A Philosopher's Blog

Student Evaluations of Faculty

Posted in Philosophy, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on January 9, 2015

While college students have been completing student evaluations of faculty since the 1960s, these evaluations have taken on considerable importance. There are various reasons for this. One is a conceptual shift towards the idea that a college is primarily a business and students are customers. On this model, student evaluations of faculty are part of the customer satisfaction survey process. A second is an ideological shift in regards to education. Education is seen more as a private good and something that needs to be properly quantified. This is also tied into the notion that the education system is, like a forest or oilfield, a resource to be exploited for profit. Student evaluations provide a cheap method of assessing the value provided by faculty and, best of all, provide numbers (numbers usually based on subjective assessments, but pay that no mind).

Obviously enough, I agree with the need to assess performance. As a gamer and runner, I have a well-developed obsession with measuring my athletic and gaming performances and I am comfortable with letting that obsession spread freely into my professional life. I want to know if my teaching is effective, what is working, what is not, and what impact I am having on the students. Of course, I want to be confident that the methods of assessment that I am using are actually useful. Having been in education quite some time, I do have some concerns about the usefulness of student evaluations of faculty.

The first and most obvious concern is that students are, almost by definition, not experts in regards to assessing education. While they obviously take classes and observe (when not Facebooking) faculty, they typically lack any formal training in assessment and one might suspect that having students evaluate faculty is on par with having sports fans assessing coaching. While fans and students often have strong opinions, this does not really qualify them to provide meaningful professional assessment.

Using the sports analogy, this can be countered by pointing out that while a fan might not be a professional in regards to coaching, a fan usually knows good or bad coaching when she sees it. Likewise, a student who is not an expert at education can still recognize good or bad teaching.

A second concern is the self-selection problem. While students have access to the evaluation forms and can easily go to Rate My Professors, students who take the time to show up and fully complete the forms or go to the website will tend to have stronger feelings about the professor. These feelings will tend to bias the results so that they are more positive or more negative than they should be.

The counter to this is that the creation of such strong feelings is relevant to the assessment of the professor. A practical way to counter the bias is to ensure that most (if not all) students in a course complete the evaluations.

Third, people often base their assessments on irrelevant factors about the professor. These include such things as age, gender, appearance, and personality. The concern is that this factor makes evaluations a form of popularity contest: professors that are liked will be evaluated by better professors who are not as likeable. There is also the concern that students tend to give younger professors and female professors worse evaluations than older professors and male professors and these sorts of gender and age biases lower the credibility of such evaluations.

A stock reply to this is that these factors do not influence students as strongly as critics might claim. So, for example, a professor might be well-liked, yet still get poor evaluations in regards to certain aspects of the course. There are also those who question the impact of alleged age and gender bias.

Fourth, people often base assessments on irrelevant factors about the course, such as how easy it is, the specific grade received,  or whether they like the subject or not. Not surprisingly, it is commonly held that students give better evaluations to professors who they regard as easy and downgrade those they see as hard.

Given that people generally base assessments on irrelevant factors (a standard problem in critical thinking), this does seem to be a real concern. Anecdotally, my own experience indicates that student assessment can vary a great deal based on irrelevant factors they explicitly mention. I have a 4.0 on Rate my Professors, but there is quite a mix in regards to the review content. What is striking, at least to me, is the inconsistencies between evaluations. Some students claim that my classes are incredibly easy (“he is so easy”), while others claim they are incredibly hard (“the hardest class I have ever taken”). I am also described as being very boring and very interesting, helpful and unhelpful and so on. This sort of inconsistency in evaluations is not uncommon and does raise the obvious concern about the usefulness of such evaluations.

A counter to this is that the information is still useful. Another counter is that the appropriate methods of statistical analysis can be used to address this concern. Those who defend evaluations point out that students tend to be generally consistent in their assessments. Of course, consistency in evaluations does not entail accuracy.

To close, there are two final general concerns about evaluations of faculty. One is the concern about values. That is, what is it that makes a good educator? This is a matter of determining what it is that we are supposed to assess and to use as the standard of assessment. The second is the concern about how well the method of assessment works.

In the case of student evaluations of faculty, we do not seem to be entirely clear about what it is that we are trying to assess nor do we seem to be entirely clear about what counts as being a good educator. In the case of the efficacy of the evaluations, to know whether or not they measure well we would need to have some other means of determining whether a professor is good or not. But, if there were such a method, then student evaluations would seem unnecessary—we could just use those methods. To use an analogy, when it comes to football we do not need to have the fans fill out evaluation forms to determine who is a good or bad athlete: there are clear, objective standards in regards to performance.

My Amazon Author Page

My Paizo Page

My DriveThru RPG Page

Follow Me on Twitter

Why You Should (Probably) Not Be A Professor

Posted in Philosophy, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on November 19, 2014

While I like being a professor, I am obligated to give a warning to those considering this career path. To be specific, I would warn you to reconsider. This is not because I fear the competition (I am a tenured full professor, so I won’t be competing with anyone for a job). It is not because I have turned against my profession to embrace anti-intellectualism or some delusional ideology about the awfulness of professors. It is not even due to disillusionment. I still believe in education and the value of educators. My real reason is altruism and honesty: I want potential professors to know the truth because it will benefit them. I now turn to the reasons.

First, there is the cost. In order to be a professor, you will need a terminal degree in the field—typically a Ph.D. This means that you will need to first get a B.A. or B.S. first and college is rather expensive these days. Student debt, as the media has been pointing out, it is at a record high. While a bachelor’s degree is, in general, a great investment, you will need to go beyond that and complete graduate school.

While graduate school is expensive, many students work as teaching or research assistants. These positions typically pay the cost of tuition and provide a very modest paycheck. Since the pay is low and the workload is high, you will be more or less in a holding pattern for the duration of grad school in terms of pay and probably life. After 3-7+ years, you will (if you are persistent and lucky) have the terminal degree.

If you are paying for graduate school, it will be rather expensive and will no doubt add to your debt. You might be able to work a decent job at the same time, but that will tend to slow down the process, thus dragging out graduate school.

Regardless of whether you had to pay or not, you will be attempting to start a career after about a decade (or more) in school—so be sure to consider that fact.

Second, the chances of getting a job are usually not great. While conditions do vary, the general trend has been that education budgets have been getting smaller and universities are spending more on facilities and administrators. As such, if you are looking for a job in academics, your better bet is to try to become an administrator rather than a professor. The salary for administrators is generally better than that of professors, although the elite coaches of the prestige sports have the very best salaries.

When I went on the job market in 1993, it was terrible. When I applied, I would get a form letter saying how many hundreds of people applied and how sorry the search committee was about my not getting an interview. I got my job by pure chance—I admit this freely. While the job market does vary, the odds are not great. So, consider this when deciding on the professor path.

Third, even if you do get a job, it is more likely to be a low-paying, benefit free adjunct position. Currently, 51.2% of faculty in non-profit colleges and universities are adjunct faculty. The typical pay for an adjunct is $20-25,000 per year and most positions have neither benefits nor security. The average salary for professors is $84,000. This is good, but not as good as what a person with an advanced degree makes outside of academics. Also, it is worth noting that the average salary for someone with just a B.A. is $45,000. By the numbers, if you go for a professorship, the odds are that you will be worse off financially than if you just stuck with a B.A. and went to work.

Fourth, the workload of professors is rather higher than people think. While administrative, teaching and research loads vary, professors work about 61 hours per week and work on weekends (typically grading, class prep and research). Thanks to budget cuts and increased enrollment, class sizes have tended to increase or remain high. For example, I typically have 150+ students per semester, with three of those classes being considered “writing intensive” (= lots of papers to grade).

People do like to point out that professors get summers off, it is important to point out that a summer off is a summer without pay. Also, even when a professor is not under contract for the summer, she is typically still doing research and class preparation. So, if you are dreaming about working two or three days a week and having an easy life, then being a professor is not the career for you.

Fifth, the trend in academics has been that professors do more and more uncompensated administrative work on top of their academic duties (research, teaching, advising, etc.). As one extreme example, one semester I was teaching four classes, advising, writing a book, directing the year long seven year program review, completing all the assessment tasks, and serving on nine committees. So, be sure to consider the joys of paperwork and meetings when considering being a professor.

Sixth, while there was at time that professors were well-respected, that respect has faded. Some of this is due to politicization of education. Those seeking to cut budgets to lower taxes, to transform education into a for-profit industry, and to break education unions have done an able job demonizing the profession and academics. Some is, to be fair, due to professors. As a whole, we have not done as good a job as we should in making the case for our profession in the public arena.

Seventh, while every generation claims that the newer generations are worse, the majority of students today see education as a means to the end of getting a well-paying job (or just a job). Given the economy that our political and financial elites have crafted, this is certainly a sensible and pragmatic approach. However, it has also translated into less student interest. So, if you are expecting students who value education, you must prepare for disappointment. The new model of education, as crafted by state legislators, administrators and the business folks is to train the job fillers for the job creators. The students have largely accepted this model as well, with some exceptions.

Finally, the general trend in politics has been one of increased hostility to education and in favor of seeing education as yet another place to make money. So, things will continue to worsen—perhaps to the point that professors will all be low-paid workers in the for-profit education factories that are manufacturing job fillers for the job creators.

In light of all this, you should probably not be a professor.

 

My Amazon Author Page

My Paizo Page

My DriveThru RPG Page

Relative Cost of Education

Posted in Business, Philosophy, Politics, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on April 23, 2014
A Plumber at work.

A Plumber at work. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As a professor I am aware that the cost of a university education has increased significantly, even adjusting for inflation. I am also well aware that this cost increase is not due to proportional increases in faculty salary. One reason for this is that the salaries of professors, especially those at state school, tend to be compressed. For faculty who have been around a long time, such as myself, the compression can be quite extreme. This is one reason why star faculty move around relentlessly in search of ever larger salaries. Another reason is that universities are relying very heavily on badly paid adjuncts. While the rates vary, a typical adjunct can make about $24,000 over nine months for teaching eight classes. There are generally no benefits at all, so the cost to schools is rather low. Given that such faculty typically have advanced degrees, they are perhaps the worst paid of the best educated.

It is true, as I mentioned, that there are some star faculty—they are the celebrities of academics who can use their status and connections to slide smoothly from one well-paying job to an even better paying job. Such stars also sometimes enjoy exemptions from the mundane duties of faculty, such as teaching. As with any profession, such stars are relatively rare and they are generally not a significant factor in the increased cost of education. As such, blaming the faculty for the higher cost is not, in general, a legitimate complaint.

That said, I do agree that complaining about the cost of education is legitimate: costs have increased significantly while there are increasing doubts about the quality and value of education. However, it is worthwhile to put the cost of education into perspective. Being a professor, I will focus on the educational aspects of the matter.

At a state school like my own Florida A&M University, a student will typically take a class from a person with a terminal degree in her field, usually a doctorate. A standard class is three credit hours, which means that a student is supposed to be in class for two and a half hours per week. My fellows and I typically teach four classes per semester and we are required to hold two hours of office hours per class. We also have various other research, advising and administrative duties. Thanks to email, students can also contact us around the clock—and many faculty, including myself, respond to emails outside of normal hours and on the weekends. We also typically do work for the classes, such as grading, preparing lessons and so on throughout the week and during “vacations.”

While the exact hours will vary, a student at a school like FAMU will have access to a professional with and advanced degree for 2.5 hours in the classroom, have access to 8 hours of office hours, and typically have unlimited email access. Most faculty are also willing to engage with students in their off time—for example, I have stopped while grocery shopping to explain a paper to a student who also happened to be shopping at that time. This is in return for the cost of tuition, only a small fraction of which goes to the professor.

Now, compare this to the cost per hour for other professionals. For example, a psychiatrist might charge between $125-$285 per hour. As another example, a plumber might charge $90 an hour. As a third example, a consultant might charge anywhere from $30 to thousands of dollars an hour. As a fourth example, an attorney might charge hundreds of dollars per hour.

Imagine what it would cost to have a plumber, medical doctor, or attorney spend 2.5 hours a week with you for 16 weeks (divided by the other people, of course), be available an additional eight hours a week, do work for you outside of those hours, respond personally to your emails and so on.  If professors billed like plumbers, lawyers or medical doctors, the cost of school would be insanely high.

It might be replied that plumbers, lawyers and medical doctors perform services that are more valuable than mere professors. After all, a plumber might fix your pipes, a lawyer might get you a nice settlement and a medical doctor might re-attach your quadriceps tendon. A professor merely teaches and surely that has far, far less value. The obvious practical reply is that people with college degrees make considerably more than those without—this would suggest that teaching does provide some value. There is also the obvious fact that plumbers, medical doctors and lawyers need education in order to do what they do—thus showing that education does provide something of value (although plumbers typically do not go to college to become plumbers).

As such, while education is too expensive, the actual cost of paying professors is ridiculously cheap relative to what other comparable professionals cost.

 

My Amazon Author Page

My Paizo Page

My DriveThru RPG Page

Enhanced by Zemanta

Migrant Professors

Posted in Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on September 19, 2012
This image was selected as a picture of the we...

 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Many years ago I was running with a friend of mine who is also a professor. We were talking about the fact that university faculty in the Florida state system generally have nine month contracts and hence are effectively unemployed in the summer. We also talked about how the adjunct faculty had it far worse: they tend to work on a course by course basis and have no job security beyond the need to have them teach classes. My friend said that this was somewhat like being migrant workers— working part time and moving from job to job without any security and with terrible pay. Naturally, the migrant professors, as my friend called them, have it somewhat better than migrant laborers who pick crops and do other such backbreaking work for pitiful wages. However, the comparison seemed apt.

At my mother’s suggestion I did try my hand once at picking blueberries for extra money. When she was a kid, this was something commonly done by the Maine kids. But this was apparently before the days of cheap migrant labor and, as we found out, things had changed. My sister, her friend and I gave it a shot, but we did not make it through a full day and ended up in the hole because someone stole our rakes and baskets. It was the worst job I ever tried.

Years later, I started my academic career as an adjunct professor. I taught four classes each semester for $2,000 per class and had no benefits or job security. The next year I was hired as a visiting professor and made $30,000 for the year—plus benefits. After three years of that, I was finally hired into a tenure track line. Though I am a tenured full professor, I certainly have not forgotten those adjunct days. It was not as bad as raking blueberries, but it was a lot of work for very little money and it felt a lot like that blueberry day, although it lasted for an academic year.

During this time, it was common for my university to rely heavily on adjuncts. There was, however, an effort made to hire full time faculty and this met with some success. However, there are still many classes taught by adjuncts and other universities rely very heavily on adjunct instructors who are treated as migrant laborers in the academy.

Like migrant laborers, the migrant professors are poorly paid. Back in 1993 I was paid $2,000 per class, making $16,000 for the eight classes I taught over the school year.  In 2010, the median salary for adjuncts was $2,700 per three credit hour class. The low was $2,235 and the high was $3,400.

Like migrant laborers, the migrant professors generally have no benefits. While there might be some exceptions, adjunct (or part time, although “part time” might actually mean teaching what would be a full time number of classes) faculty typically do not get health coverage from their employers or other benefits. When I was an adjunct, I was fortunate to be young and healthy, but a major medical problem would have ruined me financially. The same is no doubt true of other adjuncts.

Like migrant laborers, the migrant professors typically have to travel from workplace to workplace to make their living. One of my colleagues, who has a doctorate and years of experience, typically teaches at my university, Florida State, and Tallahassee Community College. He has to rush between classes to get from school to school. His situation is not uncommon—other adjuncts I know teach at both universities in Tallahassee, the community college and other colleges in town just to make enough to live on. Some even travel about the county from job to job, literally acting as migrant laborers. While regular faculty have offices, phones and computers, adjuncts sometimes do not. They might, for example, be assigned a room for office hours and have to get the department office manager to open the door for them because they are not given a key.

Unlike migrant laborers, the migrant professors are highly educated professionals who are doing jobs that normally pay full time employees reasonably well. To use an analogy, the situation of adjuncts in higher education is comparable to what it would be like if hospitals employed adjunct doctors. The adjuncts doctors would have their medical doctorates, perform surgery, treat patients and so on. That is, they would be just like the regular doctors except that their pay would be a fraction of what the doctors received and they would have little or no benefits or job security.

As might be imagined, this terrible disparity in pay is rather unjust. After all, the adjuncts are being paid far less for doing the same work and they are generally just as qualified as regular faculty. It would, of course, be another matter if adjuncts were far less educated or did work proportional to their pay. However, this is not the case. As such, the treatment of adjuncts is clearly wrong.

Naturally, those employing adjuncts have a good reason to use them: they do professional work at a fraction of the cost of hiring regular faculty and they can be terminated simply by not re-hiring them next semester. It is also not uncommon for universities to hold off providing an adjunct with a contract until two or more weeks into a semester—that way they can be sure that the class with fill and that the money is available. An adjunct without a contract can typically and unfortunately just be let go. I have seen this happen—people working for two weeks, then being told to not come back for week three. This is unfair as it hardly seems unreasonable to be able to tell a person in advance whether or not they will be teaching that semester. Obviously enough, the failure to pay an adjunct for the time worked would be theft, although this does happen.

One irony of the plight of adjuncts is that the students they are teaching will generally increase their earning potential significantly by getting a college degree. In fact, the college graduates will most likely end up making more per year than the adjuncts who taught them.

One rather obvious question is why adjuncts put up with the terrible conditions rather than simply getting a job elsewhere. While in some cases people do admit that they have been unable to get a job elsewhere, the majority of adjuncts I have spoken with (and I have met many over the years) make it clear that they love teaching and that they are willing to live with horrible salaries to do what they love to do.

Naturally, this claim might be doubted. However, this sort of attitude holds all through teaching, from K through the graduate level. After all, people who have the degrees needed to teach could make much more money working in other professions, yet they choose to remain in academics. While they might have some other reasons, it is most often because they believe in what they are doing and like teaching.

Unfortunately, this love is being unfairly exploited and little is being done to address it. In fact, the current trend in public education has been towards cutting budgets and for educators’ unions to be subject to concerted attacks. As such, it seems likely that the situation in higher education will worsen. This suggests that there will be an increase in the number of adjuncts (some universities are 33-55% adjunct faculty). Oddly enough, education costs continue to increase—but you can be sure that this money is not going to paying adjuncts properly.

My Amazon author page.

Enhanced by Zemanta