Brian Spears

Poet, Editor, Teacher, Blogger.

The cost of education, and a bit on student evaluations

In the past, when I wrote about Stanley Fish over at Incertus, it was to blast him, usually over his (to my mind) ridiculous statements about atheism, and occasionally about his ideas on politics in the classroom. But here, he’s making sense when he talks about the problems with the consumer view of higher education and student evaluations. I have some slightly different thoughts, though not disagreements, on the two matters.

Fish’s issues with the consumer model of education are well worth reading, but they neglect one major flaw with the model as a whole, in my opinion. Even if we were to assume, for the sake of argument, that students are consumers purchasing an education, we also have to acknowledge that students are never paying the actual cost of that education. They get closer when they attend private institutions than public ones, especially if they receive absolutely no financial aid, but even then, they’re not covering the actual expense of their attendance.

And that’s because schools, particularly public schools, have alternative revenue streams. They receive tax dollars, both from federal and state governments, and they often receive funding from corporations for specific research projects, as well as funding from other grant-dispensing bodies. Depending on the university, a student’s tuition may only cover 10% of the actual cost of attendance. It seems to me that if the university is going to be concerned with making the people responsible for its funding happy with the product it’s turning out, then students aren’t exactly at the top of the list. There are other people and groups with a lot more skin in the game.

There’s also a problem with the metaphor itself. Education is not what a university produces, and it’s not what students, to the extent that they’re buying anything, are purchasing. A university (hopefully) produces educated people, people who have increased their ability to learn and to adapt and adjust to a changing world. Education isn’t a thing that can be purchased, after all (though a degree can be–but that’s not the same thing).

Fish’s objection to student evaluations is also a good one, and fairly self-evident, I think. It’s difficult, if not impossible to evaluate a class when you’re still in the middle of it, assuming you’re approaching it honestly. More often than not, they’re a tool to measure a teacher’s popularity with his or her class, and as such, they can be gamed to a certain extent.

During the regular term, we usually get our evaluation sheets with about 3 weeks to go before final exams, and the moment I get them, I start looking for the sweet spot in the syllabus to give them out. I avoid the following to the extent I can–days when a project is due, and days when a project is being returned. I don’t bribe, even in jest–no cookies, no promises of extra credit. The potential for backlash is massive. And I downplay their importance. I treat them like they’re no big deal, and that the sooner they get them done, the sooner they can start for their next class or their coffee-slushy and return all the text messages they got during class.

I’ve always gotten good evaluation scores, in part because I’m a good teacher who gets to know his students and is willing to work with them if they get jammed up. I’m also a good performer, comfortable in the give-and-take of class discussion. And I use self-deprecating humor all the time–that one works for me, but might not for everyone. But the worst evaluations I ever received–and they were only bad by my standards–were the ones I did right after giving back a paper on the day of the final exam review. I’d paired up the evaluations with two negative moments, and I suffered for it. Never again.

It’s a little silly that I go to such lengths for something that, by all rights, shouldn’t matter. Fish is correct when he writes that “they measure present satisfaction in relation to a set of expectations that may have little to do with the deep efficacy of learning.” And I suspect that most of the people in my department who determine whether my contract is renewed every year know that evaluations are a flawed representation at best.

But they’re not disappearing either, because the metaphor that the student is a consumer has taken hold, for better or for worse, and consumers get to rate their shopping experience. As long as that’s the case, it makes sense for me to control the circumstances of that rating as much as possible.

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June 23, 2010 - Posted by | Uncategorized

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