Monday, October 24, 2011

Encouraging Better Teaching at Research Universities

The editorial writers at the Harvard Crimson offer some thoughts about how to improve the educational experience there.  Their piece raises some mildly interesting issues.  What would motivate the lazy faculty at leading schools to try harder in the classroom?   As UCLA raises its tuition, we need to raise the quality of our undergraduate educational experience.

Here I offer my magic recipe for cooking some fresh high quality teaching.

First, there is selection.  University faculty have to become younger.  Mandatory retirement at age 70 would improve teaching on average.  Excellent teachers over the age of 70 could be recalled.   I am 45 and I plan to retire at age 62.  At that point, I plan to visit a different university each year and let the market decide where I will go next.

Second, Universities need better graduate students who are motivated to do a good job as Teaching Assistants. This takes $.   I would love to see UCLA engage in major fund raising targeted to providing better deals for Ph.D. students.    This is a case where I believe in efficiency wages.     Teachers have lots of discretion.  A well paid teacher is a happy teacher who will not cut corners and go the extra mile for the students.   As my father says; "Cheap is expensive".  More $ for Ph.Ds would increase the # of Americans entering such programs and language skills matter in undergraduate teaching.

Third,  Deans should figure out how to have professors co-teach a course where they actually show up for the other's lectures.   When my colleagues are in the room for my undergrad talks, I raise my game. I want to show my colleagues how I play the game (and they are impressed).

Fourth;   Undergraduates could be given a research pot of $ which they will paid if they sign a research contract with a professor.   Professors who need research assistants would then have an incentive to compete for these students and would respond by giving more interesting lectures to attract students to want to work with them.  So, such research grants could be given to students with a GPA greater than 3.7 and faculty would compete for this subsidized smart labor.  More generally, encouraging undergraduate researchers with Profs would improve the undergrad experience.

Fifth;  Professors who stink in the classroom should be identified and punished.  There are lots of crappy jobs that have to be done in Departments.  Give these assignments to the profs who stink in the classrooms .   I recall that when I was a student at Chicago, there was one prof who had only 1 student registered for his class. He was rewarded for doing a bad job by having no work to do.  Bad incentives!  To pull this off requires a Chairman of the Department who is tough enough to deal out punishment.   Most profs play nice but this holds back the university.   Departments need enforcers.  Charles Oakley should make a comeback.

Six:  The University's Deans, Provost and President should all have to teach a course every 2 years so they don't forget the reason they entered academia in the first place.

Seven;  Teaching evaluations?  I don't think that these are the answer.  I'm not convinced that profs read them.  At UCLA Econ, each faculty member receives his own ranking and how he compares to every other Prof in the department.  The sheet is reported sorted by "overall score".  Does any department engage in "shame and ostracism" in which the faculty member with the lowest scores is mocked?  I don't think so.  Each individual faculty member must judge him/herself .    At UCLA, we have a step promotion system and teaching is one of the categories that is part of the evaluation for step promotion.   I'm not convinced that this incentive system yields more faculty effort.

Eight:  The Deans could figure out how to have faculty "teach" outside of standard classes.  At UCLA, other faculty are always asking me to give guest lectures.  The great Deans of UCLA should have a pot of $ and offer a payment to faculty who give a big lecture for the whole community.  If 500 people show up to hear Math Genius Terrence Tao talk about math then he has contributed to the teaching experience at UCLA and he should be rewarded.

Nine:  The Deans need to promote Loyalty to the University.  Faculty have discretion and private information about their classroom effort.  How do universities minimize shirking?  When I was a Visiting Prof at Harvard btwn 1996 and 1998, I noticed how many faculty were graduates of Harvard and had children who were attending Harvard.  These folks expected to spend their whole careers at Harvard and they were loyal to Harvard and sacrificed for the common good.   When a person does a "good deed" without explicit cash compensation, are they a hero or a sucker?

Ten:  Smaller classes for upper-division electives.  Faculty have to get to know students.  In smaller classes, students will talk more.  Students are not eloquent public speakers. They don't receive enough practice but speaking is more important than writing essays in the real world.

Teaching and research go hand in hand.  For U.S universities to stay several steps ahead of China's and India's universities, we will need to continue to innovate.  A tenured, comfortable faculty need to be confronted with carrots and sticks!

Now, why do my opinions matter? I've been a prof for 20 years and I like to teach.  67,000 have watched me give this talk about climate change adaptation.  I am also the son of a famous teacher at NYU's Medical School.   For most of my adult life, my father has stressed to me the importance of being a teacher and what it means to be a teacher.