Saturday, March 1, 2014

NYT Is Clueless on Education

By Professor Doom


      Last time I wrote how there’s so often a disconnect between a mainstream media article and reality, a disconnect that is painfully revealed in the comments section. People that know what’s really going on can’t help but speak up in the comments against the lies errors in the article.

     A recent editorial in the New York Times, “A Solution for Bad Teaching” is amazing both for its matter-of-fact style…and the firm corrections from readers that actually know the facts. One would really think the NYT would know a thing or two, but the stuff being said here is, well, weak. Let’s get it on:

IT’S no secret that tenured professors cause problems in universities.”

      What the heck? The article says this in the sense that tenure is bad for teaching, but this is just pure silly. Tenure is dead. This has been known for years. Yes, there are faculty with tenure, but every year, the average age of a tenured faculty member goes up very nearly 1 year—there’s little new blood going into tenure. Most college courses are not taught by tenured faculty…in fact, most courses aren’t even taught by permanent instructors. Instead, minimally paid, poorly treated, no-benefits adjuncts now make up the majority of teaching. These are well known, public, much discussed facts in higher education. The article is roundly laughed at in the comments for even implying the presence of tenure is the problem.

      From the very first sentence, the article is disconnected from reality. If you don’t read the comments, you might not know that. Alas, the article is more than one sentence. The article quotes some educationists:

“the relationship between teaching and research is zero.”


Again, the comments point out that reality is different. It turns out, no surprise, that researchers in a field are actually interested in that field, and generally are better teachers. Researchers tend to be innovators in a subject. Mussolini might not have been a great person, but I bet he would be an awesome teacher of what fascism is…as loathsome as I find communism, I would pay real money to sit in a classroom and have Karl Marx teach me about communism (and answer a few questions!). Researchers are creators, you *want* them teaching about what they’ve made, and that’s how it works in education, too. A great chemist is going to have great insights on chemistry. Now, yes, it’s certainly possible that some researchers are lousy teachers…but some teachers are lousy teachers, too.

The article goes on:

“In a recent landmark study at Northwestern, students learned more from professors who weren’t on the tenure track.”

Alas, the link (from the article) goes to a pay page, so I can’t see the study with my own eyes. It’s criticized in the comments, at least, and measures "success" in terms of passing rates--seeing as all it takes to get higher passing rates is a threat from admin, I don't find the study's results surprising. On the other hand, here’s an article showing that says the opposite, and you won’t have to pay to read it.

Ok, I grant that when studies conflict, it’s just a matter of opinion. But the article goes on to discuss student evaluations:

“students rarely favor teachers who grade leniently — and give higher ratings to teachers who assign heavier workloads.”

Now, this, seriously, is a joke. I’ve cited study after study after that this is not the case…and what the author says flies in the face of common sense. Yes, there are studies that give a very low (0.06) positive correlation with workload and evaluation…but a correlation that small is meaningless in every useable sense. Students totally favor teachers that grade leniently, although it may be more clear to say they punish teachers that grade harshly.

The article does discuss fixes for bad teaching, but when all the premises are demonstrably wrong, it seems pointless to consider the conclusions. An average reader of the article will merely pick up “tenure is bad” and a few other false statements.

Only by reading the comments can one now get some idea of the reality of information from mainstream media. But if reading random comments is more informative, more honest, than the “professional” news, why bother with professional news? I guess that’s why mainstream media outlets are losing viewers, and money, so precipitously.

A few choice comments highlight the level of disconnect between this article and reality:

my overall impression is that during my career, tenure was the most valuable bulwark against the dumbing-down that has been driven by administrators and schools of education.

--Sorry, I had to mention another shot at Education as a field. Again, everyone working in higher education knows what the problem is…

I do take issue with the claim that it is only a mistaken "popular belief" that students evaluations track with lenient courses. The study linked here in support of the authors claim is based on research from the 90s…In Academically Adrift, the authors cite Valen Johnson (2003), so not much more current, but reflecting just the opposite trend…

--I tried to get admin and my Educationist colleagues to consider what was said in Academically Adrift. I was punished for being “non-collegial,” and not one of these scholars (sic) even bothered to check out the book in the college library (I saw with my own eyes that the book’s only stamp came from when I checked it out months earlier).


As someone who spent 43 years in university research labs and classrooms before I retired, I beg to differ…

--Yet another direct observer that knows when he’s being lied to, because he’s seen it with his own eyes. For years I trusted what my “betters” told me, until the disconnects between what I was told and what I was seeing motivated me to commit myself to see with my own eyes a great many more things, and to blog what I now know to be the truth of the matter.

I’ll let the other comments stand on their own:

The assertion that there is zero relationship between teaching and research is nonsense. In the sciences, if you aren't doing research, your knowledge and teaching are going to be dated within 15 years.

Academia has a problem, but this proposal is surprisingly naïve

… the way you've described the "necessary evil" of tenure quite offensive and baffling…

This article is naive on several fronts…

This is all the same old neoliberal lies…(1) Most instructors now are poverty wage paid, "part time," non-tenured adjuncts. Tenure is already history….


There were a very few (guardedly) positive comments, but otherwise the comments were many variations of “this is so wrong.” Even a minutes’ research by the author of the article would have told him what he was writing was wrong.

I haven’t asked many questions of the reader lately, but here goes: why are such disconnects so common nowadays?

I strongly encourage you to think long and hard about that question, because every answer I come up with is frightening.








  1. I agree with you overall but the loathsome NYT is making a valid point when it says there's little or no relationship between being a good researcher and a good teacher. The good researchers just can't be bothered to teach properly, to communicate clearly, to spend time on students. They might be effective as research advisors for PhD students -- but they're not to be trusted with undergrad or first-year grad students. Morris Kline wrote a persuasive book on this about thirty or more years ago -- "Why the Professor Can't Teach: Mathematics and the Dilemma of University Education."

  2. "little to no" isn't the same thing as "good researchers are bad teachers". I certainly acknowledge it's possible. If I just want to learn basic stuff everyone knows, it doesn't matter. But if I want to learn cutting edge concepts, I'd be willing to risk having a bad teacher in exchange for the massive gain of learning from the only one with something new to say.

    That said, I do agree there's an issue in mathematics. I found math textbooks basically unreadable until well into graduate school. Now, I really appreciate even a basic algebra book...but I couldn't follow the discussion of such books when I was in high school. The reason is that the textbooks are being written by professors with insanely deep knowledge of the subject. If you see "obvious" in a textbook, you knew you were in for a whole weekend of study...after which, it was, indeed, "obvious."

    Anyway, I'll put that book on the agenda. Thanks.

  3. Tenure is detrimental to the educational system and should be abolished. It is a mirage, an illusion.

    I've seen first-hand how damaging it is. It protects the politically well-connected. I know of professors and instructors who were bone idle or completely inept but still kept their jobs because they were mates with the "right" administrators. Tenure for those people was a license to loaf.

    Tenure also means one doesn't have to be accountable to anyone. I personally knew of a prof who, frankly, didn't give a rat's patootie about what he worked on. Relevance or worth were of no consequence to him--he had tenure and could do whatever he liked, so long as someone else paid for it.

    Tenure does not mean one can't be fired. It offers no protection whatsoever from bullying, harassment, or coercion if an administrator has no intention of respecting it.

    At the institution I taught at, I had permanent status, but that didn't stop certain administrators from engaging in under-handed methods to undermine my authority, prevent me from doing my job properly, and, generally, making my life miserable. The last dean I answered to likely encouraged that campaign. Most of the presidents of the staff association did nothing to allow me to have a fair hearing, let alone speak on my behalf. (I know for a fact that one of them was part of the conspiracy.) I may as well have been on my own.

    For some other comments regarding tenure and its abolition, look at:

  4. I'm pretty ambivalent about tenure...I totally grant without forced retirement, the current tenure system has a painfully deep flaw. I acknowledge it has potential for abuse, but the real abuse again comes not from faculty, but from administrators who give it to themselves (the president of Penn State would have stepped down to a 600k a year tenured position...he technically still has it, but the Sandusky thing might take it away).

    Without tenure, what protection is there from the administrative abuse you/I/everyone in the system has endured? Tenure is a small amount of such protection, and I've only seen tenured professors try to stand up to the corruption of the system in a meaningful way. Every institution I've seen that does not have tenure is totally corrupt. A few tenure-using institutions still have a few dashes of integrity.

    I'm hard pressed to argue for it, but I sure can't argue against it.

  5. (Note: at the institution where I used to teach, "tenure" was a forbidden word because it sounded too much like university-speak. Instead, we had permanent status.)

    In my case, permanent status was useless in preventing my administrative enemies from attempting to have me leave under duress. My reputation and my authority were constantly undermined, contrary to whatever regulations and codes of ethics existed at the time. Permanent status didn't prevent people from putting information in my personnel file which was not only false but added without my knowledge, thereby preventing me from reviewing it and writing a rebuttal.

    Shortly after I started teaching, my institution took over another one in the region. The latter establishment opened several years after mine did and was supposed to be a competitor, of sorts. It also offered studies in areas that the one I was at didn't. As it turned out, the administration ran that place into the ground and, so, my institution was allowed to pick over the remains and take what it wanted.

    When all of that went on, at least one well-established department at my institution was closed down, partly to make room for the people coming over from the now-defunct place and because the senior administration thought that what was taught by that group could be handled by the "private sector". (As it turns out, many people in that business thought the graduates from those private colleges weren't as good.)

    Many of the instructors in that department had permanent status. That did not prevent the institution from giving them the boot. For that matter, I don't recall that any of them were offered different jobs. They were simply tossed out with the day's trash. Some of them took legal action, but it did them no good.

    The only thing that tenure (or permanent status, whichever is applicable) guarantees is that whoever has it is allowed to come to work the next day the establishment is in operation. Others than that, it is useless and administrative vapourware.

    For more on how useless tenure is, take a look at what Ken Westhues says on the matter, particularly with regard to academic mobbing:

  6. Tenure doesn't even "guarantee" allowing to come to work the next day (see SLU's treatment of tenured faculty in the French department, among many other examples). It helps a little, and I trust you'll at least concede tenure status is better than adjunct status?

    The link is certainly an interesting read(been a long time since I've read Lorenz), and explains some really vile behavior I've seen from some faculty...but academic mobbing is not tied to tenure, except that tenure might protect, a little, from such inane activity.

    Do you have a better way to protect from this type of insanity? Tenure may be pretty feeble protection, but I'm reluctant to abandon it for...nothing at all.

  7. Tenure/permanent status is worse than having nothing at all.

    1. It gives people the false hope that it will protect them from being canned. That protection, in reality, is applied selectively. Only the politically well-connected receive it. The rest take their chances.

    2. It is legalized theft. Each month, I paid my staff association fee and that staff association promised to work on my behalf. It did very little for me while I was being bullied and knew about how my rights as an instructor were being violated when illicit material was put in my personnel file.

    3. It is academic welfare. Often, the staunchest defenders of tenure are those who least deserve it. They want the promised protection in order to do whatever they like without being held accountable for it.

    4. It is false elitism. Some of the most vociferous on the matter are working in the more frivolous fields, such as the numerous "XXX-Whatever Studies" programs. Are they so vital to academe or society that their jobs must be protected? Will society collapse if all those doing work in, say, Coleslawvanian clog dancing, were laid off? It might if universities abolish programs devoted to cancer research.

    So why continue the falsehood?

  8. By the way, tenure does allow one to show up for work the next day but doesn't guarantee that one has a job when one goes home.

  9. 1. This isn't true. I concede some politically connected people get it, but I've known quite a few tenured professors with no political connections to get it as well. It would make more sense to work to stop the abuses than eliminate it for all. Just because some people use steak knives as weapons doesn't mean nobody should have steak knives, right?

    2. So, now you're talking union fees of some sort? I was a permanent faculty, too, and never paid such fees. Unions are a different matter entirely. I'm unaware of any special monthly fees for having tenure.

    3. This could be, but it doesn't mean tenure is bad. NAMBLA and various Fascist groups are vociferous about free speech, but this doesn't make free speech bad, either.

    4. This is the same argument as 3. Tenure being sometimes improperly awarded for the wrong reasons doesn't make all tenure everywhere bad.

    I make no argument that tenure is perfect, and "job for life" strikes me as a bad idea in principle...but having seen tenure slow down what's happening in higher education, it seems to do more good than harm.