how new technology ended the career of a singer who was well-adapted to the production standards and genre constraints of an earlier era, the song recounts an irreversible process:

In my mind and in my car
We can’t rewind we’ve gone too far
Pictures came and broke your heart
Put the blame on VTR

Maybe this rings a faint bell for some of you. In any case, for a quick refresher, you can watch the whole thing here.

The great irony of MTV using this to launch an entirely new avenue for experiencing music (music videos weren’t new in 1981, but the idea of a basic cable channel that showed basically nothing but such videos was quite new) is that it took The Buggles’ tragic tale and drew from it, at least by implication, a silver lining: the end of the radio era was the condition of possibility for the video era, and the experience of music was thereby enhanced and transformed. Radio stars might die, but music would survive and thrive.

As I read the discussion thread that unfolded underneath my brief pedagogical query from a few weeks ago, and kept composing replies in my head that I couldn’t make the time for amidst the chaos of the opening week of the semester (and no, APSA had nothing to do with it, since I don’t go to APSA these days…but that’s material for another post entirely), I kept coming back to the thought that there was something of the sentiment of this song in many of the replies, and something of MTV’s ironic deployment of the song in my reaction. I would submit that podcasting has killed the lecturing star already, although news of that death has yet to reach all corners of the academy. Large live lecturing, like churning one’s own butter or properly loading a flintlock musket, is a historical curiosity, perhaps something one might expect to see in museums or at Renaissance Festivals being practiced as a hobby, but not in the heart of a university. But this death of the lecturer is also an opportunity for teaching, much as MTV was an opportunity for music — not wholly positive, not wholly negative, but different. And ignoring that difference, which we can keep doing in the academy for a while because of our tenuous-but-still-extant-in-many-quarters isolation from broader socioeconomic trends, is not a strategy for continuing to educate the students who keep filling up our classrooms and our campuses. Continue reading

Pedagogical query

Happy first day of Fall classes, at least at my university. A question for discussion:

Is there any value whatsoever to a live lecture delivered in front of large numbers of students, given that podcasting is now sufficiently easy and ubiquitous that anyone with a laptop or a smartphone (or a digital voice recorder or camcorder) or access to those devices via a campus IT services department can do it?

Continue reading

Clever Pun on MOOCs

Okay, I don’t have one. But I’d like to call attention to some excellent discussion of Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs). Adam Kotsko asks “what is the business model for online education.” Nigel Thrift analyzes the recent “media obsession” with MOOCs. Louis Betty makes unfortunate swipes at Apple in pursuit of a larger point about techno-faddishism, pedagogy, and higher education. Betty’s piece recalls a great satirical post that Paul Musgrave wrote some time ago at the Duck. And Thoreau reminds us that the real problem in higher education is the debt bubble.

You should go read all of them, but I have a few takeaways that I think worth emphasizing.

Continue reading

The Crass Argument for Teaching More Math In Poli Sci Courses

LATE UPDATE: PTJ blogs about undergrad education from a very different starting point.

A few months back, we had a lively debate about what to teach undergraduates in political science. As I prepare to motivate 20 undergraduates to learn elementary statistical analysis tools AND basic R skills, I’ve been thinking about this subject a lot. I think that we both should aim to teach political science to undergraduates–that is, the skills and methodologies that are necessary for understanding research published in, say, the APSR of the 1980s—and also that we should think hard about what employable skills our students should leave with.

I submit that, up to a point, research methodologies and employable skills are pretty well the same thing.

Here’s some crass, utterly unscientific, and in-your-face data to support this point.

This figure (slightly easier to view PDF version here) draws on data from Georgetown’s Public Policy Institute and reflects my impression of plausible alternative careers for the students I’ll be teaching. (This ranges from the ministry to math/computer science–extremes that, at least at Georgetown, carry a vow of chastity.) Across this range, political science does fairly well on both percent employed full time and median wage. What I find striking, though, is that the more “mathy” a subject is, the better its graduates tend to score on both measures.

For students in my seminar, this will become my warrant to expect them to become pretty good at certain types of skills. (In conversations with folks at other institutions, I’ve been assured that undergrads are more eager and willing these skills on average than Ph.D. students, which sounds about right.) For the broader discipline, I think this sort of evidence can be used to justify including more analytical training in our major programs.
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