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A Rebuttal to Ms. Riley’s LA Times Op Ed “It’s Time to Get Back to Teaching”

June 17, 2011

When first made aware of Ms. Riley’s June 15th Op Ed piece “Cal State system: It’s time to get back to teaching” in the Los Angeles Times (http://www.latimes.com/news/opinion/commentary/la-oe-riley-teaching-20110615,0,3885153.story), I was initially optimistic given the title. Many professors in the Cal State system often bemoan the fact that their many other responsibilities often make focusing on undergraduate teaching difficult.  Not impossible, but difficult.  However, as I read Ms. Riley’s piece my initial optimism turned to bewilderment and irritation.  What could have been a credo and call to arms to put more energy into undergraduate education in the largest university system in the world, instead turned out to be hit-job often aimed at the very people who might have been on her side of the argument.  But that wasn’t the worst of it.  Professors are fairly thick-skinned people.  Anybody who’s been through a Ph.D. program and had to defend their dissertation, or who’s had a paper rejected multiple times for publication, is familiar with criticism, delivered directly and sans sugar.  The worst of it were the egregious—would have taken a 5 minute call to fact check and correct—errors throughout the article.  I suppose Op Ed pieces are not subject to the kind of fact-checking in the other sections, still, every writer has some responsibility to due diligence.  So, what are those errors and how do they effectively undermine Ms. Riley’s thesis?

First, full disclosure, I am hardly an impartial observer.  I have skin in this game, as they say.  However, as tenure-track professor in one of the largest departments in the largest Cal State campus, I also have an insight into the inner workings and can tell you exactly where our efforts go as professionals and how those efforts are assessed and evaluated.

I have linked to the full article above.  What will follow are direct quotes from the Op Ed piece, followed by my comments, affirmations or evidence of the inaccuracies expressed.

“Cal State is a teaching university, as opposed to the University of California schools, which are classified as research universities”.

Ms. Riley is making reference to the Master Plan that basically stipulates what the focus should be of the two California university systems.  However, the focus on undergraduate teaching has never excluded research in the Cal State System.  Research has ALWAYS been done from day one on Cal State campuses.  What differs is the emphasis.  And that difference in emphasis is clear from the different faculty responsibilities. Cal State full time, tenured and tenure-track faculty have higher teaching loads and lower publication and research requirements than their colleagues in the UC system.  It’s never been an either/or thing, it’s always been a more of this and less of that difference.

“The incentives for American professors are the same at every institution. Promotion and tenure decisions are made based on a record of publication, not teaching.”

I literally slapped my forehead when I read that.  A) I do not know how Ms. Riley managed to get her hands on the tenure-retention-promotion documents from every department in every university in the U.S. in order to make that statement to begin with.  And by the way, MOST of those decisions are in fact made at the dept. level, with the consultation of the Dean of the college within which that dept sits, and within the much broader university requirements.  B) It’s patently wrong.  A third of the requirements I have to meet to make tenure are directly related to demonstrating teaching effectiveness.  If you add to those the things that are related to teaching, such as faculty development, it’s over half the requirement.  This is not some vague, nebulous, purely subjective peer evaluation from my colleagues. This is based on metrics that most would agree are face-valid.  Every student in every one of my classes Is given the opportunity to fill out a student evaluation of the course and my teaching.  Those scores are tabulated and averaged by semester. I need to show average scores that put me– in the opinion of my students– in the very good to excellent range. In addition, students are encouraged to leave written comments on these evaluations.  The chair of our department reads every single comment written by every single student in every single course for every single professor in her department. This is just one example.
There are many others that have to do with the kind of courses one teaches, demonstration of a record of working on professional development to improve one’s teaching, and being able to demonstrate that student comments pointing to concerns are addressed with action. It is simply true that I could publish 20 peer-reviewed articles in the top science journals and NOT make tenure if my student teaching evaluations were below the required marks.  This, by the way, is not unusual.  Every dept I am aware of in our College division, at least, has similar policies.

And it doesn’t end there. I also have to demonstrate service to the dept, college and university through committee work as well as service to the broader community. Again, these categories have hard, established metrics that define success. No Dean, Chair or faculty committee looks at the arc of a 5+ year career and with a wave of hands says something akin to “yeah, he’s done a good job, we like him, let’s given him tenure.  How I wish that were true. Counts are made, boxes checked, and every two years enough legal-sized boxes of materials to necessitate a dolly (no joke) are reviewed in order to determine continued employment.

“College professors actually get paid less the more time they spend in a classroom. This is true not only at large research universities but also at teaching universities, and even at small liberal arts colleges.”

Perhaps it’s that way in some universities.  Here’s my personal and unremarkable experience.  The ONLY way I can increase my base salary in the tenure-track process is to take on EXTRA teaching, not less teaching, during the Winter and Summer intersessions between regular semesters.

“On large state university campuses, it is “adjunct faculty” who do the bulk of the
teaching.”

No arguments here. Many of us bemoan this fact. But the reason is not some desire on the tenured/tenure track faculty to shirk their teaching responsibility, it is simple economics.  If State funding is cut year after year after year after year (I could go on) but the number of students who qualify for and want to attend 4 year colleges keeps going up, then we have to hire someone.  It is absolutely true that hiring adjuncts and part-timers is cheaper, so in the short term it appears more cost effective from a budgeting and administrative stand-point.  No one likes the effects of this in the long run.

“Murray Sperber, a professor at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Education, has noted that professors in this situation generally offer few comments on students’ papers because anything more extensive would be too time-consuming. But jotting down “good job” or “needs work” at the end of one or two five-page papers… isn’t going to improve students’ ability to make an argument or organize their thoughts….Most freshmen on Cal State campuses need personalized attention if they are going to learn the reading and writing skills they need to get good
jobs.”

I completely and whole-heartedly agree with this.  But pointing this out, and it’s a problem that is well-known and acknowledged within the Cal State System, does nothing to address the underlying issues.  To begin with, if a high percentage of incoming freshman need remediation in math or basic writing/composition, then this is primarily the fault of high schools on down. A the university level we have a limited number of years to stuff a tremendous amount of specialized knowledge into student brains if that Bachelor’s degree is to mean anything upon graduation.  The ills of the entire American education system cannot be dropped at the feet of universities.  We cannot make up for years and years of poor schooling.  Nevertheless, I can say with pride that many depts. have tackled this head on, including my own. I know a lot about our efforts to improve undergraduate writing as I have been championing the cause from the very start of my career.  I also sit on the university wide Writing Board that oversees the approval of  new courses that must meet certain writing standards. In the writing courses I teach, students write often and revise often. By the time they turn in their final, major papers, they will have written it start to finish 3 times, receiving extensive written comments at each phase.  I am not alone in this.  In fact, written feedback from faculty designed to improve student writing and the ability for students to revise their assignment are necessary for a course to meet the writing requirement and count toward graduation.

“More important, there is little evidence that research and publishing in anything other than biological or physical sciences — in, for instance, the social sciences or the humanities — are adding to a university’s bottom line, let alone to society’s store of knowledge.”

This is such an ignorant statement that it calls into question the quality of education Ms. Riley herself has received.  The social sciences haven’t added to the society’s store of knowledge?  Really? Almost every study pointing the way to improved education, health related behaviors, psychological adjustment, interventions regarding drugs, alcohol, and violence, comes from the SOCIAL science research end.  It is no coincidence that when large medical studies want to have the best methodologies and advanced statistical analyses, they ask social scientists for help. It is widely acknowledged by those in the medical field that the Ph.D. training in experimental analysis, methodology and statistical design that psychology students receive is far superior to any med school graduate.  In fact, the irony (or perhaps I should call it embarrassment) for Ms. Riley is that the only reason we know about the challenges in undergraduate teaching and learning is through the very social science research she criticizes. As for the Humanities, beyond the self-evident fact that I think a healthy society should have people who are exposed to and understand the literary arts, Ms. Riley might find it interesting that a recent national study found that graduates from Humanities programs had among the highest critical thinking and analytic reasoning scores on standardized assessments compared to graduates from other majors.  Perhaps reading
Shakespeare and being able to write a comprehensible essay about it isn’t so “useless” after all.

Before concluding her Op Ed, Ms. Riley pulls one of the oldest, and frankly silliest, stunts when it comes to criticizing academic research.  She lists a number of titles from published articles to show how unimportant such faculty efforts must surely be in the face of taking time from the more noble task of teaching.  This is the equivalent of an ad hominem attack and just as vapid. Ms. Riley seems to think you can tell the merit of an article or study from the title alone. Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises must be a damn boring book given the central theme seems to be the obvious nature of the earth’s rotation. So, I decided to try to track down several of the articles whose titles were listed to determine what they were really about.  One immediate problem I ran into was my inability to find the full text versions of 4 of the 5 articles listed even though I was using the University’s full access scholarly search database, from the very university Ms. Riley stated the studies came from.  How exactly did Ms. Riley get them to assess their merit?  Methinks she didn’t. I did find articles similar to the “Auditory systems of opposite-sex twins” title, and they were published in journals covering Neuroendocrinology and Developmental Neuropsychology.  Do those sound like puff-piece sources to you?  Regarding possibly the most dubious sounding title: “A reanalysis of five studies on sexual orientation and the relative length of the index and ring fingers”, it might surprise Ms. Riley to learn that the length of fingers on a human hand have also been significantly associated to things like heart disease. It turns out that finger length is  a possible manifestation of other underlying physical attributes, genotype and in utero development.  Therefore, if the point of the mentioned article was to determine if sexual orientation followed similar lines, how is this not valuable research?

And frankly this brings up another false implication that runs through Ms. Riley’s entire editorial. She seems to be arguing that research is adversarial to quality teaching.  Obviously, if all that Cal State universities really cared about and really evaluated was research production, I could see how that could undermine undergraduate teaching.  As I’ve detailed above, that’s clearly not the reality.  Beyond that, however, is it not obvious that one knows a discipline or field better when actively doing work in that arena, which is what research is all about.
I can predict that people like Ms. Riley would argue that there is nothing preventing a professor from reading all the latest research and incorporating that into classroom instruction.  Of course, that happens as well. I constantly update my lectures to reflect new findings and changing directions. However, who would you rather teach you to fish? Someone who’s read a lot about fishing and can quote from the all the books on the topic, or someone who does all that, but can also, you know, fish?

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4 Comments
  1. Beatrice de oca permalink

    thank you! I was wondering what alternate universe the author of the LA Times piece lived in.

  2. Thanks Beatrice. I have no personal animosity toward Ms. Riley, and I prefer that we have open, critical discussions of the role, mission and effectiveness of the CSU system. There are plenty of things to complain about and shed light on without resorting to sweeping generalities and patently false accusations.

  3. Doris Tsongas Finch permalink

    Thank you. [F. Harry Stowe, to render into English letters a nice Greek phrase] You have blown away some fog. I hope it is widely read. Glad you enrich our Altadena environment.

    • Those were very kind words. Glad you found it informative and although I will refrain from including myself in the category, it certainly is true that our community contains more than it’s fair share of talented folk of all stripes and across so many industries and disciplines.

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