Summary Judgement: In the Basement of the Ivory Tower: Confessions of An Accidental Academic — Professor X

In the Basement of the Ivory Tower is fun, filled with anecdotes, and describes many of the feelings I’ve had in the higher education sausage mill, but you’re better off reading the eponymous Atlantic article from which it sprang. You’ll get 80% of the content with 20% of the time. Still, I especially like this bit from the book because nearly the same thing happened to me four weeks ago:

On the first night, I ask a few questions. How many of you took this class because of an abiding love of literature? No hands go up, ever—they are honest, I will give them that. How many of you are taking this class only because you have to? Now all hands shoot up, to the accompaniment of some self-conscious laughter.

I taught a technical writing course to a room full of public health, nutritional science, and engineering majors and asked how many were in the class because they want to learn more about the great and mysterious power of the English language. No hands. How many were taking it because they had to? All the hands. More of my students could write coherent sentences than Professor X’s students, probably because they’re juniors and seniors who’ve been through a fair number of classes, but “more” is not the same as “all.” Few of them cared. I want to imagine that I imparted real skills through longer and more difficult writing assignments than most of them had faced, but I’m not sure I did. It’s not easy to interest people in a topic when they lack intrinsic interest and don’t see it as valuable to their careers.

Professor X is a good writer (note too that his name is a pseudonym, and he isn’t, to my knowledge, claiming to the leader of the X-Men); he says, for instance, that his students “lack rudimentary study skills; in some cases, they are not even functionally literate. Many of them are so dispossessed of context that every bit of new information simply raises more questions.” Notice that phrase, “dispossessed of context,” which I’ve never thought of in that way before, and yet it fits: the Oxford American Dictionary says that dispossessed means to “deprive (someone) of something that they own, typically land or property,” and one gets the sense that educational system have failed Professor X’s students as much as they have failed the systems (note that there is plenty of blame to go around, and I don’t wish to sling it in this post). There are many moments like this, when unexpected artistry arrives.

This sense of the unexpected extends to Professor X’s grasp of the larger institutional and societal forces at work; he notes that college is supposed to be for everyone even when we’re supposed to have high standards. These two ideals seldom leave unbloodied when they meet in the real world. But he doesn’t have a lot of answers to problems, which is okay because a) large, complex problems often don’t have answers and b) he’s trying to tell his own story, not write a polemic. If you know someone of questionable literacy attempting to go to college and frustrated by the experience, you should recommend this book to them. They probably won’t read it, but if they did, they’d know more. I get the sense that Professor X is working more at the individual than societal level. That might also be what makes his book fun.

Some of the responses to his Atlantic article are bizarre, written by people who seem to have no idea what’s happening on the ground. Some of the later material drags. I like the book but would only recommend it to specialists; I read it because I’m working on my own academic work related to university novels. If it weren’t for that, I don’t think I would’ve gotten enough from it, beyond the Atlantic article, to justify reading.

Grade Inflation? What Grade Inflation?

A friend sent me “Should I feel guilty for failing my students? As an adjunct English professor, I know I shouldn’t inflate grades — but I feel like I’m ruining people’s lives,” an excerpt from “In the Basement of the Ivory Tower,” which began life as a frighteningly accurate Atlantic article.

I agree with a lot of the “Should I feel guilty for failing my students” excerpt, but I don’t think this is correct: “First of all, twenty-first-century American culture makes it more difficult to fail people.” The biggest reason it’s hard for professors to fail students, as economists like to remind us, involves incentives.

I’m a grad student in English lit, and when I go to the job market in the near future, I’m highly unlikely to be judged at all on my grade distribution; as far as I know, the University of Arizona doesn’t even send that information out. I may or may not be seriously judged on my teaching evaluations, depending on the kind of university I try to go to. I probably won’t, or won’t very much, but the easiest way to improve evals is to give higher grades (see “Judgment Day” for one popular explanation). Perhaps not surprisingly, students give better evals to profs who get higher grades. So professors, in the absence of any institutional or professional incentives not to give higher grades, do—at least on average, even if any single prof denies doing so (I have yet to hear anyone in a public forum announce, “I inflate grades.” I do not inflate grades).

To recap: we might be looked at poorly for having bad teaching evals, which are linked to student grades, and there’s no pressure on student grades. The big thing I will be judged on is academic publishing. The more I do that, the better off I am professionally. When you give students bad grades, not only are they likely to take it out on evals, but they’re more likely to complain to your teaching advisor, show up in office hours to fight about grades, be unhappy in class, and generally take more of time, which you can’t spend writing the academic articles that will get you a job and tenure.

Combined, these two forces encourage you to give higher grades and maximize academic publishing. This force is probably strongest in softer subjects, like the humanities, business, comm, and the like (students want to argue papers all day long) and weakest in math and the sciences (if you didn’t get the right answer, your instructor will demonstrate why you’re objectively wrong). Fields like nursing probably don’t see a huge amount of grade inflation because students who don’t understand the material will kill someone if they don’t, which is a big problem for lots of people. Same in engineering—if your bridge collapses, you can’t complain that there is no such thing as a “good” bridge, or that bridge design is so “subjective.”

All this stuff might contribute to how little students are actually learning, as discussed extensively in Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses. The book shows that most college students, through most measures, don’t acquire much real knowledge over the course of their four or more years in school. Part of Academically Adrift details the evidence used to reach this conclusion, the other big part describes how this might have happened and be happening, and the last (weakest) part discusses solutions.

How could one solve this incentive problem? Probably by plotting eval scores against grades. If you’re giving an average GPA of 3.0 and getting a 4.0 on your eval, and Suzie down the hall is giving an average GPA of 2.9 and getting a 4.3 on her evals, then Suzie is probably doing better. I don’t know why colleges aren’t moving toward systems like this, aside from inertia and the complete lack of incentive to do so. Which, I guess, means that I do know why. This wouldn’t be a perfect solution, but it would at least be a step in the right direction. A few schools are apparently doing something about the issue.

Professors don’t want to champion better evals, however, because it distracts them from the research for which they’re rewarded. Administrators don’t want to because they want tuition and grant money, not rocking the boat. High school seniors have not shown a great swell of interest in attending schools with rigorous professor evaluations; they have shown a great swell of interest in beer and circus, however, so that’s what they mostly get. Grad students want to claw their way up the academic ladder and/or finish their damn dissertations. Parents want their offspring to pass. Employers are too diffuse and don’t get much of a say. So where does the coalition for improvement come from? Some individuals, but we’ll see if they get very far.

%d bloggers like this: