On the general subject of university change

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On the general subject of university change

From Brian K. Yoder

Published before 2005


Greg Scheckler wrote:
Respect and diplomacy don't mean you have to agree with bad ideas, bad art, or other travesties. It means you lay the groundwork so that you can keep people talking, keep doors of communication open, and so on. You don't have to promote any false ideas or conspire with anyone or lose integrity by building bridges with people. I for one get passionate and pissed off too easily.

I'm more of an even-tempered guy myself. ;-) But let's talk not about the better folks among the academics (folks like yourself for example, who I obviously favor having discussions with) but the worst. Where's the common ground with those guys? I disagree with them on every level whether it's art, politics, ethics, and even the nature of truth and reality itself. I don't see how there's any common ground with such people. What do I stand to gain from them? I think it's nothing. I can see that they have a great deal to gain from me in such "cooperation" (because it effectively makes me refrain from saying what's on my mind about them and their work).

I submit to you that it is far more creative and productive to find real sources of common ground, even when you despise someone's art ideas, than to simply write thinking scholars and artists off as mere Modernists.

But I don't think I have any common ground with such people. We disagree about very fundamental things.

The ones who succeed know they're doing good work.

Then how do you explain all of the ones who are succeeding (in the sense of being famous, being invited to be on important panels, getting big grants, getting a lot of money, etc.) whose work is weak or execrable?

For example, my classes and professional artmaking, college service, etc., have been evaluated more than 1500 times by anonymous student evaluations, and more than 30 times by various colleagues and administrators, as well as every year by college-wide committees. This is required by my contract. Every professor in the Massachusetts state college system goes through these evaluations. It's very intense set of reviews. The people who get through it clearly are very good teachers and professionals based on the verifiable experiences of their students and their colleagues. It's also a broad enough sampling of evaluations that it levels out to a set of scholarly, college ideals rather than simply one art philosophy or another. You don't get through the system if your work isn't up to par, if you're not a team player, and if your students object.

I find that hard to believe. Has there ever been a single professor in a major US university who has ever lost his job because of poor student evaluations? I have never heard of one.

A lot of people who don't succeed in the college-university setting failed at one evaluation or another and as such couldn't cut it, and then go blaming an art philosophy or claiming that they're being censored or whatever when in fact they may have had really poor student evaluations, lack of teamwork, or other basic problems.

If you see that the guy next to you is putting excrement between panes of glass and you turn up your nose (so to speak) is that an example of not being a "team player"?

What I have the most direct experience with in this regard is how students are treated as they come up through the system and I must say that anyone who was seriously opposed to modernism couldn't hope to make it through an art degree without either constantly lying about his positions or adopting those of the other side. Because of that it seems obvious that there are going to be very few "academically qualified" teachers available to even be considered because the vast majority get weeded out before they even get started.

Faculty contracts and evaluation systems vary greatly from state to state, and within private higher education also. But most have extremely rigorous sets of evaluations and reviews that are trustworthy and reliable, weeding out the lesser teachers and providing incentives for the better ones.

Your school must be in a different dimension than the ones I have seen. When has incompetence ever been sufficient to get a university professor fired? In the places I have seen close up (Michigan and California) the idea of a tenured professor losing his job because he isn't competent to teach his subject matter is essentially impossible. He might be fired for committing a felony or for saying something politically incorrect (or even being accused of doing so) but not for being incompetent.

Working within higher education in the U.S. you are agreeing to be under the evaluation and scrutiny of a lot more highly-informed people than if you start your own atelier and are not answerable to other experts, wide cross-sections of students, etc.

You see things very differently than I do. I find tenured professors to be about the least subject to performance-related dismissal of any profession. If you start your own atelier and your lessons aren't valuable you will quickly lose your income. Universities however force large numbers of students through the worst professors' classes regardless of whether they learn anything valuable or not, and tenure makes it practically impossible to fire even the worst of them. Is Massachusetts working on a completely different principle than the places I have been? Or are you considering getting a negative evaluation itself to be a sufficient punishment for incompetence?

As for the idea that the people doing the evaluating are "highly informed", I am dubious of that notion. University professors are judged by other academics, not highly informed people. I'm not saying that there's no intersection between the two groups, but can you seriously tell me that you believe that they are on the whole "highly informed"? I find that there's a deep and wide gulf between the knowledge and skills of university professors and people who actually are professionals in that field of study. I have seen a few exceptions to that rule in medicine and law schools because those folks generally have actual professionals teaching students rather than professional academics. I suppose that there are some fair instances of this in the pure sciences as well because there's nowhere else for them to go than academia, but in business, technology, and the arts I don't see your generalization at all.

--Brian