Am I not, then, a teacher invested? Do I not engage?

Saturday, February 12, 2011

The February 14/21 issue of The New Yorker is full of interesting things (not to mention a very funny/poignant guest piece by Tina Fey; don't miss it), but for this morning's blog I choose to focus on Malcolm Gladwell's essays, "The Order of Things:  What College Rankings Really Tell Us."  I'll spare you most of the details (though they alarm and intrigue).  I'll focus here on one that had a nearly physical impact on me.  Gladwell is talking here about the yearly U.S. News college ranking and the algorithms that support it.  He has turned his gaze on a category named "faculty resources," which determines twenty percent of an institution's score.  Quoting from the College Guide, Gladwell reports, "Research shows that the more satisfied students are about their contact with professors the more they will learn and the more likely it is they will graduate," a conclusion reinforced by student engagement studies and a conclusion nearly any parent will make after watching their children lean toward certain classes and teachers. 

What troubles Gladwell (and what troubles me, not just Gladwell's reader but a faculty member at an Ivy League University who seeks and values student engagement above all else) is how U.S. News has elected to measure this elusive quality.  Apparently engagement is determined by the following factors:  class size, faculty salary, professors with the highest degree in their fields, the student-faculty ratio, and the proportion of faculty who are full-time.  All of which, with the exception of class size (and mine is currently oversubscribed) just about kicks me out of having any shot at all at having a positive statistical impact on the University of Pennsylvania's 'faculty resources' score.

This offends me deeply, and it especially offended me yesterday, having just spent the better part of three days writing notes to my beautiful and (it seems to me) engaged students—notes inspired by the glean of their talents and the nature of their writerly ambitions and the ways in which they work (so hard) toward amplified versions of themselves.  I teach because it is an honor to work with those who stand on the verge.  I spend the time I spend because I recognize the depth of my responsibility and the abject importance of never rushing past a student who wants more or who struggles for more or could be even more.

Maybe you can't really measure that.  But I suspect that my salary and my degree and my part-time status should not, in some machine somewhere, be diminishing the ranking for Penn.


bermudaonion said...

I have problems with those college rankings in so many ways, I don't even know where to begin. One of the things that really bothers me is that colleges "court" students they know they'll never accept, hoping they'll apply, just so they can reject them. That way, they appear more selective. We could talk for days about this.

Julia said...

Youve compelled me to buy this issue; I love Tina Fey so. Everything she writes is so wonderfully and sharply witty.

Lilian Nattel said...

What a bizarre method of measurement--and another example of trying to make a quick and easy sellable report out of that which is neither quick, easy, nor measurable.

Q said...

A better measure would be time spent teaching and preparing to teach per student versus time spent doing research or personal projects.

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