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Say the magic word, win ten thousand dollars

There’s been a lot of foofaraw about the proposal at Texas A&M to give a whopping ten thousand dollar bonus to the prof with the best evals. OK, that’s not exactly the proposal, but it’s really close to the proposal, and that’s the version that the foofaraw is about, as sparked by Scott Jaschik’s Inside Higher Ed note Faculty Pay ‘by Applause Meter’. In Left Blogovia, a lot of the conversation was actually sparked by Ezra sayin’ sumpin’ stupid, so a lot of that isn’t even about the thing that isn’t exactly the proposal at Texas A&M. But that’s all right.

For YHB, though, in conversation with my Best Reader, what was worth picking at was the idea of what a place like Texas A&M could do if they wanted to give a ten thousand dollar bonus each year to one teacher as a spur to excel at teaching. Let’s leave aside whether such a bonus is a good use of resources (it isn’t), and whether it would spur weak teachers to improve their teaching (it wouldn’t) or average teachers to improve their teaching (it wouldn’t), or good teachers to improve their teaching (it… might). Figure that, f’r’ex, Tex McBigBux has left a bequest for an annual ten thousand dollar teaching prize, and that the institution just has to decide how to administer it.

First of all, I think the prize committee should consist of the five previous winners. Accepting the prize entails agreeing to be on the committee for five years (except in the case of incapacity, death, or denial of tenure) and concomitant disqualification for the prize for a period of five years. I’m arguing that the people most able to judge good teacher are the best teachers, but there are other benefits to removing past winners from the pool, as well as to making the voting committee entirely faculty-based. The actual running of the committee, of course, should be done by one of the little old ladies (of any sex) who should be running the departments anyway; the little old ladies will be the first gatekeepers.

The first official narrowing, though, would be by nomination; only people nominated by their department chairs or colleagues would be considered. There should be some prestige, I imagine, in having a winner in your department, and although a particularly politics-plagued department would have fewer nominees and thus fewer winners, well, sucks to them. Nominations should be made via a moderately complicated form, which would allow the little old ladies to disqualify people at will, thus narrowing it down even further.

Then we go to the evaluations. Evaluations do suck, but they can be informative, particularly if you look at them in detail, rather than aggregating numbers. If necessary, every year someone from the stats department can come in and explain to the new committee member that a faculty member should not get a ten thousand dollar bonus because he paid some thug fifty bucks to keep the one student who hates him out of class on evaluation day.

Based on the nominees and evaluations, then, we come up with a slate of finalists, possibly five, maybe three, conceivably as many as seven, depending on how much work the committee wants to put in. Each finalist will get both an in-class visit from a committee member and an interview outside of class. In addition, for each finalist, some alumni will be contacted who took two classes with the instructor two years previously. Two years may not be the right time; there’s a balance needed between the perspective of time and the cost of disqualifying all faculty who have been at the institution less than n years. The alumni will each, in addition to filling out a survey similar to the one current students are given, have the opportunity to write a short essay arguing in favor or against the particular faculty member winning the prize. The alumni will be chosen by the Registrar’s Office, who know who took what from whom, the Alumni Office, who know who can be contacted where, and the little old ladies, who know everything.

The alum input should be weighted the heaviest of all the factors. In part, of course, that’s just a good way to sucker more money out of alums generally, but also it should emphasize to faculty and students that education is not for the end of the semester. The analogy that immediately came to my mind is that asking students to evaluate their instructors on the last day of classes is like asking passengers to evaluate airlines just before descent and landing. Most of the stuff people will eventually complain about is already there, and much of the stuff people will eventually compliment on is already there. But you don’t have your luggage, and you only have a pretty good guess than you’ll be on time, and really, the whole point of the trip—getting you there—hasn’t happened yet and maybe never will. In a lot of ways, it’s a lousy analogy, but it’s a blog, you know. Without the analogy, if you want to know if a professor is good, you need longitudinal studies, not snapshots of particular semesters.

What’s the point of all this blather about the correct way to run a program that isn’t going to be run that way, doesn’t actually exist, and would be a bad program even if it were run the way I mandate? The point is this: finding out whether teaching is going on—much less education—is time-consuming, difficult, complicated, error-plagued and laborious. Anytime anybody talks about holding teachers accountable for teaching at colleges or elementary schools, hold on to your wallet.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,