The academic world is in somewhat of a crisis. As it continues
to aim for first-rank status, Emory should help resolve the crisis
rather than get caught up in it. The central symptom is that—increasingly,
it seems—academic work is evaluated in terms of numbers rather
than more intuitive judgments of quality.
The difference between numerical and intuitive models of measurement came to
me early in my teaching. I found that true-or-false and multiple-choice exams
had objective results in the sense that a student usually had no basis for challenging
the grade. But these results correlated very poorly with the engagement and learning
evidenced in class. In contrast, responses to essay-type exams, which required
intuition for evaluation, correlated very highly with student learning, even
when the exams were graded by someone who did not know the students directly.
(Of course, in some other classes, the situation can be different.)
A comparable issue arises in student evaluations of their instructors. As reported
by Paul Trout in the July-August 2000 Academe, student responses on standard
evaluation forms have been shown to be wildly inaccurate and a goodly number
of instructors have admitted they lowered the level of their teaching in view
of course evaluations.
The questions currently asked of students in Emory College do furnish the teacher
with useful feedback about certain aspects of a course. How-ever the responses
should not be taken for more than what they are. For instance, it is hard to
see why structural organization of a course that is graded “9” (the
highest number) represents “better” teaching than one that is graded,
say, 8 or 7. One may even worry the course is too neat or rigid. More importantly,
it is doubtful that “clearly… explaining specific concepts” to
everybody in a class (as asked in one question) is a sign of good teaching. Should
not students struggle and think on their own? In fact, it is virtually impossible
to simultaneously clarify issues for the weaker students while challenging the
stronger ones. Some balance in this regard is needed.
Consequently, if the results of a standardized course evaluation are given to
anyone other than the instructor, the individual figures should not be averaged
to produce a single figure that presumably measures “good” teaching.
The absence of such an average will require anyone who looks at the answers to
assess the responses individually. Fortunately, the college uses standards that
are more intuitive than numerical ones, but I have seen from department chairs
the written injunction, “You need to increase your numbers,” instead
of, “You need to increase your teaching effectiveness.”
Numerical standards arguably are an even more serious problem in the evaluation
of research and publication, yet there is an increased tendency to count books
and articles. This standard is probably in part due to a lack of confidence by
administrators who are afraid that faculty members are unable or unwilling to
adequately evaluate quality. It is probably also due in part to a lack of self-confidence
by faculty members in their ability to judge, together with a desire to avoid
unpleasant challenges by the people whose work is evaluated. After all, numbers
are not readily challenged.
In any case, one almost constantly hears this advice to junior faculty: “You
need to finish this book,” “You need a second book,” or, “You
need more articles.” Such advice assumes that evaluation for tenure and
promotion will be based largely on numbers. It assumes further that junior faculty
members regularly set too high a
standard for their work.
In practice, this advice asks them to forego their own interests in favor of
topics that will yield quick results. George Benston of the Goizueta Business
School gave clear expression to the situation in the September 2000 Academic
Exchange: “Everything is designed as to what the top two or three journals
will accept, not as to what you want to do or what is your best work.” I
have heard similar comments from faculty members both here and at Georgia State.
A surer way to dampen creativity can hardly be devised. Instead of academic freedom,
we have academic servitude.
Of course, it is sometimes appropriate to encourage a faculty member not to aim
too high and to be satisfied with producing a less-than-ideal volume. Yet, even
in the humanities, ideas may well be better expressed in a fine article than
in a merely adequate book. In particular, in philosophy—where thinking
and reflection are generally considered important—some of the finest work
has been done by persons who published very little. In other areas, scholarship
is being drowned in an excess of publications. Modern Language Association President
Stephen Greenblatt has urged a rethinking of the book requirement for tenure
since it overwhelms publishers.
What would be an alternative standard? Except in rare cases, it can be evident
from the very start in the hiring process (or, at least, within a few years)
whether a candidate has lots of ideas and a burning desire to pursue and convey
them. Such creativity should be the standard for tenure and promotion. Men-toring
should be devoted—not to showing how to play the numbers game, but to encouraging
junior members in the refinement and expression of their ideas.
The advantages of such an approach are numerous. Again, it will increase rather
than dampen creativity. Furthermore, it will give a better indication of what
faculty members will do once they are granted tenure. After all, persons who
must be pressured to “produce” as untenured faculty may very well
stop doing so when they are subject to less pressure.
Perhaps especially important is the fact that collegiality can flourish. As the
pressure to produce numerically has increased in recent years, the readiness
of faculty members to engage in intellectual discussions with each other or to
comment on each other’s writings prior to publication has sharply declined,
as has been observed widely. Collegial exchange does not threaten the quality
of one’s own work (it may even have a positive effect), but it does impair
the quantity; under current conditions, generous persons are “selected
out,” as an Emory colleague said told me recently.
The points I am making are far from novel and are being discussed
nationwide. Rebecca Stone-Miller from art history made a similar
point in the Research at Emory report when she said faculty need “time
Some may worry that the policy advocated would impair Emory’s move toward
greater heights. My sense is the opposite—Emory can lead the way toward
a freer and more creative academic atmosphere. It has the money to hire first-rate
faculty members and offer them an exciting atmosphere. The best candidates
would be drawn to a school that values quality over quantity. Current faculty
can reach toward more significant goals. Students, too, may catch the spirit
of intellectual excitement. Consequently, more students may be attracted to
Emory. The most important reason for the proposed policy, however, is that
it has intrinsic worth.