Let the Market Decide


Rufus F.

Rufus is an American curmudgeon in Canada. He has a PhD in History, sings in a garage rock band, and does a bunch of other stuff.

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64 Responses

  1. Avatar Damon says:

    The comments on the Slate article are funny, and on point.

    Flit Gunner 3 days ago said it best:
    “If anything they would be more like clients than customers.” The whole concept that students are customers of some sort of the college is hilarious. Of course they are. At a minimum they are customers of the college, not the professors.

    Sometimes I wonder about Slate writers……Anyone know the pay rate? I’m thinking I can churn out crap like that pretty effectively too.Report

  2. Avatar James K says:

    The Slate analogy is a trifle overwrought.

    Yes, relying on student evaluations as a firing metric is a terrible idea, but the idea that students being customers automatically leads to that seems like a leap in logic.

    One of the roles of a university is to provide an education to it students (who, since they are paying for this service can be considered customers). And it’s not ridiculous to evaluate a lecturer based, in part, on their ability to educate students. Just because the proposed measure is utterly inadequate, doesn’t mean there’s no such thing as a good measure for teaching.Report

    • Avatar Stillwater says:

      All that’s true, James. But why think that a student is in any position to judge a profs teaching ability or profs value to the university? I mean, they’re students? Doesn’t that word mean anything anymore!!11!!1

      I’ve had profs who would’ve surely received terrible evals (we didn’t have em back in the day) precisely because they expected the students to know before the lecture what they hell they were gonna talk about in class.Report

    • The most direct result of treating students as customers would be grade inflation.Report

      • Avatar Stillwater says:

        That’s my experience. Once student evals were introduced grades ballooned within our department. And not only that, the work load diminished. So better grades for less work. Win-win for the customer!Report

      • Avatar Rufus F. says:

        I’ve been saying for a while that the obvious impetus for the “adjunctification” of higher ed is that it’s an easy way to standardize grade inflation. In that sense, it’s probably better to have grad students teaching courses than adjuncts.Report

  3. Avatar Tod Kelly says:

    The plan Chelgran looked to impose was beyond silly, but that being said…

    I will say that defenders of academia rely a little to heavily the foibles and silly utterances of right-wing politicians and pundits as a way to not have to deal with academia’s shortcomings.

    Students may not be people who need expect “good customer service,” but these kind of complaints aren’t hatched in a vacuum. Most universities have a no shortage of classes taught by excellent (or at least passable) researchers who are terrible, terrible instructors. Coming from a family-friends network of many, many such academics, I can attest that being a good researcher but a terrible instructor who can’t be bothered to show up for students is often a point of pride and badge of honor in the industry. Many professors hate teaching, and have no qualms with letting the students know they have no interest in engaging any but a small number of them.

    I’m paying me some big-ass tuition checks these days to a state school that now charges upward of $100,000 for a BA degree, and this notion that this same university might not be willing to hire a professor that’s willing to show up and engage with students for that $100,000 is a situation that actually irritates me to no end.

    Dissatisfaction with the current model of *teaching* professors at universities isn’t actually just a right-wing, bumper-sticker, business-book idea from society’s meatheads.Report

    • Avatar Stillwater says:

      Many professors hate teaching, and have no qualms with letting the students know they have no interest in engaging any but a small number of them.

      Wow. I have to say that’s just about as opposite to my own experience – as a student but also as when in grad school – as you can get. There was only one professor I personally knew who didn’t like teaching, and when he was assigned undergrad classes he’d pay the university to not teach em. There was also a guy in physics who didn’t like to teach, but was also sorta world-famous in his field. I’ve taken undergrad classes in molecular bio where the prof basically gave graduate-level lectures every day (the content of which wasn’t in the text book) and expected us to know it well enough to for a test. (Brutal!) But it never occurred to me – even now – to say he was a bad teacher. (5 outa 120 kids ended up with As.)Report

      • Avatar Stillwater says:

        Sorry. Some errors here.

        It’s not that profs like or dislike teaching (I’m pretty sure that a majority of em don’t like it, to be honest), it’s whether or not they take the responsibilities of teaching seriously. In all my years in academia I have to say I’ve not encountered very many (two?) who don’t. Anecdotal evidence, sure. But still …Report

      • I’m with Still. I went to Berkeley, which is the Platonic ideal of the large research university where undergraduates are an afterthought, and I can only think of one professor who completely blew off teaching a class. (It was a giant second-year calculus lecture, and he came so unprepared that obviously didn’t give a shit about it.)

        What I did observe was that some of the grad students who TA’d didn’t care at all about teaching, and it showed, and apparently that didn’t affect their getting TA-ships for the following quarter. It was clear that being a TA was financial aid, period, and putting any effort into it was purely on the honor system. That needed to be fixed.Report

        • Avatar Stillwater says:

          Mike, If Berkeley was like CUBoulder, a TA was a student accepted into the PHD program and TAing was part of the deal (which later turned into teaching your own courses). The idea was that TAing exposed the PhD student to constructing lectures and lesson plans, grading (of course!), and interpersonal stuff like office hours. When I started out as a TA, there was absolutely NO (zeronadazilch) preparation for what was expected of us as Representatives of the University and Department. Same for when I was assigned my own classes. (When I asked the graduate advisor about how to construct a lesson plan or choose appropriate textbooks, he basically told me to figure it out on my own – in that long pause sorta way.)Report

          • I expect that he was capable of figuring out “show up on time with some plan for what you’ll do when you get there” on his own.Report

            • Avatar Stillwater says:

              Some people need more instruction than others, ya know?

              My guess is he was either a stone-cold genius (tolerated), he got run outa the department (gone), or he learned the error of his ways (changed). Either way, I hear ya, tho. (Which is why I wrote the above comment.)Report

          • @stillwater

            When I started out as a TA, there was absolutely NO (zeronadazilch) preparation for what was expected of us as Representatives of the University and Department. Same for when I was assigned my own classes. (When I asked the graduate advisor about how to construct a lesson plan or choose appropriate textbooks, he basically told me to figure it out on my own – in that long pause sorta way.)

            That was roughly my experience at the same school (but likely different department and maybe different time period depending on our respective ages and when we went there), except I wouldn’t say I got *no* preparation, just very little., and what little I got wasn’t much helpful.

            On some level, a lot of that is stuff one can learn mostly only by doing. But a lot can be mentored that isn’t currently mentored.Report

            • Avatar Stillwater says:

              You went to CU? (Go Buffs!) Heck, I didn’t know that. I went there over a few stints, actually. From 84-86. THen another go at it in 89 or so? After that I Got Serious, and attended from … hell , I can’t remember when I started with the restart, but I was there for 7 straight years. Got PhD program offer outa undergrad and didn’t have any better prospects, no other leads, so I took it. Turned out to be a lot of fun (of course) and a bit heady.

              But oh, man, did I learn along the way!Report

        • Avatar aaron david says:

          I had a lot of family members who taught at Cal, and as a group they hated teaching. They thought teaching anything with undergrads was a waste of time, as that was what grad students were for. They couldn’t figure out why my father liked being at Poly, as it was much more teaching and hands on focused.

          At least this is what they talked about at Thanksgiving.Report

          • Odd. Except for the bad experience I described, I didn’t sense this in any my professors.

            My brother’s also at a smaller university where teaching is emphasized, and he’s happy with that. And he does well on “rate my professor” 🙂Report

            • Avatar aaron david says:

              I think a lot of it has to do with how a prof is brought into the academic world, the field they are in, etc. Also, it might have a lot to do with the age of the prof’s. After 30 years attitudes might change.Report

          • Avatar Oscar Gordon says:

            Most of the Profs I found less than enthused to be teaching were from the Math department. I had a couple from the engineering school, but both of them were counting the days to retirement and it showed. Of all the math I had to take, only one really seemed to enjoy it, and he was visiting from Switzerland. Of the rest, the best I could say was that they were at least minimally engaged, and the worst was just awful (and his TAs were no better).Report

            • I didn’t see that, but I’d believe that courses provided as a service to other departments [1] are taught with less enthusiasm than courses taught to their own students.

              1. Especially those goddam science and engineering majors who just want formulas to plug stuff into and wouldn’t recognize a proof if they tripped over one.Report

              • Avatar Michael Cain says:

                Which nicely sums up the reasons why lower-level math classes are so often the examples of unhappy students. The department is told to cram calculus into all of those heads as fast as possible, at the lowest possible cost, and in the least math-like way they can. That’s a situation pretty much guaranteed to produce unhappy professors doing 300-student lectures with marginal TAs and minimal contact hours.

                I started out as a declared math major, so got to take the “calculus for math majors” sequence: the usual three semesters compressed to two (which makes for a bit of a brutal pace), class of 25 with the prof five days a week and no TA, engaged prof because the dept was careful about who they let teach that sequence, and taught as a math class where the proofs mattered as much as the resulting formulas. Really different experience than what the non-math majors got.

                Only one down-side to that arrangement. The prof was from Louisiana and believed a certain amount of formality was required in the classroom. To keep students engaged, he was inclined to call on people in the middle of a proof. I had occasional nightmares for years that involved a drawled, “Mr. Cain, what comes next?”Report

              • Avatar Oscar Gordon says:

                Well, the math classes I took were open to anyone, not just science & engineering types.

                Of course, past CalcII*, the only non-math majors taking said classes were science/engineering/computer science types, so…

                Still, many of us were not mechanical or civil engineers & actually had to use math as something more than a way to program our calculators with formulae, so it was nice when the professor was more engaged. I mentioned this before, but the math department always insisted it had to teach the math classes, because if engineering &/or computer science decided to develop their own math curriculum, the math department would shrivel up and not need their own tower on campus. So if they are going to insist on teaching it, they could at least find faculty who are doing it so grudgingly.

                *CalcI & CalcII were weeder classes, meant to filter out those who could not hack the math to be in a STEM field. These were taught in 300 person lecture halls with a bored professor, and discussion sections that were TA’d by financial aid grad cases who were not trained, not interested, and not proficient in english. They consistently got low evaluations (I learned this later when I was academic staff), but the math department just wrote it all off as disgruntled students. It was an issue.Report

            • Avatar DensityDuck says:

              It’s like the joke about “how to hunt elephants”.

              Mathematicians hunt elephants by going to Africa, throwing out everything that isn’t an elephant, and catching one of whatever is left. Experienced mathematicians prove the existence of at least one unique elephant before proceeding to Step 1 as a subordinate problem. Professors of mathematics prove the existence of at least one unique elephant, and leave the detection and capture of an actual elephant as an exercise for their grad student.Report

        • Avatar Richard Hershberger says:

          I went to UC Santa Barbara in the early ’80s. The problem with the science and math classes was that there were a lot of Chinese grad students teaching them, with extremely marginal English. Chinese students at an American university was a newish thing then. I don’t know if they have worked out the problems since.Report

        • Avatar Kazzy says:

          @mike-schilling @stillwater @gabriel-conroy

          Would it be reasonable to charge less per credit for a course taught by a TA as opposed to a professor? Why or why not? I ask this genuinely, mind you…Report

          • Good question. The douchebag TA I mentioned above taught the lab part of the stat class; a full professor did the lectures. (The professor was, by the way, a great teacher, though he kept pushing his idiosyncratic belief that the skew normal distribution should always be used to model real-world data, rather than the simpler normal distribution.)

            My English 1A class was taught by a full professor and 1B by a grad student, and they were of pretty equal value. I think I could teach a reasonably good first-year calculus class, and I just have a B.A.Report

          • Avatar Oscar Gordon says:

            All my CompSci classes were taught by TAs & they all rocked.Report

          • I’m not sure, @kazzy . In keeping with Mike Schilling’s example, all the classes I was a TA for were theoretically “taught” by professors–with TA’s “teaching” discussion sections–so it would be hard to charge differential rates, although I suppose we could charge reduced rates for larger classes (say, 100+ students), which tend to be the ones with TA’s.

            By the way, even though I can cite some examples of professors just punting and laying most of the work on the TA, many more professors were competent and took an active role in the class for which they had TA’s. Even the relatively bad ones tend to fall into two camps. The first includes professors who are high maintenance, or who mean well and are just not great teachers. Those are relatively conscientious and it’s often a pleasure to work with them.

            The second group, a VERY small number but the most conspicuous, just punt and don’t live up to some very basic professional standards, like not showing up for lectures. One professor, for example, consistently–as in every semester–was absent for an equivalent of at least 3 weeks of lectures for which the TA, which during one semester was me, had to fill in (until I told him/her that I refused to do it any longer).Report

  4. Avatar Stillwater says:

    Chelgren, from the linky:

    Do I think that students who…are spending thousands of dollars to get an education are qualified to make those decisions? Absolutely. Why wouldn’t a student be qualified to make those kinds of determinations?

    Wait a minute. If the students know so much, why aren’t they teaching the classes?Report

  5. Chelgren’s a state senator. Being in danger of losing his job because of largely clueless evaluations is something he’d know a lot about.Report

  6. Anyway, student evaluations are self-regarding.Report

  7. Avatar Kazzy says:

    While the writer is correct to denounce the proposed legislation, he rejects one assumption (students as customers) by relying on two other, equally questionable assumptions (the customer is always right; success in business is defined by maximizing profit).

    Students are undoubtedly consumers of education. And, as such, their opinions on education matter… to an extent. I mean, if their opinion of education was such that it was entirely worthless, they wouldn’t spend a dime on college at all! But customers are NOT always right and, as we discussed recently Mr. F., defining success solely by profit is problematic by any number of reasons.

    As someone who works in tuition-based schools, we are constantly considering the needs/wants of our consumers (which in our case is the parents who to varying degrees consider the feelings of their children) and our broader mission… which doesn’t mention profit anywhere. Yes, the business manager is constantly wringing his hands together about the financial bottom line. But my point is that ALL of these things matter and the tensions that exist between them are why we hopefully have competent leadership at our educational institutions who can identify how they can fulfill their mission, please their consumers, and do so without going deep into the red.Report

  8. I roughly agree with @james-k and @tod-kelly above. I will say that just because students can’t really be the final judges on what they’ve learned–or at least they can’t until having had a few years, maybe longer, to reflect on it–they can judge how clearly a professor presents things, how respectful the professor is for them, and how much the professor honors his/her office hours or makes time to meet outside of office hours.* Students may not be “consumers” in the sense of being entitled to that B they’ve “purchased” when they enrolled for a class, but they’re consumers in the sense of being entitled to instruction in what they’ve signed up and paid for and entitled to respectful treatment.

    There’s also the phenomenon of venting about students. Most people (TA’s, adjuncts, profs) do it, and maybe some of it is healthy, but sometimes it gets to the point of being something like contempt. That’s almost similar to the way customer service personnel talk about their customers when out of earshot. In that sense, students are treated like customers already.

    Sometimes some adjuncts/professors I know like to post on facebook less-than-anonymized comments about their students. In my opinion those comments veer into the mean spirited at least sometimes. Is that’s really how they’re supposed to be treating people who pay their salary? We can complain the salary is not enough. We might even object that the instructor’s pay is more from other sources than from tuition. I won’t necessarily concede that, but if I did, I’d still point out that instructors wouldn’t be instructors without their students.

    There’s lots to decry about an over-focus on evaluations. Maybe they don’t really measure the instructors’ true value and maybe they encourage instructors to pander and be entertaining rather than actually do their jobs. But a little bit of the “students are customers” mindset is needed.

    I would soften a little Tod’s point about some researchers not liking teaching. As an undergrad, I did get the sense that most of my professors really did care about teaching, at least in the upper-division major-oriented classes. (The intro levels were mixed bags). In my experience in grad school, however, most professors claim to love teaching (undergrads) but in practice showed varying degrees of commitment to it.

    Finally, I did read the Slate article and realize what the author is describing is the typical bloviations we have grown accustomed to from that side of the political spectrum. So yes, the shibboleth of “customers” probably doesn’t work for those types of policy questions.

    *And let’s face it, if all the students showed up at a professor’s office hours, which at some schools is only ONE “office hour,” then there wouldn’t be time to meet with most of the students. Of course, professors often claim they want more students to show up at office hours. Sometimes the same professors leave their office hours/hour 15, 30 minutes early because “if nobody’s showed up by now, they won’t.”Report

    • Avatar Stillwater says:

      I guess I have a bit a trouble with a “student” centered approach to academia, and favor (for lack of a better word) a “subject matter” approach. The idea that each particular student ought to be the focal point of each professor’s interests, and the institution’s interests more generally (ie, the idea of the student as consumer), just strikes me as anti-thetical to what a university education is not only culturally about, but what it’s supposed to be about. I mean, it’s really a “right stuff” sorta thing. In my view, anyway.Report

      • Avatar Stillwater says:

        Adding: I had kids come to my office hours repeatedly, every time I had em, trying to understand the material so’s they could do better on the tests and the papers. And while it’s sorta heart-wrenching to see some of these kids care so much and still not get it, I don’t think that any of that really ought to matter.

        The fact that I gave them better grades than they deserved because of the effort the displayed is something I’ll have to live with. 🙂Report

      • I get where you’re coming from, and I do disagree with the extremes to which many people take the “students are consumers” mantra. I just think that professors and TA’s might do a little better if they treated students with the kind of respect that decent customer service reps treat customers. To an extent, of course. It’s not lost on me that as someone who now works in an academic library (at least for the time being and knock-on-wood for longer), it’s easier for me to see the upside of the “customer service” model, because the reference work I do is more customer service-y. Not completely, but more so than teaching is.

        As for your office hours anecdata, mine differ a little. Usually, students came in only around the times papers were due, probably because I volunteered to read rough drafts. They also came in after papers or tests were handed back, because they wanted to know why they didn’t get the grade they had thought they deserved. One sad consequence of that–and this isn’t the students’ fault, though perhaps its partially mine–is it gives an incentive to grade and write comments on papers/tests in such a way as to justify the grade, and not necessarily help the student.

        I will say that I tended to be a lenient grader. Or I started out VERY strict, and softened up over the years. I also tended to give people bumps up for trying hard. Which is….problematic (I hate that word, but I have a hard time thinking of another).Report

        • Avatar Stillwater says:

          I just think that professors and TA’s might do a little better if they treated students with the kind of respect that decent customer service reps treat customers.

          Well, after deleting three (3) snarks (cuzza politics!) I’ll only say I have no idea what this claim actually means other than treating students more like customers. Who are paying the prof’s/TA’s paychecks. So they’re beholden to those folks “good graces” to retain their employment. And so on.

          Bu if you just mean that uni level teachers should respect students as people, then I have no problems. I’d just wanna know how “respect students as people” gets cahsed out, particularly if respect=treating as a consumer.

          But hey, I’m old school about all this stuff. None of the kids today wanna hear my tired ole views.Report

          • Well, in most customer service situations where I’m the customer, I’m usually treated pretty well. #notallcustomerservicereps, but still. I just think some of my respect-challenged former professors and respect-challenged former grad student colleagues might do well to at least show gratitude and respect to the people who are responsible for them having a job.

            If a professor or TA arrives at giving respect through some other metaphor aside from the customer service metaphor I advocate, then they don’t need the metaphor and the more power to them.Report

            • Avatar Stillwater says:

              I just think some of my respect-challenged former professors and respect-challenged former grad student colleagues might do well to at least show gratitude and respect to the people who are responsible for them having a job.

              Well, there ya go. If academia moves to this view, then I don’t think it’s worth saving anyway. It’s already over. You pay for your ticket, you not only get your ride, it takes you where you wanna go.Report

              • I don’t think being treated with basic respect and courtesy counts as a ride. It’s just the due. (I’m not talking about giving people guaranteed B’s just because they paid tuition)

                ETA: I’m leaving this conversation now, at least for the time being. But I’ll read whatever response you leave. I won’t guarantee I’ll respond in turn.Report

              • Avatar Stillwater says:

                No, but expecting professors to be beholden to consumers who pay their salary is definitely taking them (the profs) for a ride. Grade inflation? Minimized expectations? Keep the customer happy?Report

              • I’ll first just reiterate what I said below, and what maybe you didn’t have a chance to read when you made this comment, and that is I don’t support “making the instructors beholden to their good graces to retain employment.”

                And when I say students are consumers, there are some very basic things they’re paying for. Class time (some professors don’t show up even if they don’t have a good reason….they’re a very small minority, but it happens). Office hours (some professors don’t show up for even the very minimally required office hours). Willingness to make reasonable arrangements to meet outside of office hours if those hours don’t work for the student. I get that when you were a TA you were conscientious, and in my experience most TA’s and even most professors, were conscientious, even though most of those did indeed engage in some of the student bashing jokes I’ve spoken about. But some people just don’t show the professionalism you did.

                And again, if someone prefers a metaphor different from “students are consumers”–and you seem to–then more power to them (and to you). My chief goal is that people respect their students enough to treat them with the minimal professional courtesy that I believe to be their (the students’) due. Whether they do so by seeing their students as consumers or through some other way is less my concern.Report

          • Also to this:

            Who are paying the prof’s/TA’s paychecks. So they’re beholden to those folks “good graces” to retain their employment.

            I don’t support making the instructors beholden to their good graces to retain employment, although I do some place for something like evaluations. What I do support is some introspection. Too often–in my admittedly anecdotal observations–students are looked upon as a nuisance rather than one of the main reasons the professor/TA does what they do and rather than realize without the students, they wouldn’t have their positions as instructor. Some of “looking upon as a nuisance” comes with the territory of any job when one has to deal with customers, but it’s possible to go too far.

            For the record, I think I’ve sometimes gone too far in looking at students as nuisances or making jokes about “the kids I gotta teach” or whatever.Report

            • Avatar Kazzy says:


              I often see teachers talk about students as impediments to doing their job… instead of the folks whom they are there to serve. And while certain students can no doubt make our work harder… sometimes frustratingly so… losing sight of them as our charges is a huge misstep. I don’t know if this translates to the post-secondary school world.Report

    • Avatar Rufus F. says:

      I’m gonna say that I had quite a bit of disdain for colleagues that badmouthed students when I was in the trenches with my feeling always being Well, they’re your students, so how can you complain about how badly educated they are in your subject?

      That said, I would suspect there’s a correlation between how contingent an instructor’s job is on getting good evaluations and their gripes about students.Report

  9. Avatar Kazzy says:

    I think this flows in both directions.

    “I don’t like the way you’re teaching. And I’m paying you to teach.”
    Responses can range from:
    “I’ll do as you wish.”
    “Stop paying me and someone else then.”

    The middleman of admin of course impacts all that.Report

    • Avatar Stillwater says:


      D0 you know offhand what the correlation is between “I don’t like how you’re teaching!” and poor performance from the student?

      As Garrison Keillor famously proved, all children are above average.

      Edit: Sorry. He proved that we all live in Lake Wobegon!Report

      • Avatar Kazzy says:

        I really have no idea. I teach four-year-olds. But given what we know about teaching/learning styles, it is possible for both the professor and student to be “right”. It is possible the professor is using a perfectly effective form of teaching and that the student is performing poorly because of it. In which case you have a mismatch between the two. Depending upon the age of the student, the accountability for resolving that situation can really lay anywhere on the spectrum between the two. In my classroom, it is my responsibility to meet my students’ needs whatever they may be. In college, I’d put the onus squarely on the student… meaning he either needs to adjust and find a way to be successful or identify a better learning environment. In between, I’d say you’d need a gradual shift from one extreme to the other.Report

  10. Avatar Brandon Berg says:

    Wasn’t there a study recently that showed a negative correlation between student evaluations of professors and how well those professors’ students did in later classes in the same subjects?Report

  11. Avatar Jaybird says:

    What’s the point of a degree, again?

    Because judging professors on student evals makes sense under some of these paradigms. If you’re hoping to master the power hitter bong while making connections that will get you a good job in 5 or 6 years *AND* paying, like, $120,000 to do this, I don’t see why you would *NOT* be pissed at professors who gave you bad grades.

    They’re practically holding you back!Report

  12. Avatar Autolukos says:

    I have to say that I find Schuman’s Yelp examples amusingly off target, for the simple reason that I’ve taught both at two universities (as a graduate student at one and one course as an adjunct at the other) and at a programming bootcamp, where we actually get Yelp reviews. The bootcamp is much, much, much more invested in rigor than either of the universities (at least in the departments where I taught).

    The main difference is not that one has a Yelp page and the other does not but that the bootcamp has a simple, obvious, and short-term goal for students: get jobs writing software. Universities usually don’t have the same internal agreement and are dependent for funding on sources that may or may not share any of the institution’s goals. Nor is the goal that I favor for undergraduates (“provide a broad and rigorous education”) amenable to the kind of measurement that plays well in funding battles.Report