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Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Columbia is so lazy, he thinks a two-income family is where Barnard has two jobs

Mark Slouka, who was denied tenure at Columbia's School of the Arts and is now chair of the creative writing program at the University of Chicago, has an opinion piece in the Columbia Spectator where he slams the School of the Arts, and Columbia in general, for low standards of academic rigor, teaching quality, administrative oversight, and neutrality of tenure procedures:
There is no point in being coy. Despite the presence of a small minority of talented and committed faculty members and an equally small core of serious, gifted students, what prevails at the writing division in the School of the Arts, and to some extent at the School of the Arts as a whole, is an institutionalized and self-perpetuating culture of mediocrity so out of step with the general climate of excellence for which Columbia is rightly known that most would be shocked to be apprised of the details.
Add the fact that when compared with its peer institutions the writing division at Columbia is an unconscionably bloated program which brings in more students every year—with the predictable effect on quality—while offering a minute amount of financial aid, what we have is something resembling a diploma mill hiding, unbelievably, under the Columbia name.
Having just completed three hires for the University of Chicago—which has asked me to institute precisely the kind of rigorous, text-based program so strenuously resisted at Columbia, and whose support for the arts is genuine and tangible—I know well that many candidates are aware of the mediocrity of Columbia’s program as well as the randomness of the tenure process, and they are going elsewhere despite the appeal of both the Columbia name and the advantages of living in New York City.
I agree with much of what Slouka says (and I have my own litany of complaints), except for the notion that the SoA is "out of step with the general climate of excellence for which Columbia is rightly known". What general climate of excellence? While I did work my ass off at Columbia for every grade I got in my computer science major, including C's, hard work was not necessary to get by in my other major, history. Does Slouka have any idea how easy it is to pass the average Columbia College humanities course with a C?

(Larry Summers was right about this one. Anyone think it would be tough to pass whatever undergrad lecture course Cornell West is now teaching at Princeton? Without bothering to attend any of the lectures or read any of the books?)

Reading Slouka's screed reminded me of an older piece, published in TIME in 2000, by Columbia creative writing assistant professor Ben Marcus:

I am also aware that the students' comments become the primary evidence of my abilities, a paper trail following me throughout my career. My dossier will swell with their statements about me, and when I come up for review, the promotion committee will examine my evaluations to determine just what kind of teacher I am.
There is, of course, nothing wrong with accountability. But this system assumes that what students need is the same as what they want. Reading my evaluations every semester has taught me otherwise. Many students' expectations for their courses have changed, reflecting, in part, the business model more universities are following. Classes are considered services, and parents are eager to get their money's worth from their children's education.
It might sound as though I am defending some bad evaluations. The problem is the reverse. I am admitting to good evaluations received sneakily... My record would reflect a smart, attentive, encouraging teacher. But I would argue that I taught these students little. They loved me because I agreed that writing should be easy.
Teaching, in such a light, amounted to flattery. Submitting students to the rigors of learning seemed only to incur the wrath of many of them, which entered the record as my teacherly shortcoming.
Of course, I am partially to blame for this, being one of the founders of the Culpa professor-review website. A side effect (but a huge side effect) of exposing Columbia lecturers to shared student scrutiny has been to encourage a race to the bottom, whereby teachers might gain popularity by easing up on the rigor and introducing distraction, character, and generous grading. (This is at least easier than somehow becoming a much better teacher.)

I once had an unsettling experience in a Prague nightclub. Two acquaintances, Columbia students studying abroad, asked me what I had done while at college besides study. I explained that I had run the course-review website. At this they cried out, bought me drinks, and thanked me—I still cringe at this—for "making college so easy" for them.

On the other hand, the Culpa site's list of 50 or so top-reviewed teachers are generally described by their adoring reviewers as tough, but rewarding. Whatever the relative difficulties of being an easy or challenging teacher, I don't envy the position of professors seeking tenure, who must focus on research and currying favor, and for whom attempting to be challenging-but-worth-it could be a dangerous gamble.

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