The Irascible ProfessorSM

Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro
"USA Today has come out with a new survey - apparently, three out of every four people make up 75% of the population."....  ...David Letterman.

Commentary of the Day - February 24, 2002:  Survey, Survey?  We Don't Need No Stinkin' Survey!

Recently the Irascible Professor received a second copy of his 2001 Faculty Survey from the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA along with an emailed admonition from our "Faculty Development Center" that they would really like all faculty to respond.  The IP had conveniently round filed and forgotten the first copy of this survey; but, the email message from our Faculty Development Center convinced the IP that these people were persistent and perhaps even dangerous.

The IP had ignored the first copy of these four pages of bubble-in-the-answer questions for three reasons.  First, if the folks over at UCLA want to know what the IP thinks of things in higher education, all they have to do is give him a call or read these pages.  Second, we didn't need another survey to tell us what we already know -- things are bad here at Krispy Kreme U. -- and getting worse by the minute.  Nowadays we count ourselves lucky if our students can write a sentence in any language, let alone the English language.  And even luckier if they can count to twenty without taking their shoes off.  The campus is so overcrowded that the students are hanging from the chandeliers in some the general education classes.  As far as finding a parking space on Tuesday or Thursday (our students only come to school on Tuesdays and Thursdays because they all have to work 40 hours a week to support themselves and their automobiles), forget it!

But, third and most important, these surveys always seem to ask some fairly silly questions while missing many of the issues that are really important out here in the hinterland.  The folks over at the Higher Education Research Institute probably don't give a rat's ass about what is happening out here at the bottom of the higher education food chain.  Nevertheless, the IP decided to take a closer look at his second copy of the survey questions before tossing them in the recycling bin.  Perhaps a few of the questions might be worthy of a comment or two.

This year the survey seemed to have a large number of questions related to "diversity", and relatively few questions related to the quality of the education that our students receive.  First off, they wanted to know my racial and ethnic group.  In my father's day job applications often included questions about one's "nationality".  The forms had a space where they expected you to fill in "English" or "Irish", or "Italian" or whatever.  My old man always responded "American", while muttering an oath under his breath.  (One of those forms was an application for a position as a Special Agent in the Federal Bureau of Investigation.  In those days Mr. Hoover was accepting only WASPs for these positions, so my dad's application didn't get very far.)

 In the UCLA survey one wasn't given the luxury of filling in the blank, instead the choices were "White/Caucasian", "African American/Black", "American Indian", "Asian American/Asian", "Mexican American/Chicano", "Puerto Rican American", "Other Latino", or simply "Other".  The option also was given to "mark all that apply".  Unfortunately, with our current emphasis in academia on how we differ as humans, we have lost sight of the remarkable message that we have learned from DNA research.  Namely, that all humans have descended from the same African ancestors, and that there is very little scientific basis for the notion of distinct races.  However, in this postmodern, politically correct academic environment concepts of race and ethnicity are not only alive, but they have been honed to a fine edge.  The UCLA folks probably would not have been amused by my bubbling in all the options.

Elsewhere the UCLA mavens wanted to know if the IP had "Taught an honors course, Taught an interdisciplinary course, Taught an ethnic studies course, Team-taught a course, Taught a service learning course, or Taught a course exclusively on the Internet".  The IP got the impression from this one that just walking into a basic, introductory physics course and teaching it by himself the same way he had taught it two years ago might be considered a subversive activity.

One question on the survey asked me to rate the importance to me of a variety of educational goals for undergraduate students.  These included "Develop[ing] the ability to think clearly, Prepar[ing] students for employment, Develop[ing] moral character, Provid[ing] for students' emotional development, Help[ing] students to develop personal values, Enhancing students' self-understanding, Prepar[ing] students for responsible citizenship," etc.  All of these are important goals; and, we in higher education may help students in some small way to develop in these areas even though the primary responsibility for most of this stuff lies either with the students' parents or guardians or with their K-12 teachers.  However, some of our most important tasks as university instructors are to help students develop some appreciation for the life of the mind, some understanding of the way the world around us works, some ability to listen closely and think critically, some ability to comprehend different points of view, and -- hopefully -- to develop lifelong love of learning.  Strange, the survey didn't ask about any of those things.

Keeping with the diversity theme, another question asked us if we agreed with certain statements such as "This institution should hire more faculty of color, This institution should hire more women faculty, Faculty of color are treated fairly here, Women faculty are treated fairly here, etc."  In our politically correct world "of color" is a euphemism for "non-white".  The survey did not ask if faculty who were not women or "of color" were being treated fairly.  The problem with questions like these is that there is no way to answer them with any degree of accuracy.  For example, it may well be the case that faculty of  one color are treated quite fairly while others of a slightly different hue are not.  Likewise, it might be the case that women faculty members of one political persuasion are well-treated, while those of another political persuasion are not well-treated.

 Actually, Krispy Kreme U. has a reasonably diverse faculty, but our biggest problem is not that we have too few female faculty members or that we have too few faculty whose skin color is a few shades darker than that of the IP.  Our real problem is that we have been hiring too few tenure track faculty members in recent years.  At present, nearly 50% of our courses are taught by part-time faculty.  The survey skipped that issue entirely.

The IP doesn't want to imply that all the questions on the survey were inane -- many were just fine.  However, the examples cited are intended to show that surveys like this are easily slanted towards the interests of the people conducting the survey.  Therefore, the results should be taken with a grain of salt.

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