THE WRONG INCENTIVES
Professor of Marketing
Auburn University, Alabama
Every university wants to provide a quality education, so faculty conduct frequent assessments of the curriculum and course content. In turn, administrators want concrete and specific measures to assess the "quality" of classroom instruction. With annual reviews and teacher evaluations, teachers are given various incentives that are supposed to improve and guide their daily work. But an education should be more than classes and exams. The students should receive more than facts and information from their college experience and some students know this, even when their teachers do not.
Leanne came to my office one day because she felt she had to explain why she missed a class, the only one she missed all term. Always prepared and contributing to the discussion from her front row seat, she was a responsible, hard-working student, who wanted to explain an anomalous event. But she soon started talking about other matters. Eventually, she expressed frustrations with her other teachers because, even when she was working long hours on projects in their courses, they did not seem to have the time (or care) to listen to an undergraduate's interests or concerns.
At that point there was scant job-related incentive in our system for me to continue the conversation. Once the topics became personal and open-ended, I knew that the discussion could take as long as an hour, maybe more, without any real measurable "output" of my work.
As a senior faculty member at a major research university, barely half of my work assignment is teaching. And even within that assignment, I am reviewed in major part by teacher evaluations, of which she was but one student in a class. To my department head, as with many college administrators, a single positive student comment is less important than avoiding too many negatives. Our college also placed strong emphasis on a dean or department head's exit interviews with our graduating students. She was in my class but not majoring in a marketing department program, she was not one of our majors, so she could find me the greatest teacher she ever had and no administrator in my college would ever discover that or even care.
On the other hand, my personal incentives for talking were strong. True, part of the conversation was personal, but then, an educator's concern is getting students to think. And stimulating thinking means being involved with students beyond just the class.
Teaching at the Catholic Boston College twenty years ago, I asked one of the resident Jesuits why they had a business school since none of the business faculty or administrators had church ties. In fact, most of us were not even Catholic. He explained that as long as the area provided academic fields that students might study, the Jesuits wanted to provide it. The phrase he used was that such presence enabled them to "bear witness" to the students' education, giving the religious order contact with the young people even if it was not direct.
By the same measure, talking about personal concerns means faculty have the contact to also talk about students' general interests, course plans, leisure reading and so on. By talking with the students, we get to know them and also have academic discussions that might be unrelated to the class.
A colleague once told me that he only tells students what they need to know for a job. On his teacher evaluations, many students write positive comments about the class, saying they "learned a lot of useful information." But education is more than gaining information. In reality, the information is only a small part of it, a starting point for the actual education.
Information comes from the books and reading assignments. Education is encountering different perspectives and learning to think, something that comes from the personal interactions with faculty, people who have studied the area, developed opinions and perspectives, and open those opinions to discussion and analysis. In turn, the faculty learn, too. I hope we are always learning.
At a recent graduation ceremony, the speaker said the to assembly "Now that your education has ended. . ." But if we have really done our jobs, the education has just begun.
Ask anyone ten years after graduation to recall a teacher who made a difference in his or her life. It would probably not be a faculty member who presented lecture material, gave assignments and determined grades. The important and significant teachers would always be people who got to know the student at a personal level. There are many students who received top grades from me that I will never see again, I would not know them if I did, and I will not really miss their absence. Some `C' students got much more from their university education and I enjoyed having them around.
Any faculty member should know this distinction when the `A' students ask for letters of recommendation and the teacher knows little of them beyond exam grades. Graduate schools and employers want letters from teachers that know students, not vapid certifications of class work, since the concern is what the student really obtained from those years on campus.
Leanne's frustrations were strong. She wanted the right things from her education, but was having trouble finding faculty to provide them.
I understood her problem.
I tried to explain of our incentives to her, that faculty are encouraged to teach, conduct research and "do service," with the latter the "fun-filled" activity of committee work. "Service" to students other than classroom instruction is seldom on the list. We teach our classes, and, other than that, we should leave students' problems to advisors, psychological counselors and the campus social system, or so we are told. Some people who claim the title "faculty" proudly tell me that they would never "waste time" talking with students about things unrelated to the class.
I also told her that maybe some of her teachers did care about her interests and concerns but did not know how to show it. At best, any serious scholar acts distracted more than half the time. I once criticized an academic friend as saying he tends to be disassociated from the world, but my wife hauled me back by saying, "Name one person in your line of work who isn't."
On the other side, I am often frustrated that few students seem to desire to talk to faculty except to review exams. But then, many new buildings at any university discourage non-class meetings. In old buildings, faculty offices are often around the corner from most of classrooms. It is convenient for faculty, but is also easy for students to drop by on their breaks from other courses. In modern new buildings, classes are in their own wing or on lower floors, and students are, in turn, kept away from the teachers. Sometimes the undergraduate classes are all in their own separate buildings. To visit my office in our still very new college of business building, students exit the class area through a set of fire doors, go up stairs or an elevator, through another set of fire doors and down the hall. My office door closes automatically, so if I forget to prop it open, it seems like I am not around.
But I told this to Leanne to get her to understand her teachers, not to excuse them. After all, my incentives for not talking to her were even stronger than those for the teachers in her major.
The popular topic these days is student retention, education quality and the university's "atmosphere," but the solutions I hear often relate to social concerns, football games, clubs and housing. Other times there is mention of special classes or counselors to help certain types of students acclimate to the campus life. But we seem to overlook the simple things.
It is hard to "count" informal student interactions as part of annual faculty work evaluations -- administrators can count the number of research publications or the research grants generated, classes produce various forms of quantitative teaching effectiveness measurements, and our presence on committees is visible (if not always productive). Even if we could report our supplemental student interactions, they can't be weighed or evaluated. Faculty could pad reports. Some interactions could be destructive and not supportive and no administrator should assert that he or she could discern the difference from afar.
Then again, as we try to make faculty work "accountable," something is lost. In attempting to standardize classes, construct objective faculty work evaluations and quantify teachers' performance, the university loses that ineffable quality that makes the campus experience so important and worthwhile for students' growth.
The incentives are wrong. Then again, so are the faculty that respond to them. Fortunately, many of us don't.