October 18, 2015

The teacher who says he's being fired because the students love him so much it makes the other teachers look bad.

From The Guardian:
[Alexander Coward's] enthusiasm bubbled in lectures, handwritten notes, impromptu problem-solving at the whiteboard and personalised emails and homework assignments which ignored textbook suggestions. The result, he said, was student evaluations which were the highest on record in the mathematics department, ranging from 6.4 to 6.6 out of 7, versus a usual departmental average of 4.7...

[B]ehind the scenes, said Coward, the department seethed. It was dysfunctional – world class research co-existing with sub-standard teaching – and instead of embracing the Englishman’s success as a remedy the department considered it disruptive, he said. “I was trying to share my methods. I was saying look, I know you find a lot of this counter-intuitive, but look at the results, 95% attendance in my class, 20% in yours. But people just didn’t want to listen.”

Coward said the strain of working under scrutiny from his superiors “took its toll” and in May 2014 he was admitted to a psychiatric hospital for suicidal depression....
Shortly thereafter, his contract — as a lecturer at Berkeley — was not renewed, and he blogged about it:
What does it mean to adhere to department norms if one has the highest student evaluation scores in the department, students performing statistically significantly better in subsequent courses, and faculty observations universally reporting "extraordinary skills at lecturing, presentation, and engaging students"?

This question is one that I asked, and in response it was made very clear to me what is meant by the norms of the department. It means teach from the textbook. It means stop emailing students with encouragement, handwritten notes and homework problems, and instead assign problems from the textbook at the start of the semester. It means stop using evidence-based practices like formative assessment. It means micro-manage the Graduate Student Instructors rather than allowing them to use their own, considerable, talent and creativity. And most of all it means this: Stop motivating students to work hard and attend class by being engaging, encouraging and inspiring, by sharing with them a passion for the beauty and wonder of mathematics, but instead by forcing them into obedience with endless busywork in the form of GPA-affecting homework and quizzes and assessments, day after day, semester after semester....

Indeed, it is an open secret on the UC Berkeley campus that the administration and other departments are jolly cross with the Mathematics Department for not preparing students adequately. The argument used by the Mathematics Department in response to this is to say something like "It's easy for you, you teach these cool subjects that students are interested in and choose to do because it's their chosen major. Take it from us. Teaching these kids calculus is just impossible. That's why our student evaluations are terrible and students aren't prepared for your courses." The argument then concludes, as articulated by a member of Senate Faculty in his response to my open letter of December 15, 2014, something like: "Give us more money and more resources and we'll do better."

Having a Lecturer teach twice the number of students for half the money and do a fabulous job demolishes that argument, and that is why so many people conspired to make it not so, to hide my record from the administration, to mischaracterize my teaching, and do everything in their power to remove me....
Read the whole thing. He concludes with a quote from Mario Savio (of the oBerkeley Free Speech Movement):
"There's a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can't take part! You can't even passively take part! And you've got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you've got to make it stop! And you've got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you're free, the machine will be prevented from working at all!"


SJ said...

The important question:

did the students come out of those classes with the understanding of mathematics that they should have had?

An aside:

a professor with so much flair, creativity, and energy...who checks himself into a psychiatric hospital for depression.

Could he be manic-depressive?

rhhardin said...

Nobody likes a whiner.

If you're any good, you'll be fired a lot.

Bob R said...

While there may be some truth in this, there are a lot of reasons to be skeptical. First, he's moved around a lot. Strange that a super teacher hasn't found something more permanent. Second, "The teacher who says he's being fired because the students love him so much it makes the other teachers look bad" doesn't narrow the field as much as you think. It's a common argument for anyone who is fired despite good teaching numbers. In the cases like this that I have actually known, there are always reasons other than "we've got to protect our phony, baloney jobs, gentlemen!" (The reason weren't necessarily good, but they existed.) Third, he claims to have access to downstream performance results. If he actually has more than anecdotes, Berkeley is breaking lots of federal privacy laws. [Disclosure: Craig Evans was on my Ph.D. committee at MD. He didn't make the original decision and may be lawyered up now, so I don't read too much into his actions. Apropos nothing, he is one of the best teachers I've ever had.]

Curious George said...

"It's not about the kids: Part threemillionbilliony

campy said...

It's suspicious when kids 'love' a male teacher, IYKWIMAITYD.

holdfast said...

I think SJ hot the nail on the head.

Sebastian said...

Psych episode raises red flag.

One side's story in personnel dispute: doesn't count as proof.

But "Having a Lecturer teach twice the number of students for half the money and do a fabulous job demolishes that argument" applies to many "top" departments (even law schools, ahem). You can get better teaching at half the cost. But then you wouldn't have a "top" department/law school etc.

Ignorance is Bliss said...

Bob R said...

Third, he claims to have access to downstream performance results. If he actually has more than anecdotes, Berkeley is breaking lots of federal privacy laws.

I would assume that aggregate data could show what he claims without violating privacy laws. I don't know if Berkley collects such data, or if it shows what he claims.

Stephanie Carnes said...

The Guardian article said in a subsequent class, his students had grades 0.17 higher than those taught by another teacher. I'm not sure that proves anything.

MadisonMan said...

in a subsequent class, his students had grades 0.17 higher than those taught by another teacher. I'm not sure that proves anything.

Statistics can give excellent information. Alas, the Guardian doesn't report on the t-test done to establish the confidence levels associated with that increase in grades for this instructor's students relative to the other instructors. If it is significant, that's an interesting factoid.

I read about this last week, and the psych episode escaped my notice at the time. sj's comment does make me wonder about Manic.

mikee said...

In the 1980s a Chemistry grad student at Texas A&M University was dismissed from his PhD program after arguments with his thesis adviser over vacation time. The student was accepted into the Education department, where he earned a PhD by developing a study program for freshman called "Chem Busters." A combination of tutorials, test prep and sample problems, and participant T-shirts emblazoned with an image ripped off from Ghost Busters, led his students to a uniformly high passing rate in the required freshman Chemistry class.

He, too, was not lauded by his former coworkers among the Chemistry Department.

Michael K said...

"why he would continue teaching during a strike by university employees."


Mary Beth (the commenter) said...

I wonder how the ratings on sites like Rate My Professor compare to the ratings the universities get from the students at the end of each semester. I looked there and had it show the math professors at Berkeley in order of ranking and he was 74 out of 175.

Some professors were ranked by multiple students, some by only one. I think that would affect the rankings, making it difficult to compare one individual to another, but in the middle is still in the middle.

Robert Cook said...

In institutions of higher learning, being "good at teaching" is not valued--or is considered of secondary or tertiary value, at most. What is valued is that their faculty publish, publish, publish, thereby burnishing the reputation of the institution for being a home for top scholars, which, in turn, is seen as (and may be) an inducement to donors and grant-givers to shower the institution with money.

Same reason championship football and basketball teams and players are more valued at universities than their academic mission in many cases...it brings in the bucks.

Joe said...

Is it possible that lots of students attended his classes, but didn't learn a damn thing?

On the other hand, when I took physics, the professor was the PhD adviser who tough physics every summer. He discarded that normal, quite rigid, structure. The class was fantastic and I learned quite a bit.

(The next physics class I took was taught by the normal teacher. It was awful and I didn't learn a damn thing except how to fill out homework papers with a very specific style.

BTW, in regards to answers the first teacher's philosophy was that you get the right answer, regardless how you got it. The second was that you went through the approved process in getting the answer. In a way, he was ahead of his time.)

Dr.D said...

I have no difficulty believing this. Faculty can be, and often are, the most petty, peevish, self-serving folks in the whole world. I have seen it myself, no place more than in the UW System.

I taught in the UW System for 6 years, and I worked very hard. I was roundly resented by the rest of my department because it made them look bad and feel guilty. In the end, I stepped on so many toes (not deliberately, but simply by working hard), that they found ways to punish me severely.

I often walked home with one of the other members of my department. One day, I was talking about an idea I thought we might consider as a department to improve teaching. His immortal comment to me was, "I did not come here to work hard."

I know this happens in the UW System, and I strongly suspect it is true many other places as well.

Joe said...

Dr.D, I've long concluded that most academics are the laziest people on the planet. They'd all starve to death without the system (or even if they were actually paid for the actual job they do.)

Gabriel said...

While there are academics who are petty and jealous and punish high-performers, there are also academics who have learned that having low expectations and being entertaining are a sure-fire way to being popular with students.

I don't say which scenario this falls under; just saying that I've seen plenty of instances of each.

I was once one of two instructors teaching the same course; while I was teaching how to solve complex circuits, the other instructor was having them color in the different parts of the circuit. Guess which one got higher student evaluations.

Gabriel said...

I would point out two that academic staff are between a rock and a hard place.

If their student evaluations are negative, they risk not having their contract renewed. If their expectations are too low, the same. Low expectations are much more likely to get good evaluations and high expectations much more likely to get bad ones--of course there are people who have high expectations and get good evaluations, it's just very rare.

I have seen them let go for both reasons any number of times. They're like Kleenex; you can always throw them out and get new ones.

lgv said...

Oh boy. I get to agree with Robert Cook. Twice in this lifetime.

"In institutions of higher learning, being "good at teaching" is not valued--or is considered of secondary or tertiary value, at most."

Maybe my experience was different. State school. Big 10 school. I was a graduate teaching assistant. Here are my observations:

1) Once tenured, professors didn't care about students or teaching. Focus was on getting money from other things. Consultations, studies, board of directors, adding things to their resume, or alternately, coasting through life.

2) Non-tenured, professors focused on getting published. Teaching was an interference in their quest. Those that were energized and focused doing well teaching in the classroom ended up not publishing and perished. They are now at some small college or junior college.

3) Many of my fellow graduate teaching assistants were better at teaching than the professors. They had more recent real world work experience and empathized more with the undergrads, except for the ones that barely spoke English.

There were many exceptions, but that's basically what everyone thought. No one ever talked about because it would upset the powers that be. The biggest complaint from undergrads was getting the sales pitch of all the giants in the field of study on faculty, then they show up and get the undergrad classes taught by Grad Assistants that didn't speak English. Then as upperclassmen, they finally get the big name only to find out they can't teach.

As the pHD candidates described them: Those who can't do, teach. Those who can't teach, teach teachers.

Zach said...

Berkeley is an odd cross between a state school and a prestige school. I work at the federal lab just up the hill, and the Berkeley phyics department has very little contact with us.

I wonder if some of this might have to do with him being a lecturer (ie, low cost replacement for a tenure track position). If you're on the Berkeley faculty, do you really want a lot of lecturers? Each of those fills a spot that could go to someone who does research and builds the school's reputation. And makes less than the researcher, too. So you get downward salary pressure, plus a less prestigious department.

Before you knock it -- yes, prestige is important. Even a major department like Berkeley only has so many positions to fill, and ultimately the department is nothing more than the people in it. If you miss out on a star because his position is being filled at half price by a lecturer, that has real consequences.

Gabriel said...

@Zach: Each of those fills a spot that could go to someone who does research and builds the school's reputation.

Every researcher who attracts funding goes unpaid, by the university, for their research time. They subsidize the lecturer who replaces them in classroom.

Berkeley wants as many researchers attracting funding as it can get. So does every university.