Who is a dime a dozen?

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I recently read:
 
"'There's a feeling, I think, that good teachers are a dime a dozen,' said Higginbotham, 32. 'I'm not sure what you'd have to do to distinguish yourself enough as a teacher to get tenure.'
[Higginbotham is] an English professor at Ohio State who's up for tenure in three years. By then, she will need to publish a book she's writing about conceptions of girlhood in the Middle Ages to have any chance at the promotion." [AP article]

I have to say that I find this comment and the context surrounding it to be frustrating. First, the obvious, good teachers are a dime a dozen? Really? Has she ever attended a higher education course? The increasing empahsis on research and scholarly production make it routine for professors in some fields to see one class a year as an onerous teaching load. One thing that my field has made abundantly clear is that to know something does not translate into teaching it well. Is she really arguing that higher education institutions (especially large research-focused ones) are bastions of teaching excellence?

Having a junior faculty member focusing a great deal of her intellectual energy on a book about conceptions of girlhood in the Middle Ages exactly captures what seems broken about the way we think about faculty and their relationship to their students. If we can set up a system that knows how to value esoteric books written for a mircoaudience, can't we set up a system that knows how to evaluate teaching in meaningful ways? I think we have lost sight of the mission of a university here. Do we really want all faculty to focus the preponderance of their effort on scholarship at the expensive of teaching? Do we really want our faculty to be spending more time thinking about girlhoods past, when to do so means giving up thinking about the girlhoods of the students present in their class?

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I have long been of the belief that if the academy does not figure out how to recognize and reward good teaching with the same diligence that it rewards good research, the change will be made by the consumer... er... student. "I see what you did there".

A non-PA Resident attending Penn State University Park can expect to pay $36,220 for tuition, room and books. In state? You can go for the bargain basement price of $24,626. Per year. Thats nearly $100,000 for an in state, public school education.

For a long time, I think there has been an institutional arrogance regarding the cultural significance of the academy. An assumption that you can't put a price on the value of a college education. And that has permitted a very lax stance on the actual "education" that occurs within these hallowed walls. But a college education isn't getting any cheaper and, as this economic climate has shown us, rising costs (particularly exorbitant ones) tend to be put under the microscope sooner or later.

Am I predicting the death of the university? No, not at all. But we're very rapidly speeding towards a day of reckoning when academic prestige becomes an unaffordable luxury for the average American. And those who can afford to sign away their lives away to student debt are going to start asking a few more questions besides "how do I get football tickets" and "where is the best party school". When that happens, the 500 person classrooms, GA taught lab sessions, and a P&T process that places no premium on teaching is going to start to look a little suspect for the price of a new Mercedes every year.

Great post Scott. I couldn't agree more. I only hope we can, as a community, see and fix the problem before it is fixed for us.

I do wonder about the economics of it all. Not being an economist (or a higher education finance person), I don't really understand how all this happens. My biggest question is the same as yours: the large lecture classes. If so much of the financing model (allowing for small doctoral seminars of 5 students to be the same part of a teaching load as a 300 person lecture, encouraging faculty to seek external funding to allow for course reductions, etc.) is predicated on students seeing value in sitting in an auditorium and listening to someone talk 15 times (or 30 times) in a semester, how long before they see through that and don't agree to participate? Not sure. There is an interesting critique around this issue by Murray Sperber called "Beer and Circus: How Big-Time College Sports Is Crippling Undergraduate Education". Maybe your reference to football tickets was more apt than you suspected. 

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