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The opinions expressed on this page are mine alone. Any similarities to the views of my employer are completely coincidental.

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

On Popularity Contests

I've taught, in a variety of contexts since 1987. I consider myself  lucky in that for the vast majority of that time I've been privileged to teach smart, motivated students, in what, by British standards, have been well resourced institutions. I'm not just lucky, I'm very lucky.

 I think I know something about teaching, what works, what doesn't work, what to compromise on and what to remain firm about. I think I also know something about listening, though I don't confuse listening with agreeing, which is a mistake that, sadly, is all too often made by people who are just a little too cocksure about the soundness of their own opinions ("You're not listening!" "Actually, I am listening, we just don't have the same opinion."). Having said that I'm sure I've still got something to learn - any teacher who goes into the classroom and fails to learn something new each year about the craft  is either cloth-eared or brain-dead (in my humble opinion).

There are some aspects of our modern teaching regime though that I am mildly skeptical about. One of these is student evaluation surveys. To be more precise, I'm not skeptical about the surveys in themselves - they are what they are - but I am skeptical about the way the information in them can be used especially by university managers in acts of intellectual terrorism.

Let me tell you a story to illustrate what I mean. At one time, when I worked at another institution, I simultaneously held  positions and taught courses in two different departments. Commonly I would deliver courses that contained essentially the same material to two different sets of students nested within two different departmental contexts. The courses had similar content because they were meant to fulfill basically the same generic requirements that made students  potentially eligible for  ESRC funding, something that both departments were nominally committed to. They both needed to learn the same stuff and I taught them the same stuff.

Though it's not an RCT the contrast between the two groups is quite informative. One group consistently year by year trashed my teaching.  I was, apparently, an incompetent whose knuckles barely avoided scraping the ground. My lectures and seminars were boring, irrelevant and confused. I was also, apparently a mysogyinistic, racist, elitist, naive positivist who should have been put out of his misery years ago. To boot I also didn't have a good command of my native tongue and created widespread misapprehension by communicating in regional dialect and/or arcane colloquialisms.

Well everyone is entitled to their opinion. I could have become quite depressed, but I was bolstered by several contradictory pieces of evidence. Firstly, in those days we had a regime of external visitations by the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) in which our classroom performance was observed and evaluated. On both occasions I was observed, my teaching was given the top ranking - 4 on a 4 point scale. I have to admit to vague feelings of schadenfreude when I  discovered that several colleagues who have gone on to  stardom had their classroom performances ranked as unsatisfactory (one actually boasted about it).

Secondly, I had the evidence from a 'control group'. I was teaching the same material in more or less the same way to a different group of students in a different department. Their evaluations were quite different. They liked my classes, found them interesting, well organized and useful. They found what I had to say sophisticated, relevant and clear. Their only complaint was that they wanted more time with me not less.

So what did I learn from all this? Firstly, at least according to external observation, there was nothing wrong with my teaching technique (the QAA's brief did not extend to judging subject matter content). Secondly, context and expectations make a big difference to student perceptions and these have little to do with teaching quality as judged by objective criteria. In one case I was being sent on a suicide mission and in another I was a missionary to the converted.

There is no point in being coy about it. The group that would eat glass rather than sit in a room with me were sociology students and the group that wanted to have my children (I exaggerate slightly) were students signed up for a course in social research methods. The former were actively told by some of my "colleagues" in one of the departments concerned that all this research methods  was just old-fashioned, irrelevant low-brow stuff that the department had to be seen to go along with in order to get the ESRC goodies, but should not be taken seriously and in any case was so difficult that it was unreasonable to expect any humanistically orientated social scientist to spend time on it. This message was reinforced by the simple fact that the material I taught was never mentioned in any substantive course the students took or in anything they were asked to read. Alexander, Bauman, Beck, Bourdieu, Butler, Castells, Deleuze, Derrida, Giddens, Latour and the rest of the alphabet are a little light on the details of how to link impressive sounding words to empirical evidence. It's little wonder the sociology students found what I offered irrelevant. In their ecological niche it was irrelevant.

So what the difference amounted to was that in one context I was constantly undermined and briefed against whilst in the other all colleagues sung from the same hymn sheet and supported each other (which is not to say that we agreed about everything, we just agreed, broadly speaking, about how to do science). As things turned out  I can look back on these two contrasting experiences with wry amusement. But things could have been different. 

One senior figure in the sociology department  whose demise precipitated loud encomia along the lines of what a nice decent chap he was, doggedly fought to block my promotion, ostensibly on the objective grounds that my teaching scores in sociology courses were shamefully low, but in reality because a) I had dared to disagree with him in public about a matter of opinion and b) he had a distaste for anything to do with numbers or rigorous empirical inquiry, which he regarded as the stuff of under-labourers. Again I was fortunate. Having gotten one of his creatures to delay the forwarding of my papers beyond the application deadline I was forced to play my ace which was to complain to a senior member of the institution's management, who I happened to be friendly with, that I was a victim of a dirty trick. Magically deadline's were extended and in the end I was in fact promoted with no difficulty whatsoever.

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