Monday, September 22, 2008

pedagogy in the news

I'll be traveling for most of tomorrow and then going straight to class and then straight to bed, but for now, some links from today's NYT magazine:

Bad teaching evaluations can ruin your life if you are a bad or polarizing teacher who teaches at a liberal arts college that values teaching but are teaching evaluations a really good metric of teaching ability or are they really just bad mirrors of student dis/satisfaction? (in a nutshell, without proper grammar). I find this most interesting:

Even if the optimists were right, and teaching evaluations could help schools divine which professors were best at communicating the facts of freshman biology, there remains a big problem: the sciences are not the humanities. We know how much basic chemistry students need to know before enrolling in organic chemistry, but it is far more debatable which facts, skills and habits of mind a teacher of black theatrical history ought to convey.

This conundrum surely accounts for some of the murkiness surrounding the case of Anna Bean. She says she believes that part of her job is to discomfit students, to rid them of easy assumptions (for example, that being white, as she is, is the norm while everyone else is a minority). And in principle most professors would agree this is a laudable goal. But students don’t always want to buy what teachers think they’re selling. In their 2006 article, “My Professor Is a Partisan Hack,” the political scientists Matthew Woessner and April Kelly-Woessner, who obtained course evaluations from almost 1,400 students at 29 colleges, found that political-science students give poorer evaluations to professors whose perceived political views they disagree with. “Students even report they learn less from professors whose views are different from their own,” Kelly-Woessner says. “That’s counterintuitive. You’d expect that students would learn more from people with different ideas. But what the political psychologists say is that people tune out those who make them uncomfortable. It’s like why liberals don’t listen to Rush Limbaugh. Students believe they learn more from people who say what they say.” Kelly-Woessner found that the bias works against liberal and conservative professors almost equally. “There’s some expectation today that a professor be objective or evenhanded, and if professors violate those norms, they can pay a price for it in student evaluations,” she says.

Professors across the political spectrum may pay that price. But Carolyn Byerly, a former journalism professor at Ithaca College, argues that her radical views and focus on how race, gender and sexual orientation are handled by the media led students to destroy her chance for tenure. “I had submitted my tenure file — and I also included my evaluations, which included nine consistently excellent peer reviews from colleagues who observed my teaching,” Byerly says. “Then came the teaching evaluations. Overall they were excellent from my students, but those anonymous, handwritten evaluations were singled out by my dean and chair, and 43 of several hundred were selected as indications that I had not met the standard of excellence for teaching. Almost every one of the 43 were full of gender bias: ‘This teacher has a political agenda.’ ‘This teacher supports gay rights.’ ”

In one of the few lawsuits ever brought over student evaluations, Byerly sued Ithaca in 2001 for sex discrimination. She lost on summary judgment, and her subsequent appeal was denied by “three white male judges, one of them 87 years old, who didn’t understand why things like feminism and race and gender issues had anything to do with why I was brought there to teach journalism,” she says. (Byerly is white herself.) Ithaca, for its part, would only say through a spokesman that her claims of sex bias “did not have merit.” And to be fair, it’s hardly clear that Byerly’s sex was at the root of the school’s problem with her. She seems to admit as much when she describes the culture of the school. “Ithaca, campuswide, is almost exclusively white, almost exclusively upper middle class,” Byerly says (exaggerating slightly on both counts). “Somebody like me, who comes in and says we have to question things like class privilege and look at the ways the news is covering gender and race — someone like me is going to have a more difficult time getting along.”

Academic administrators want many things, from good pedagogy to clean campuses to successful athletic teams. Among the things they want most is for everybody to get along. One obvious way they learn about dissension is through student evaluations, especially in classes where the subject matter might allow professors to air personal, possibly radical opinions. Byerly’s evaluations at Ithaca showed that some of her students, an opinionated minority, felt no more kindly toward their white professor than she did toward the white, rich lot of them. She has a complicated explanation for why her department chairman and dean didn’t like her, which involves the “hegemony” of certain corporate interests over the school. Whether or not that’s entirely true, she could still be right that the school wasn’t interested in her brand of liberalism. And instead of saying as much, Byerly’s bosses had students, through their evaluations, do the talking.

See, as much bell hooks and Paolo Freire I've read, I'm just not that big a fan of teaching the politics of resistance, or too much political anything in one's teaching. While I am openly liberal, I don't like to shove my political views down my students' throats, particularly for issues upon which reasonable minds may disagree, and many do so violently. And I'm definitely not a fan of using Title VII in this way--the relationship between the employer (the university) and the alleged source of sex discrimination (the student evaluations) is too attenuated (unlike with supervisors, agents, etc.), and it is ridiculous to think that "students fire you." This just seems like an abuse of TVII's purposes, and even as liberal as I am or purport to be, I just don't care for these charges of sex discrimination, which to me dilute the meaning of a "hostile work environment" and go too far in blaming all unequal workplace outcomes on discrimination.

Obama as law professor! His pragmatic pedagogy will make for a pragmatic presidency, which I pragmatically endorse. This is a much better way to teach about race and politics, not to mention constitutional law and voting rights!

Also in this week's issue, teaching makes you write bad.

And with that, I leave you until Tuesday, when I shall return hopefully refreshed.