Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Improving Professorial Quality

Anyone who has spent a considerable amount of time as a student in academia has no doubt had the displeasure of taking a class with a sub-par professor. What this article seeks to propose is a methodology by which universities can systematically improve the quality of their professors and help minimize the probability of this happening to anyone else.

Before we begin, it would be helpful to examine why this problem of poor professors arises even in the top universities. One reason, I believe, is a lack of incentive, most often as a result of the granting of tenure. Tenure is essentially a lifetime appointment until retirement, with dismissal only possible in the case of "due cause". The interpretation of this "due cause" is naturally very variable, as most such legal terms are, but it is probably safe to say that it would take quite a bit for a tenured professor to be forcibly removed from the job.

The fear of under-performance resulting from the privileged position of tenure is hardly a new topic of discussion, though it remains a very powerful argument. How can one expect a faculty member to retain a desire for providing quality teaching when his job doesn't depend on it, except in the most egregious cases? This problem is exacerbated even further when the professor is particularly famous, making his status even more unquestionable. It is only to be expected that a professor's yearning to teach will eventually fall victim to entropy under such an environment. For example, many students can attest to the fact that some professors use the same slides, homeworks, tests, etc. for literally decades, sometimes not even bothering to change the date at the top of the handouts. While this is not a problem in and of itself, and can actually be logical when the teaching program in question is successful and pleases the students, more often than not it is the terrible and ineffective programs that get recycled for years and years.

The solution I propose to this phenomenon is quite simple, and focuses on exploiting the same factor of incentive that falls prey to indifference. Most schools already have in place a ratings system by which students can evaluate the performance of their professors (and if they don't, they should). Instead of penalizing poor performance, why does a university not monetarily encourage strong performance? For example, a professor would be granted salary bonuses from the university corresponding to the average rating that he has received from his students. The beauty of this method is that more famous professors can still receive the higher base salary that they likely feel they deserve, nor is the capacity for the professors to do research lessened, since the awards associated with that would remain intact as well. Tenure is also not threatened since good performance is rewarded, but poor performance is not penalized.

One obvious problem to this solution is the lengths that some would go to in order to capitalize on the system. Some professors may believe that the quickest and most reliable way to improve their student ratings would be to simply to give A's to everyone in the class. Although, in my opinion, the connection between grade received and the ratings given to the professor remains tentative (since the ratings are anonymous), I will admit the theory is feasible. Although some grade inflation will probably occur, I believe the normal checks that are in place (or should be in place) to make sure a suspicious amount of A's aren't being doled out should provide enough of a counter-thrust to this snag. Another problem with this system is that its implementation would almost certainly cause tuition to increase, as the potential for very large expenditures due to an over-achieving staff is not necessarily unlikely.

A second reason for the existence of incompetent professors is for the self-evident reason that they simply don't know how to teach. Too often is the mistake made by universities that eminence in one's field implies some sort of natural predisposition for teaching. This makes no more sense than holding the belief that a talented athlete would necessarily make a good coach. A professor may have the most brilliant things in the world to say, but they are worthless to the students if he cannot express himself properly. Furthermore, an often neglected part of being able to teach is having the ability to design reasonable and helpful assignments, tests, and classes in general. I can't count the number of times I have taken exams that are difficult solely for the reason that the test is poorly constructed, or have done assignments that only tangentially have any relationship to the format of those exams.

How could we alleviate this situation? To some degree, the incentive structure I proposed above would help because it would prod the professor to improve his own teaching. However, it is possible that a professor could simply have no idea how to become a better teacher on his own. To combat this, the school could provide some basic courses in education upon the professors introduction to the university. To maintain quality control, refresher courses could be given at certain intervals after that, and officials specializing in teaching inspection could be assigned to sit in at any lecture at random (like is already done in some high schools, although often not randomly). Obviously, these structures are not free and could, as stated before, definitely have the potential to increase tuition. However, all that being said, I see few better investments for an institution than increasing the excellence of its professors. Better professors lead to a better school reputation and better educated students, who will thus later have more capacity to contribute to the university and continue this cycle.

One more topic I'd like to discuss are teaching assistants, or TAs. These are essentially either aspiring professors, or more often simply graduate students, who are required to work for the professor for a certain amount of hours in exchange for the research stipend and facilities that they receive from the university. They are often in charge of grading homeworks/tests, and teaching recitations. Moreover, if there is anyone who can be expected to care less about what a student thinks about his teaching more than a tenured professor, it is most certainly a teaching assistant.

My problems with teaching assistants are multiple. Firstly, since the spotlight on their teaching ability is even less bright (arguably) than that which is on the professors, and since most of them are so busy focusing on their research, the quality of teaching is understandably expected to be rather low. My bigger issue, however, is that teaching assistants are often in charge of almost all the grading in a class. Why is this an issue? In my experience, most teaching assistants do not even bother to attend the professor's lectures. Thus, although by no means guaranteed, one can expect some degree of disconnect between what the professor teaches and how the TA grades. For example, if I attend every single lecture and listen attentively to the professor, and feel it in my best interest to write something on the exam that the professor mentioned in class, it is not unlikely that a TA could disagree with it and dock me some points. What have I to prove to him that the professor did in fact say it? Nothing really, whereas if the professor had graded the test, or if the TA had attended the lecture, the probability of me not losing points would have increased. 


How to resolve this? I understand that professors cannot feasibly grade all the material that they assign, as well as have the time left to perform their research to a respectable degree (or at least I hope this is the case). This, after all, is part of the reason for the existence of teaching assistants in the first place. However, since TAs are also often subject to student ratings, I see no reason why they also cannot be part of the system that I described before, except instead of bonuses, the TA would receive an increased stipend for his performance as a recitation leader. Also, since TAs are not tenured and are sometimes professors in waiting, I see no real reason why there should not be a punishment or warning mechanism in place for TAs with especially bad ratings. They are, after all, potential educators of the future, and it would behoove the university to set some kind of basic standard to help the TA refine his art for years to come.


The professorship is an honorable position, but it is not so honorable as to excuse a gross neglect of duty. Professors are paid to be as much teachers as researchers, and the ultimate nature of the products of the educational system rests in their hands. I do not see a more expedient way of sharply enhancing this educational system than to enhance the efficacy of its distributors and molders.

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