06/04/2013 04:06 pm ET Updated Aug 04, 2013

Processing Professors in the Consumer University

Who are the best professors?

The results of a recent study of student evaluations in college introductory courses, which are highlighted in Nate Kornell's Psychology Today blog, are sobering.

When you measure performance in the courses the professors taught (i.e., how intro students did in intro), the less experienced and less qualified professors produced the best performance. They also got the highest student evaluation scores. But the more experienced and qualified professors did best in follow-on courses (i.e., their intro students did best in advanced classes).

The authors speculate that the more experienced professors tend to 'broaden the curriculum and produce students with deeper understanding of the material( p. 430)' That is, because they don't teach to the text, they do worse in the short run but better in the long run.

To summarize the findings: because they didn't teach to the test, the professors who instilled the deepest learning in their students came out looking worse in terms of student evaluations and initial exam performance. To me, these results were staggering, and I don't say that lightly.

The findings compelled Kornell to question the value of student evaluations.

Kornell's research is not shocking to those of us who have labored long in the teaching trenches of higher education. I teach a "demanding" introductory course in cultural anthropology. I ask the students to read four books -- from cover to cover, and I attempt to discuss issues that compel them to "think" both in class and on their exams. That approach compelled a recent response from an anonymous online student commentator: "Hardest 100 level course I ever took. GET OUT NOW!!!

I am certain that many -- perhaps even a majority -- of that commentator's classmates shared her or his assessment. But in each of the more than 60 semesters I've taught I've always encountered introductory students who "really get it." At the end of the semester, they express a desire to take additional courses. Some of them eventually become majors or minors in anthropology. In time many of these students show up in more advanced courses -- seminars during which we explore in depth the whys and wherefores of the human condition.

The question, I suppose, is what is a professor to do?

Should we reduce the intellectual rigor of a course to satisfy introductory student consumer demand? Should we bypass conversations about the philosophical implications of our research? Should we water down complex discussions of what we've learned from years of reading, thinking and writing about our research? In the name of satisfying our student consumers, should we re-tool our courses to make them more "satisfying" to student consumers?

There are increasing numbers of university people who think professors should be more student-as-consumer conscious, a conceit linked to the growing importance of teaching performance in hiring decisions and student evaluations in tenure and promotion deliberations. Universities have become more and more like businesses in which the focus is on finding ways to satisfy the consumer -- the students, many of whom attend the university in search of certification that will land them a job. There is nothing wrong about this orientation, but can such a narrow vision of learning define an education -- the cultivation of young minds to think critically and write clearly and compellingly?

In the contemporary climate of the consumer university, there is much talk of distance education, hybrid courses, and the ever-looming specter of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). University campuses are awash in mission statements, strategic plans, self-studies and ubiquitous assessment instruments. At my university administrators are advocating assessment instruments for academic advising.

The consumer university, which is characterized by administrative bloat, is well described in an article published in Washington Monthly. Although Benjamin Ginsburg wrote the essay in 2011, his words continue to resonate strongly:

Every year, hosts of administrators and staffers are added to college and university payrolls, even as schools claim to be battling budget crises that are forcing them to reduce the size of their full-time faculties. As a result, universities are now filled with armies of functionaries -- vice-presidents, associate vice-presidents, assistant vice-presidents, provosts, associate provosts, assistant provosts, deans, deanlets, and deanlings, all of whom command staffers and assistants -- who, more and more, direct the operations of every school...

How do you keep all of these people busy? For one thing, these functionaries, many of whom have little or no experience of scholarly research or university teaching, ask faculty members to help implement their marketing models. They require faculty members to design assessment instruments for courses and advising. They require faculty to devise departmental mission statements that outline ways to measure student outcomes. They come up with cutting-edge budgeting procedures and new online apps that enhance teaching performance -- and better evaluations -- in the classroom. They even hold workshops not only to instruct faculty on how to assemble tenure and promotion dossiers, but also how to keep students interested in what's being taught in the classroom.

It is not a bad thing to measure faculty performance and student outcomes. But
in the blinding light of sweeping change are we losing sight of scholarly depth and intellectual rigor, two factors -- at least for introductory courses -- that seem to result in poorer short-term student evaluations and outcomes: signs of consumer dissatisfaction?

There are, of course, many positive aspects to the digital revolution in higher education. In my view it is usually a mistake to turn your back on technological innovations that can improve how you communicate your knowledge to students. But sometimes the powerful possibility of the latest thing obscures what's important -- in the social life of the university. In an era of big data analysis it would be a terrible loss if our campuses are gradually transformed into certification factories in which professors and students become little more than processed data points in a consumer-driven institution.