Confessions of an Old Fart Academic

September 7, 2013

By Kyle Gann

I picked up Mark Edmundson's book Why Teach?: In Defense of a Real Education because of a Times review that mentioned his complaint about a college culture in which professors give slim homework assignments in return for good course evaluations from students. Boy, did that strike a nerve. Those student evaluations carry enormous weight. I do well on them. I'm a pretty good song 'n' dance professor. I bring up episodes from The Simpsons to make a point. I slip quotations from The Big Lebowski into my lecture and glance around the room to see who perks up. I am famous for my digressions, and occasionally a student evaluation will even admit, "His stories go wildly off-topic, but somehow they end up being relevant and adding to the discussion." I like to hear my jaw rattle, and when allowed a captive audience I can get a little manic (as a lot of people who know me socially would have trouble believing).

But you know what? At Northwestern I studied medieval music with Theodore Karp, a round little man with a distinct whisper and a slow, deliberate air. He had no song 'n' dance in him at all. Students beyond the front row could hardly hear him. Yet he knew every music manuscript of the 11th through 16th centuries top to bottom, and the calm, munificent way he dignified every student question, no matter how misguided, with a meticulous and carefully qualified reply, at whatever length necessary, made him a glowing presence. He was the Yoda of musicology. I was devoted to him, and after his 15th century class knew that period almost as well as the 20th century. As an undergrad I had an aesthetics professor, too, whose pause-studded lectures could cure insomnia, but we had great discussions in his office afterward. And the music theory teacher whose knowledge I most pass on to my own students today was distinctly lacking in charisma. As I look back, I was impressed by academics who could keep a class laughing, but there wasn't much correlation between how clever a lecturer a professor was and how much impact he or she had on me. It had to do with something else - perhaps a dogged determination to impart knowledge.

As a result, when I sit on faculty evaluation committees, I'm the one who ends up defending the boring but expert professors, the ones who get poor write-ups from non-majors who just took the class for a distribution requirement, but whose senior project advisees think of them as gods. And I'm a little ashamed of myself for feeling smug about my ability to entertain 19-year-olds. Though perfectly successful by the available metrics, I am not yet the type of professor I most admire.

One of the problems with college culture throughout the field, I think, is that teaching well is not rewarded much. Everyone smiles indulgently when a student raves about a professor, but it's publishing (mostly), committee work (somewhat less), and professional honors that raise one's profile in the institution. I resent switching my focus from my current book project to my next class, partly because it's the book that's going to impress my superiors and colleagues. That's kind of sad. Edmundson is exercised about college devolving into a credential factory, in which we entertain young people for four years and then declare them qualified for a job without having changed their lives, transforming their sense of who they are. He waxes eloquent on the way we present to them the great minds of the past condescendingly, without acknowledging how much superior they were to most of us today. My school recently lost a wonderful music teacher who had come from studying and teaching in Asia, and she was horrified by how lazy American students were. She wouldn't bend on her assignment workload, and her student evaluations suffered as a result; now she's teaching in Beijing, where she's more justly appreciated.

I emphasize that my own school is not extreme in this regard; Edmundson makes it clear, with reports from colleagues at schools all over, that college culture is fairly uniform, and heavily conditioned by mass culture and the internet. I've adapted too well to this undemanding milieu, and I'm trying to figure what to do about it. I cut the kids too much slack because they are just like I was at that age: arrogant, fragile, neurotic, and affronted by criticism. They come in having had their self-esteem artificially pumped up in high school, and their expertise in certain things I know little about - technology, pop culture, stuff they're read about on Wikipedia - is indeed impressive (as, Edmundson insists, our liberal relativism makes us all too quick to admit; wisdom has been reduced to knowledge, knowledge to information, and all information is equal). Yet they're also personally insecure enough that to hammer them about their cultural ignorance, their inability to think critically, would feel cruel. As one of my more perceptive colleagues put it (who paid his own way through college), "I'm resigned to the fact that I'm going to spend my career patting rich people's kids on the head." In one respect, many of them are not like I was: I am miserably astonished at how few of them really want to take pride in how good a theory or history paper they can write. Outside their performance major, meeting the bare minimum requirements is too often good enough. As a writer myself I want to push and push them to express themselves clearly and dig beneath the obvious facts, but pressing them too hard goes against the culture, and they're already insulted by a B-plus that I thought of as a gift.

I do not remember being nearly as focused on social life as kids seem to be today. Parties were a terrible trial for me, and I was little enough socialized that solitude was often preferable (and still is). I'm embarrassed today to recall how many classes I skipped, but I was constantly reading and studying for self-improvement. I remember reflecting that very little learning actually took place in classrooms (a self-fulfilling prophecy in my case), and that the main thing I could absorb from my music profs was their attitude, their jaunty disregard for things that didn't matter and their laser focus on things that did. That does seem to work for some students (and I seem to be the perfect teacher for the lackadaisical hot-shots who were most like me), but it doesn't work for them all.

On the other hand, Edmundson - several years older than I am - remembers a college culture in the 1960s that was different from the one I found. He had professors who challenged him, risked offending him, and changed the way he thought. I went to Oberlin in the '70s, and things, if he is correct, had changed. With the rapid rise in student population in the '60s, a slew of new young faculty got hired quickly. As I think back, many of them - even some of my favorites - seemed breathtakingly irresponsible. One of my professors spent an entire class reading us a crazy satire of musicology articles someone had written. He was brilliant, and tremendously entertaining. He was also the teacher who warned me that Cage was a charlatan and minimalism a scam, but I didn't think him less brilliant for that, only limited in perspective. It was not uncommon, at the time, for professors to require almost no work at all. There was a war in Vietnam; guys who flunked would get snapped up by the draft board (actually that ended the month before I turned 18); and grade inflation was through the roof. My GPA was 3.78, and I've always sworn I was in the bottom half of my class. In other words, if American college culture has really gone so far downhill, it seems to have begun happening after Edmundson went to school, and before I did.

Perhaps unfortunately, I developed my teaching style in conscious imitation of some of those professors, but I don't dare be as slipshod as some of them were; the climate has changed. Nevertheless, I'm going to try to see how much more I can push my students this year, without injuring their delicate self-esteem. The student evaluations can no longer concern me, because I've exhausted all the honors the school can bestow. As the old-timers tell me, I've only got two promotions left: "emeritus" and "dead." Unlike my more vulnerable younger colleagues, I no longer need the students to be my friends. I'm three times their age now, and I'd much rather they astonish me with their commitment, enthusiasms, and bursts of originality. Their lack of intellectual ambition is a perennial disappointment, and I'm going to try to focus on changing that, if I possibly can, rather than on keeping them entertained. I may even have to become boring.


artlib says: 60% of the faculty at my institution are adjunct instructors. For them, those evaluations are critical to continued employment. Until those who are only waiting for "emeritus" and "dead" status change how adjuncts are evaluated, the culture will never truly change. As an institution, higher ed needs to figure out where excellent teaching fits in. Some school have been on the cutting edge of focusing on teaching and pedagogy, but at other institutions where I have been employed I have seen faculty balk at the very idea that their teaching needs any improvement while insisting that assessing student learning takes too much of their time. We need to decide that students are a priority and not just something else that needs to be done to pay for research time.

NewbieProf says: This is inspiring to me. Thank you for sharing. I just had an epiphany during one of my lectures last week where I finally realized why I am teaching a Music Appreciation class (for non-majors): If they don't hear it from me, then who else? Furthermore, if I don't challenge them to learn a new vocabulary about music that creates cognitive space for critical listening and thinking, who will? So what if they aren't majors. It doesn't matter. College is about learning new stuff and on its own terms. Fortunately at my institution I feel greatly supported as a teacher and feel no top-down pressure to teach a certain way or "dumb down" the curriculum. I think viewing teaching as a calling more than a job has changed my perspective greatly. A calling requires personal responsibility to challenge students with homework and examinations that force them to apply the newly understood knowledge, not simply regurgitate information. A job, on the other hand requires entertainment, hand-holding, and kowtowing to many students' proclivities to "just get by."
Lastly, I learned little about teaching from most of my college professors. Most of what I learned was about credentialing. There is a myth out there that because you are "credentialed" in your field that the teaching will naturally flow from that. FALSE! Adding some pedagogy classes and administrative support for teaching skills training would go a long way. Thanks for your old fart confessions. It greatly encourages this young whipper-snapper.
KG replies: Thanks for the appreciation. I don't imagine there's ever any institutional pressure to dumb down the curriculum - at my school, quite the contrary - but we end up dumbing it down in order to successfully compete with the students' ubiquitous distractions.

UCBgrad says: As a parent of an about-to-go-off-to-college teen, I'm inspired by both KG and NewbieProf. Glad to know there are teachers who value their impact on the students and not just the system.

J. M. Gerraughty says: Great article, Kyle!
I have been teaching introductory music theory classes for non-majors, and as a member of the TA/Adjunct army, I've noticed a couple of trends not mentioned here that have certainly affected my teaching style.
1) I must quantify EVERYTHING, grade-wise. Today's students are very grades/numbers/analytics-minded. This is easy to cater to when you're teaching STEM courses, because if you get an answer incorrect, it's incorrect, and your grade is based off of how many correct answers there are versus how many incorrect. Music, not so much. One thing that I immediately had to step up was my grading rubrics for every assignment, because students would become immediately frustrated if they couldn't see how to get a perfect grade on the assignment. This focus on "what does it take to get the 'A' I want" takes away from the actual learning of the material, and replaces it with the mindset of, "get the highest score possible." Services like Blackboard provide students with the ability to see running totals for their grades for the entire semester, and I found that I had to keep up with those running totals, or else face a slew of anxious emails from students worried that they weren't getting an 'A.'
2) Students (or worse, their parents!) believe that, through litigation, they can change their grade. The end of the semester would roll around, and a paranoid pre-med student who had earned him/herself a solid 'B+' would frantically email me (it's always email; nobody comes to office hours anymore!) asking why they have a 'B+' and not an 'A,' and that they are trying to get into med school, and without that 'A,' they wouldn't have the GPA to get into their first choice school. This is where having that Blackboard chock full o' grades comes in handy! My biggest challenge came with the 10% "participation" grade, which I took to be a reflection of students' in-class participation, but was mostly interpreted as a gratis ten points tacked onto a final grade. Students would ask why their participation grade was so low, and when I informed them, they would argue that it was too subjective of a criteria to be graded on. I fixed this problem by replacing the subjective "participation" grade with an analytics-driven "retention" grade (see point 1 above!). I assigned my 35 students a number, and used dice to randomly select numbers each morning. Students would have to solve a some kind of question, usually something resembling their last week's homework, at the board. This meant that 10% of their final grade was calculated based on how well they fared when randomly tested on material they were expected to have covered. This also provided me with information as to how my students were retaining the material I taught them, which would allow me to figure out optimal times to give exams.
3) Students (and their parents) see their college education as a transaction, where good grades were "purchased" with tuition. My frustration with students' attempts to litigate with me were always interspersed with the occasional threat (implied or explicit) of ACTUAL litigation for not rendering the service which a student/parent payed for. This was a fundamental misunderstanding of what was being bought with tuition. They believed that they were not purchasing the opportunity to learn; they were purchasing the grade. This exchange almost always took the form of an angry email from a parent, stating something like, "I pay good money to have my child attend your institution, and this 'B-' does not reflect the education I paid for." This shift in perception as to what your money goes toward in college is poisonous to a proper education.

John Kline says: scary!

R, David Salvage says: I don't know if this is what Edmundson is suggesting or what others are implying, but I would not get rid of student evaluations altogether-even though all the problems raised here are real and need addressing. No one is better positioned than students to give such important "on the scene" information as whether the professor starts class on time, dismisses class early, cancels class too often, digresses too frequently in lectures, shows too many movies, passes back homework in a timely way, and so on.
What would be wrong with adopting the following policy? All students continue to fill out evaluations; however, students would now identify themselves (professors would never be able to see this information); and only those evaluations done by students with, say, a 3.0 average or higher (or, maybe, in the top third of students overall) would be counted and processed.
The assumption here is that such students are (more or less) taking their studies seriously and that teaching evaluations are only worth reading if written by students who are serious.
Of course, the policy is deceptive, and students will be uncomfortable identifying themselves. But these costs are, in my mind, outweighed by the benefits.
KG replies: I don't think anyone's ever suggested getting rid of student evaluations. It's all in how one interprets and weighs them. I've always said, if the administration doesn't like a professor they'll use the evaluations to get rid of him, whether they're good or bad.

Charlie says: Back in the 70's I was the grad student representative on the history department faculty committee (U of Minnesota) and was horrified to hear a discussion about a young professor who tried very hard to be an effective innovative teacher. That counted for nothing - what counted was what he had (or had not) published. On the other side of the coin I had a professor at Columbia who was, to say the very least, famous for his scholarship. His lectures consisted of reading from other people's texts, and nothing more. (This was a graduate level class) The only professor I ever saw who could pack up his briefcase and exit the room before any of the students

joe says: Dear Prof. Gann,
Thank you for the article. It draws me into an interesting perspective, and I'm inspired to tell you about my own horror tale in academia. I was born in 1981. Top of my high school class, top of my music program at UCSD, top of my graduate program in music at UC Irvine, and miraculously I was hired as an adjunct by my graduate institution immediately after graduation. My prospects for a future in academia, however, have crumbled beneath my feet because of incredible jealousy by your baby-boomer tenured counterparts within my institution, who could only view my small success as a threat to their hegemony. It is my strong opinion that what you are essentially describing as a problem is really just a generational gap needing to be filled by people like me. Being a "friend" to students, getting excellent reviews, giving out fair grades, and stimulating critical thinking are NOT mutually exclusive. The problem is truly relating to students. Professors should not be three times the age of their students. How many tenured professors do you have that are under the age of 30 or even 35? I would guess that more often than not they are adjuncts just barley scraping by or working multiple jobs like I did. From what I understand, pensions have been getting cut more and more, and its in the best financial interest for "old farts" as it were, to stay on rather than retire. Certainly new research dollars would most likely come from young vibrant professors, yet as we all know there is a incredible disparity in hiring trends. New jobs are going to older resumes. For the past year and a half after loosing my one adjunct class, even though it was incredibly popular and enrolled beyond capacity 3 years in a row, I have hit the wall of unemployment. My independent audio production company, and hard labor have been my only means of survival, despite such against all odds "success" in academia. Not to say that these woes fall upon your shoulders specifically, but I believe its important to grasp the entire academic picture from top to bottom. I appreciate where you are coming from and I pray that since you are in such a position of enduring power that you will think only of your greatest responsibility: Stimulating the crap out of your student's minds.
Thank you for reading my rant,
Joe Knox
aka Bboy Knoxy

Meta Brown says: Kyle,
The dramatic contrast between your 70s experience and Edmundson's in the sixties may be more a contrast in personal experience than a symptom of a great step-change in the academic experience. I attended university in the late seventies and graduate school in the early eighties and both were plenty challenging.
That said, it does seem that there are now many programs, even whole colleges, where students have an expectation that they are trading dollars for a degree. There is now a college for everyone, but not all are truly teaching at the college level. While many blame the youth and internet culture for this, I suggest that we give more thought to the culture that has evolved in our educational institutions, not only in colleges, but all the way down to preschools in some communities, and how schools encourage these expectations. What would happen if there were no radio ads promising a bright future to those who enroll right now?
It's also important that we question our frustrated professors. and the value of the criteria they have used to judge students in the past. J. M. Gerraughty tells an interesting story here about one alternative to the class participation component of grading. Class participation is a particularly important example, as it is used widely by teachers of all sorts, despite many obvious problems in objectively evaluating class participation. The New York Times just published a piece which discussed Harvard Business School's effort to address gender differences in evaluation of class participation, and this is far from the first time we've heard about that issue. I recall a study conducted by the American Association of University Women that revealed such differences, favoring boys, even when the teachers were female. That study was conducted long ago, and others have followed, but teachers still commonly use this fundamentally subjective measure in grading, and they haven't addressed its flaws.
Whatever problems we have in education today, we must address in ways that move our educational institutions, and our society, forward. Going back to the way it was when we were students would only return us to yesterdays problems instead of today's.

Lyle Sanford says: I had a great prof like the ones you talk about when I was an undergraduate (Duke '71) - with your French studies you may have come across his name - Wallace Fowlie. During some upheavals when the students went on "strike", i.e. not attend classes to make a political point, he was both horrified and despondent. For him the mission of the university far transcended quotidian concerns - he saw it as the destruction of centuries of precedent.
I think that the turning of the university towards political ends must have something to do with what you're talking about.
Another thing was the draft lottery. I got to be in the first one and my two digit number had a lot to do with my ending up a music therapist rather than an English teacher. To the male student population in general, a lot of things changed that night, including the politicization of a lot of previously non-political types.
Also, this post reminds me to say you have an amazing array of commenters!

Luke Gullickson says: Sounds like a fascinating book! A couple things-
1. The comment about knowledge/wisdom/information was particularly striking. My alma mater Illinois Wesleyan University has a great, subtle motto: scientia et sapientia, knowledge and wisdom, underlining the difference between the two. The unexpected fact that this motto was written by famed western explorer John Wesley Powell, who briefly taught at IWU in the years after the Civil War, echoes increasingly in my life path.
2. As a millennial (b. 1985), I'll stick up for recent university students by pointing out a few pressures I faced.
I was encouraged from a young age to diversify my activities, in order to have fine-looking college applications. I understand this has gotten much worse in the last decade. As a high school student I might have cast aside activities less important to me to focus on the things that really lit a fire under my ass (i.e. literature and music), but instead I was encouraged to participate in absolutely everything curricular and extra-, and this pattern didn't change when I got to college. I'm grateful that I got to take fantastic philosophy and history courses, but I didn't really need to double major, a practice that was fetishized at my school.
There was this idea, perhaps valid, that we'd get a great fundamental education and then focus in when we got to graduate school. Maybe it worked, I don't know. But it seems what you're noticing is that undergraduates aren't becoming experts in this environment.
Also, it's just assumed that well-to-do kids are supposed to go to college, and not much thought is given to why. I arrived on campus and wasn't really sure what I was doing there. This is at least partly due to the fact that no one had really asked me that question and put pressure on me to answer it personally.
On a note of encouragement -- if your students are dilettanting around (whether or not by fault of their own), an engaging professor who shows them the "way in" might be exactly what they need.
Also loved your comment about noticing how your professors lived, how they focused their lives on the important things they were passionate about. I'll always be grateful for the way my professors clearly put music above themselves. It was an example I'll always carry with me.

Copyright 2013 by Kyle Gann

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