Getting Promoted as Faculty
By Professor Doom
“Half this department scored below the median on student evaluations on teaching. You need to improve.”
--administrator, demonstrating a very shaky grasp of statistics. Or should I say an inadequate grasp, since that’s different according to Bloom’s Taxonomy? All the math faculty had a great laugh at this line….after the administrator left.
Every year, faculty are evaluated by their students, by definition people that have no qualifications to determine if the faculty are teaching the course properly. These evaluations cover a range of topics, such as “Instructor is prepared for class”, “Instructor starts class on time”, “Course materials are appropriate”, “the textbook is appropriate”, and others. For each question the student rates an answer from 1 to 5, with 5 being the most positive response.
Sometimes administration only cares about the response to “Instructor provided a quality education,” although sometimes the average over all responses is used instead (even if, for example, the faculty member has little control over the textbook).
Usually, these evaluations are given after the drop date, so most failing students don’t get the ability to evaluate the instructor (doubtless, an accidental mercy from administration). The evaluations are also given before students can know their final grade in the course, typically because they haven’t taken the final exam yet. This means that the actual student grade isn’t so important for student evaluations, it’s the grade the student thinks he’s going to get that influences the evaluations.
Student evaluations are anonymous hearsay; a faculty member has no defense against them beyond hoping for some decency from administration. It doesn’t matter that, very consistently, studies show that student evaluations are positively correlated with the grade students think they’ll receive, making “be an easy A” and “get good evaluations” basically synonymous. Most faculty know evaluations are only useful for identifying the worst issues an instructor might have, and that a teacher consistently getting the highest possible ratings probably isn’t doing his job at all. Administration, on the other hand, believes a teacher that gets perfect student evaluations must of course be a perfect teacher creating perfectly educated students. Faculty that receive bad evaluations receive scrutiny; good evaluations, no matter how good, raise no suspicion at all.
You really do have to push a little to move people ahead, and some will push back. If an administrator sees nobody pushing back, that should raise questions, at least if administrative goals were about education, instead of retention. An educator that is loved by all his students and never challenges them is as likely to educate students as a gentle drill instructor is to take raw recruits and turn them into elite soldiers without challenging them.
Giving easy grades makes for happy students, but it’s also terrible for education. This is not perversion on my part. A study of evaluations examined student performance in sequential classes, with students randomly assigned to their classes. It found very clearly that the higher a faculty member is rated by students in one course (i.e., the easier the grading of the professor), the worse those students do in future courses1. The more experience a professor has, the lower his evaluations, and the better the students do in the next course in the sequence. While not a perfect relationship, the evidence indicates that the highest rated faculty members literally are the worst at providing useful education…but those are the ones that sail through the system, nearly drowning in praise from admin.
It’s funny how poorly conceived and executed studies recommending obviously bogus methods are crammed down our throats by administrators, provided the studies promise better retention…but studies that show how to get better education are ignored. I can’t count the number of idiotic “give more writing, give more extra credit, make them swear oaths” studies I was forced to hear about, but a study like the above, that says having experience and standards are good for education? I had to find out about that one on my own.
Administrator: “Your students are failing because you’re not motivating them. Try harder.”
--a rare snippet of administrative advice that isn’t completely wrong.
For all intents and purposes, the absolute worst teachers are very likely to be the ones with the highest evaluations. They deceive students into thinking learning is a trivial process requiring neither work nor study, hurting those students when those students come to courses where actual learning is necessary for success.
An honest faculty member must weigh his desire to present a legitimate course with the need to be very popular with students. An honest faculty member needs to look the other way when students cheat—administration is very reluctant to remove such students, so they stay in the class, and will simply destroy the faculty member when it comes time for student evaluations. The punishment the faculty receive for catching cheaters just isn’t worth it.
I personally manipulate the student evaluations by doing all I can to positively influence student perception of their grades around student evaluation time (for example, by covering very easy material on evaluation day and giving a few extra credit points then), and I use a few other tricks that studies show can influence evaluations. No, these tricks have nothing to do with education, but the people I, or any honest faculty member, must please don’t care about education. I still don’t get very high evaluations, I admit, because I feel the need to motivate my students and make them work at learning, in direct opposition to what administration wants.
Me: “The promotion policy is explicitly clear, you can’t count anything twice. Evaluations go under ‘evaluations’, and can’t be used or represented elsewhere. But you use evaluations in two sections, double-counting them.”
Administrator: “Just because we’re using evaluations more than once, doesn’t mean we’re using them twice. Your complaint is rejected, and the policy gives you no further recourse for your complaint. We’re done here, and you are dismissed.”
--Once again, I can’t make this stuff up. It’s queer how often, when an institution’s written policy is detrimental to faculty, administration follows the policy to the letter. When college policy helps the faculty in any way, administration has a marked tendency to ignore the policy.
It’s no surprise that administration appears to ignore the results of studies on student evaluations, and assigns much weight to them. In fact, they’re not ignoring the studies at all. The studies show that good grades mean good evaluations. Good grades mean higher retention, and that’s what administration wants, so naturally it believes very strongly in student evaluations as a tool to achieve its goals. That this tool is also a weapon to destroy education is not a concern.
How great is the faith administration puts in evaluations, faith that studies repeatedly show is misplaced in every way as far as contributing to education? At my institution, 22% of a faculty member’s rating for purposes of promotion is dependent upon student evaluations. Developing a new course is worth 1%, at the discretion of the promotion committee. Three years of committee work on a dozen different committees is worth 10% at absolute most, at the discretion of the committee. Writing a series of books? At most 5% is awarded, again at the discretion of the committee. The committee doesn’t even have to award points for books, committee work, or course development, unlike for student evaluations, where the award is fixed, and out of the committee’s hands. Nothing faculty can do is more important to getting a promotion than being popular with students.
Me: “The policy says graduate study is worth 2 points per credit hour. I document 3 hours from an accredited state institution. Why did I not get credit for it here, also an accredited state institution?”
Admin: “The course you took was for teachers of mathematics, which we felt doesn’t apply to your position as a mathematics instructor here. So it’s worth 0.”
--so many of my friends told me I was working for idiots that I had to investigate what it takes to become an administrator. That’s soon, I promise.
Another 20% of promotion is basically a popularity contest based on how well administrators like the faculty member, little different than student evaluations, really. A faculty member would need to score above 75% to get a promotion, fundamentally impossible without being very well liked by students and nearly as well liked by administration. The remaining points come at the discretion of the promotion committee. Amazingly, my college makes much ado about how faculty “decide” who to promote from within. With 42 out of 100 points completely out of the faculty committee’s hands, this is pure fiction.
An honest faculty member has no real chance of promotion, not if he tries to challenge and stimulate students, or does anything to promote education over retention. A dishonest faculty member will glide through the process.
An honest human being with a love of something in higher education will need to work for years to be qualified to teach in higher education. He will require incredible luck to get a permanent position, which he can only get if he successfully competes with a great number of less qualified applicants for the position, or somehow manages to trick administration into hiring him.
Once this honest academic somehow gets the job, he will be under constant pressure to do his job dishonestly, and will face constant penalties if he dare challenge students to learn anything new. In the face of such penalties, he will endure relentless censure. It will be miraculous if he manages to keep his job, and tenure is out of the question. Getting a promotion in the face of such penalties and censure is basically fantasy. It will be all he can do to be just barely honest enough for his own integrity, and to do what he must to satisfy the gaping maw of lack of integrity in the higher education system.
With such a series of obstacles, I think it no surprise that faculty were barely a speed bump when it came to stopping the downward spiral of higher education, although I can respect a differing opinion here. Regardless, a faculty member hoping for even the slightest advancement has no choice but to focus on what his job is truly about: making the students and administration happy, both easily accomplished with a sacrifice of integrity. Should sacrificing integrity, as well as years of hard work, be core to success in higher education?
Think about it.
1) Carrell, Scott, and West, James. “Does Professor Quality Matter? Evidence from Random
Assignment of Students to Professors.” March 22, 2010.