Tuesday, September 18, 2007

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A post in which I go against my material self-interest

Greg Mankiw links to a James Miller column in Inside Higher Ed on how to promote better teaching in the academy. It involves -- wait for it -- giving more money to professors:

What tools should colleges use to reward excellent teachers? Some rely on teaching evaluations that students spend only a few minutes filling out. Others trust deans and department chairs to put aside friendships and enmities and objectively identify the best teachers. Still more colleges donít reward teaching excellence and hope that the lack of incentives doesnít diminish teaching quality.

I propose instead that institutions should empower graduating seniors to reward teaching excellence. Colleges should do this by giving each graduating senior $1,000 to distribute among their faculty. Colleges should have graduates use a computer program to distribute their allocations anonymously.

Some academics have already pointed out the potential effects on grade inflation. There are two other reasons, however, why I think this idea wouldn't work.

First, the professor-student relationship does not necessarily end at graduation. A large swath of students rely on their former professors for letters of recommendation on the job market and for graduate school. My fear about this proposal is not that it would lead to grade inflation, but praise inflation in letters of recommendation.

My second reason is more amorphous, and perhaps more easily dismissed, but I just don't think professors will warm to the idea. This is not (only) because bad teachers would be the relative losers, but because the good teachers would feel weird about getting the money. I suspect that most professors do not want to be part of a profession that thrives on gratuities. This might be a blinkered bias (or it might be an example that supports Tyler Cowen's assertion that some market transactions only work under certain environmental conditions), but it still exists. And I'm not entirely sure the students would feel comfortable with this idea either. Even if the professor-student relationship is a market transaction, it's also an authority relationship, and this will inhibit market-based activity to an extent.

Of course, it is useful to point out that the greatest economist of them all would have heartily agreed with Miller:

The endowments of schools and colleges have necessarily diminished more or less the necessity of application in the teachers. Their subsistence, so far as it arises from their salaries, is evidently derived from a fund altogether independent of their success and reputation in their particular professions.

In some universities the salary makes but a part, and frequently but a small part, of the emoluments of the teacher, of which the greater part arises from the honoraries or fees of his pupils. The necessity of application, though always more or less diminished, is not in this case entirely taken away. Reputation in his profession is still of some importance to him, and he still has some dependency upon the affection, gratitude, and favourable report of those who have attended upon his instructions; and these favourable sentiments he is likely to gain in no way so well as by deserving them, that is, by the abilities and diligence with which he discharges every part of his duty.

In other universities the teacher is prohibited from receiving any honorary or fee from his pupils, and his salary constitutes the whole of the revenue which he derives from his office. His interest is, in this case, set as directly in opposition to his duty as it is possible to set it. It is the interest of every man to live as much at his ease as he can; and if his emoluments are to be precisely the same, whether he does or does not perform some very laborious duty, it is certainly his interest, at least as interest is vulgarly understood, either to neglect it altogether, or, if he is subject to some authority which will not suffer him to do this, to perform it in as careless and slovenly a manner as that authority will permit.

posted by Dan on 09.18.07 at 08:37 AM


So Prof D, you're afraid that students might not reward teachers based on their merits -- and department chairs do??? Puhlease.

Your first objection is that teachers might be influenced by the promise of an award. (Really, Prof D, I awarded the entire $1000 to you. Now would you please write me that recommendation?) Gimme a break.

Your second objection is that it is unseemly to be rewarded for a good job. It's a good thing you teach PolySci and not Econ. You may not be aware of this, but the teacher-student relationship is not one of authority, but employee. Yes, that's right, the teacher WORKS FOR THE STUDENTS. Who is in a better position to judge his employee's performance? As any anyone who has ever taken a class after graduation strictly to learn something will tell you, the value of a teacher is how well he teaches, not the grade. Those immature students who don't get it cannot possibly foul up the system worse than it already is.

posted by: OpenBorderMan on 09.18.07 at 08:37 AM [permalink]

Being a good teacher doesn't always equate with being liked by students. The most popular professors are often those who use a "dog and pony" show in their classes, but are they really the best? Is the professor who does nothing but lecture, or the one whose grades are much lower than his colleagues, necessarily a poorer educator?

Furthermore, OpenBorderMan's comment above is way off the mark. Professors do not work for students. Students do not purchase an education and the relationship is not one of employer and employee. Rather, the educational model is much closer to apprentice/guild model of old. Students purchase the opportunity to study with professors, but the professors are not obliged to the students. We can fail underperforming students, deny them their diplomas, kick them out of the university, and so on.

Altering that relationship would most likely dilute the quality of education by incentivizing professors to pander to the opinions of their students. Remember, students do not know what their education should look like. That's why they're students.

posted by: Seth Weinberger on 09.18.07 at 08:37 AM [permalink]

I appreciate the constructive criticism, Seth, but it's pretty clear that you're a teacher, because nearly all teachers hate the idea that they work for the students. Have you never taken a class as an adult? If so, surely you knew what you wanted to learn from that class. Furthermore, I would argue that even the "kids" know what they want to learn. Most are not impressed by "dog and pony shows." That condescending attitude of yours is sure not to win you a lot of admirers.

posted by: OpenBorderMan on 09.18.07 at 08:37 AM [permalink]

"nearly all teachers hate the idea that they work for the students."


Yep, we do. It's this attitude that leads students to sit in my office and demand a better grade because "they paid for it." It's this attitude that makes deans very wary when faculty want to fail a student for fear of a lawsuit from the student or his/her parents: "We paid for this class. How can that professor then not give him credit for having taken it?" Yes, I've heard that argument made.

We're not hired by our students. We're hired by our colleges or universities. When we get to the point where faculty are thought of as the employees of students, then all hope really is lost for higher education.

posted by: anon on 09.18.07 at 08:37 AM [permalink]

I didn't make myself clear, and the other commenters make a good point. The student pays for an education, but that includes submiting oneself to the grading process. I agree that paying for a class does not entitle the student to a certain grade. Don't even get me started about the "entitlement culture" of today's society (and especially the youngsters).

But still, the university acts like an agent, in the same way that joining an HMO makes the physician indirectly the patient's employee. A physician who insists that he answers only to the HMO is likely to give poor care to the patient. There are no profs out there who see the merit in that perspective?

posted by: OpenBorderMan on 09.18.07 at 08:37 AM [permalink]

Who pays for what is a little complicated in higher education. Ordinarily it is not the student but the student's parents who pay for the student's education. Sometimes the government helps; sometimes the student pays for it by taking on debt he or she would not be able to but for a government financial aid program. And sometimes the school itself finances the education in whole or in part.

All this makes the question of who is working for whom more than a little ambiguous. The nature of the service provided is also subject to some ambiguity; the credential of a university education is more or less a constant, but the quality of that education is often hard to assess until years after the fact. Also, no professor is more than partially responsible for the education of any one student, and as Seth Weiberger very rightly points out, college students cannot be assumed to be trustworthy judges of a professor's worth by reason of their youth.

All this makes analogies between higher education and other service industries problematic. I note also that the fact of this problem's -- how to promote better teaching --having existed since the time of Adam Smith (if not long before that) may suggest that it has no ideal solution.

posted by: Zathras on 09.18.07 at 08:37 AM [permalink]

Zathras, You make two interesting points.

1) The real customer is the one who pays, so the student has no right to judge the quality of the service. But if someone buys you a car as a gift or if you won it in a lottery, is the car dealership less obligated to provide good service? Does the HMO doctor have less of an obligation to the self-pay patient than the patient who's coverage is paid by his employer? And what about the students in the classroom who ARE paying their own way? Should they be segregated?

2) Students are too young to make an informed judgement. If you know nothing about how to judge the quality of whatever service, are you not entitled to fill out one of those comment cards? And, as I mentioned earlier, what about adults who come back to school with a clear idea of what they want from their educational experience? Again, segregated classroom?

Certainly it's true that there is no ideal solution. But part of thge reason this problem has persisted for 1000 years is that the teachers resist logic. All these arguments that the student aren't entitled to judge the quality of the education are elitest and anti-free-market.

posted by: OpenBorderMan on 09.18.07 at 08:37 AM [permalink]

What's wrong in being elitist? I am proud to be one and so are many of my colleagues (and I might add many many more wise men of the old ages from Plato onwards) but they are too afraid of today's whatever-the-masses-want-is-good populist culture. The problem is the mass Higher Ed. that started with GI Bill...university education should be an elite matter and yes we do not need this many university grads and also this many profs., particularly in social sciences (which I am a part) and humanities. In short, university education has to be a priviledge not a right...

posted by: ElitistChauvinist on 09.18.07 at 08:37 AM [permalink]

If professors are paid proportionally to the number of students they teach, doesn't that reward better teachers -- because their classes will be more popular -- without any of the problems of Miller's proposal?

Of course I agree that teaching certain classes should be worth more per student; for example, advanced classes should be worth more than introductory ones; graduate seminars should be worth more than undergraduate lectures; directing independent study, and serving on a thesis or dissertation committee, should be worth the most of all (per student); because the payment should be based on the amount of work the professor has to do.

Best of all, of course, is simply to allow professors to charge whatever they wish for their classes, rather than having a salary from the university. The university's job should be to provide the facilities (for which they will get a percentage of the tuition) and to maintain standards, i.e. ensure that a degree from College X means that the student actually knows what he's supposed to know.

posted by: VentrueCapital on 09.18.07 at 08:37 AM [permalink]

It's important to keep in mind that James Miller said that the allocations would be anonymous. No student can go to the professor and credibly claim "I allocated $1000 to you" because there's no proof. That should improve teaching but prevent giving out individual favors.

By the way, the Chilean system of political donations works the same way: the only donations that are allowed are anonymous, but directed to a specific party.

posted by: anon. on 09.18.07 at 08:37 AM [permalink]

Nice post. I do think the current student-faculty relationship, where (conscientious) faculty continue to support students for a long time through letters and advice, will get diluted if money gets into the picture. I have benefited greatly from such kindness from my professors, and do what I can to continue this tradition toward my students. Let's keep the system the way it is.

posted by: Aravind Srinivasan on 09.18.07 at 08:37 AM [permalink]

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