March 15, 2004

A crisis of quantification

Martin Buss is professor of religion.

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 to think.”

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.