On Student Evaluations
Hugh Dubrulle, September 2002
From the Discussion column in the September 2002 Perspectives
Editor's Note: The following is one of the letters received in response to AHA President Lynn Hunt's recent presidential column essays on various subjects.
Dear Professor Hunt:
I read your article in the April 2002 Perspectives with great interest. Although I agree with much of the article as a general sketch of what has happened to higher education in recent years, I feel compelled to take issue with your discussion of student evaluations .
I cannot assess the validity of the studies cited in the report by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences on grade inflation, but my experience teaching at three different schools (University of California at Santa Barbara, the University of Oregon's Honors College, and the University of Puget Sound—I am now bound for St. Anselm College next year) has left me with very different impressions. As you say, it may indeed be true that “the only real consequence of quantitative evaluations has been pervasive grade inflation,” but the connection between the two is neither ineluctable nor necessary. Evaluations may lead to grade inflation, but grade inflation does not necessarily lead to good evaluations (no matter what the AAAS says). From what I have seen, students respect enthusiastic and capable professors who are tough graders. Indeed, I think students see through the weak professor who attempts to fob them off with good grades. Sure, students complain about bad marks, but in the end, they will turn in good evaluations if they feel the professor drove them to learn something. I can't speak to the particular situations of those adjuncts who believe that dealing out tough grades will cost them a job, but I believe that grade inflation is generally the fault of professors, not “the system.” Things might be different at big research universities, but in the liberal arts settings in which I've taught, honest grading pays. As an adjunct, I (and others in my position) have handed out the lowest grades in the department—and we have been rewarded by excellent evaluations and full enrollments. Indeed, throughout my academic experience, I have found that hard professors are frequently not only popular, but also respected.
There is also a moral issue here that touches on the vitality of academia itself. Teaching ought to be a mission, not a job. The job is only a means by which to accomplish the mission, not an end in itself. So many adjuncts have invested so much in attempting to get a tenure-track job that they have lost all sense of proportion—along with the sense of pursuing a calling. The job has become the end rather than the means. This may sound idealistic, but if holding onto the job interferes unduly with the teaching mission, teachers ought to quit the job and do something else. If you are truly a committed teacher, what's the point of holding a teaching position if you feel you can't issue the kind of grades that would allow you to teach properly? For that reason, I have a hard time swallowing the “I'm-afraid-to-give-out-tough-grades-for-fear-of-losing-my-job” argument. By blaming the system, we wash our hands of any personal responsibility for what has taken place. And if we don't take responsibility for this problem, who will?
To a certain extent, I think other factors (among those named in the AAAS report) drive grade inflation. Professors with so many competing duties often find that a thorough and critical reading of student assignments requires too much of their precious time—it's easier to spend less time and give higher grades. This situation is, in many ways, related to the problem of higher education as big business that you mentioned—particularly at major research universities.
Finally, it seems clear that student evaluations do not explain grade inflation because they do not account for the massive discrepancies in grading between departments. In other words, even though student evaluations take place in all departments, grade inflation is really prevalent only in particular fields. At the University of Puget Sound, for instance, the average grade earned (spring semester 2001) in computer science was 2.93 and in chemistry, 2.94. In the history department too it was 2.94. In English, it was 3.34, while the average Education grade was 3.68 (not to mention theater, music, and art, all of which are in the B+ range)! Indeed, at every school I've taught, the English department is notorious for handing out easy grades. I think there are some philosophical, pedagogical, and methodological differences at work here. Moreover, there are substantial differences between individuals. In our history department, the difference between the average grades of the easiest and hardest instructors is an incredible 0.72.
I know that when placed in the balance against a variety of studies, my anecdotal evidence and personal experience do not count for very much, and I am willing to recognize that I could be wrong. Nevertheless, I feel that we must do something about grade inflation because we are the only ones who can—we are the ones inflating the grades. By claiming we are victims of greedy administrators and consumer-minded students, we avoid responsibility for what we have done.
Visiting Assistant Professor
Department of History
University of Puget Sound