Teachers Must Dance to Studentsí Tune
KARL BORDEN,
PROFESSOR OF FINANCE, UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA
Wall Street Journal December 16, 1997

http://www.bus.lsu.edu/accounting/faculty/lcrumbley/teacherdance.html

 

I enjoyed reading Walter Benjamin’s encomium to Doris Garey, his freshman English professor in 1946 ("When an ‘A’ Meant Something," editorial page, Dec. 3, 1997) whose "literary expectations were stratospheric," and who "believed that teachers, like physicians, should respect the boundaries between themselves and their charges."
 

 

Here is what would happen to Ms. Garey in today’s academy: In her first year, Miss Garey would, as then, likely be assigned to teach required freshman English composition courses. Because her expectations would be high and her standards rigorous, at least half of her class would have dropped the course by the end of the semester, withdrawing before the final drop date and so receiving no penalty on their transcript.

 
 

The students who remained would be required to fill out an evaluation of Miss Garey’s teaching effectiveness (here at the University of Nebraska all courses must be evaluated by all students each semester). The students would grade Miss Garey on such questions as "Does the instructor stimulate curiosity in students?" "Is instructional time well spent?" and "Does the instructor employ a fair policy of grading?" It is unlikely Miss Garey’s evaluations would be good ones. Her policy of requiring students to research the provenance of their own errors would not score well on questions such as "Does the instructor encourage students to seek help?" And a classroom atmosphere that Mr. Benjamin describes as "the academic equivalent of my boot camp drill instructor" would be unlikely to produce student accolades.

 

In addition, with her strict standards and formulaic approach to grade distribution, Miss Garey would be lucky to escape at least one student grade appeal during the year. By the end of her first semester many students would have been in the department chairman’s office complaining of her "lack of flexibility"; by the end of her first year, Ms. Garey’s academic career could be in serious jeopardy. Her contract probably would be renewed for second year, but she would be strongly counseled that unless her student evaluations and student retention rates improved, and unless her grading standards came more into line with departmental averages, she would be a poor candidate for tenure.

 

Whether her annual contract would be continued to the point of a formal tenure review (four to five years into her career) is questionable, but without strong student evaluations it is extremely unlikely that she would survive the tenure process. Her colleagues and departmental administrators would doubtless insist they are fully in support of rigorous standards, and that student evaluations are only one of many sources of data considered by the tenure review process. But in practice a professor with consistently poor student evaluations and a reputation such as Ms. Garey’s would have little chance of success.

 

My Miss Garey was named Mr. Walker, and I attended his composition boot camp during my sophomore year in high school. I owe him a debt I can never repay.

KARL BORDEN
PROFESSOR OF FINANCE

UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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