When the Editor Won’t Print Your Letter….

Those with blogs have the option of self-publishing! Hurrah for the blogs!

Scott Sowerby and Kevin Levin have written recently to ask if everything is all right…I’m perfectly fine! I just had a busy semester (what with the primary and all) and graduated from a busy spring to a busy summer. But, I return to the ‘sphere now with my unprinted Letter to the Editor.

The Houston Chronicle reported a little over a month ago that our lovely Governor is contemplating linking professorial salaries to student evaluations. I find this to be a horrific idea, and here’s why:

To the Editor:

The Chronicle reports that the University of Houston is contemplating adopting Governor Perry’s plan of linking bonuses for professors to student evaluations (see “UH regents receptive to state’s reform pitch,” 10 June 2008). This is a lazy and unworkable solution to perceived teaching problems in higher education.

Student evaluations are useful for many things. They help me gauge the effectiveness of my lectures, discussions, assignments, and exams. They also help me determine which reading materials worked, and they help me pinpoint concepts that students had difficulty grasping. I can then revise and improve my courses based in part upon student responses. But evaluations are not good indicators of a professor’s quality. Students tend to reward courses with little required effort or professors who grade generously with positive evaluations. I suspect implementing the Governor Perry’s plan of linking “performance” to pay would encourage professors to avoid teaching difficult or unpopular courses and would contribute to grade inflation. Additionally, this plan would discourage professors from teaching necessary introductory courses that attract large numbers of non-specialists and new college students. In my experience, these courses teach students to adapt to doing college-level work, but they tend to get fewer positive reviews. Eighteen-year-olds are often not appropriate judges of whether or not a classroom experience was good for them or not.

This does not mean that collegiate instructors should not be thinking about effective teaching and finding ways to evaluate it. I find that having conversations with colleagues about trouble spots in my teaching and asking them to attend my classes and give me feedback are far better ways of encouraging my improvement in the classroom. These kinds of interactions, though, should not be mandated by the state but discussed in individual departments and schools. Surely our government can find more workable and effective ways of improving collegiate teaching than rebranding our universities as consumer goods.

Rebecca A. Goetz
The writer is Assistant Professor of History at Rice University.

Now, I feel better! I can’t believe this idea is getting serious attention, but there you have it.