Saturday, September 26, 2009

Learning is supposed to be hard (and The Ethicist is supposed to be not a douchebag)

Randy Cohen's column "The Ethicist" is the worst part of the disappointing New York Times Magazine. He has a knack for missing the point and botching even routine advice, and he sees the need for his ethical interventions where no need exists; he is the "between you and I" of ethics. Today's column doesn't disappoint... in that it does. He ignores the nuances of the question, lays a guilt trip, dismisses the negative consequences of taking his advice, and doesn't do a whit of good for anyone.

The question is:

My listing on ratemyprofessors.com has a few positive ratings, but the majority are from students who gripe about the workload and the density of my lectures. May I suggest to my more-satisfied students that they post a rating on the Web site?
The question interests me because I helped create Columbia University's student-run professor review site, culpa.info. My roommate Ashran and I were responding in 2000 to a widespread feeling among Columbia undergraduates that Columbia valued research prestige over all else, certainly over actual learning. The college then had a notoriously bad -- some would say non-existent -- advisory system. I never once met my official adviser for my major; my wife Kate did meet her adviser, once, in the final weeks of her senior year, when any potential guidance was moot. When it came to exploring disciplines, picking majors, and finding good professors, it was every student for himself.

From the start, the other creators and I felt a tension between our desire to identify excellent teachers and the desire for so many fellow students to troll for easy grades. The latter type are legion, and their pressure on a site like cannot be ignored. There is a greater tendency to criticize a professor when you feel wronged than to praise one when you feel challenged and rewarded. Recipients of poor grades, moreover, will seldom mention their poor performance and have every motivation to shift blame from themselves, which gives the already over-represented negative reviews a false air of credibility.

You can see how a teacher with high academic standards and an eye on tenure might feel pressure to lessen her classes' rigor, lest the review site scuttlebutt threaten her career. Most operators of review sites dismiss such scenarios as outlandish or inevitable. They are at least not outlandish; consider the confession of Ben Marcus, a Columbia assistant professor of creative writing, in a Time op-ed in 2001, to dumbing down his courses:
After early struggles with students who resisted challenges and barked at any criticism, who refused to regard themselves as beginners or who were furious if I didn't regard their short stories as brilliant, I stumbled upon some dubious teaching techniques, reversed the criticisms of these chronically unhappy students and improved my student evaluations for the semester. My record would reflect a smart, attentive, encouraging teacher. But I would argue that I taught these students little. ...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.
I cannot speak for the current student managers of Culpa, but at least when my roommate Ashran and I created the current site, we took the problem seriously, and designed an editorial style that allowed for derision but demanded some critical engagement beyond bald professor-bashing. (Positive reviews need this guidance, too, perhaps more so given their writers' lack of a litany of complaints. "Professor X is great" is as useless as "Professor Y sucks", but fewer negative reviews will leave it at that.)

The quality of reviews has regressed to the mean as their number has grown (currently over 17,000), but many new reviews still reflect the pattern of the original hundred or so we wrote and collected in 2000. And our style guide -- a slapdash effort of mine that, surprisingly, still stands up -- has been adopted in full by another review site. The tide is against us, however, and the culture of entitlement is winning over the recognition that real learning is, well, hard. For a less delicate summation of this point, one that would be hilarious if it were not so frightening, check out Branford Marsalis's rant about trying to teach students today.

But I digress. Resume Cohen-bashing: Cohen responds, as you might expect, with advice deaf to the issues at hand:
It is no doubt irksome to read this roster of grousing when you are sure that many students benefit from your class, but that does not justify your skewing the results, which is what you propose... You’d do better simply to read the comments, use them as an opportunity to improve your teaching and then have a glass of wine. Or two.
Cohen's self-congratulatory, simplistic moralism reminds me here of a classic Fantastic Four panel, which has been captioned on the internet with "Reed Richards is an asshole... just, such an asshole."


He concludes, incredibly,
Even if those whiny evaluations affect course-enrollment numbers or even hiring and promotion, surely your colleagues realize that these sites do not provide a scientific survey of student views. In any case, as the CUNY prof put it, “Cooking the books on the rating does not seem the way to go.”
I do believe a whiny course review site is better than none. At a research university like Columbia, where teaching is often incidental and good teachers lose out to prolific researchers, students and teachers alike deserve a forum that celebrates teaching excellence -- even if the yardstick is immature and bratty. But that doesn't mean a teacher shouldn't stand up for himself; in fact, it helps the quality of a review site for teachers to encourage satisfied students to post reviews. Since the reviews are not a random sample in the first place, it is ridiculous to suggest such encouragement introduces bias, much less book-cooking.

In conclusion, professor whose name is withheld, DO encourage your supportive students to post reviews, and, more generally, always take the opposite of Cohen's advice.

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Anonymous Becoming Vegetarian on Tue Sep 29, 10:46:00 AM:
Great review...I agree profs don't like review sites cuz it exposes them for what they are in the eyes of students.

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