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Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Should Tenure Committees Solicit Outside Teaching Reviews Like They Solicit Outside Scholarship Reviews?

Law schools traditionally conduct outside scholarship reviews when professors go up for tenure. For instance, at my school, the tenure committee selects two professors from other law schools and the professor-up-for-tenure selects one professor to review the candidate's scholarship and write a "tenure letter" to the committee assessing that scholarship. This review makes sense given the gripe that groups of 3Ls decide where articles are placed. The outside review allows experts in the field to comment on the quality of a candidate's work and argue that a candidate's articles were under- or overplaced (although I doubt that the latter happens often if at all). It also allows for some objectivity which would be impossible if the candidate's colleagues were doing the only review of the candidate's scholarship.

Most law schools also make promotion and tenure decisions at least in part based upon student evaluations and committee members observing one or two classes taught by the candidate. As I noted in my recent post, however, as law schools increasingly switch to online evaluations, the percentage of students completing those evaluations drops, to the point where (as one commenter pointed out) these evaluations lose their statistical significance. And there is still, of course, the concern about the objectivity of a candidate's colleagues.

It seems to me, though, that the digital age also offers a partial solution to this problem. At my school and many schools, classes can now be digitally recorded so that students who missed a class can easily watch it online. In the pre-digital era, the idea of an outside teaching review would have been impossible unless a school had a professor from another school attend several class sessions taught by a professor-up-for-tenure. But now, it seems to me that an outside teaching review would be considerably easier. A law school could digitally record a given number of class sessions taught by a professor in the semester before the professor is up for tenure and send the sessions to outside professors in the field to review just as outside professors now review the scholarship of professors-up-for tenure. So, what do readers think?

Do outside teaching reviews make sense? I can think of a few reasons why professors would find such reviews undesirable. First, they give an incomplete picture of the professor's teaching. When an outside professor reviews scholarship, all that matters i the published piece that the professor reviews. An outside professor watching a recording of a class session, however, does not see how the professor interacts with students outside of class, whether he frequently fails to show up for office hours, etc. Of course, the counterargument is that the tenure committee can get that information for student evaluations and could use the outside teaching review simply to judge in-class performance.

A second argument against an outside teaching review is that while we prefer professors' evaluations of scholarship more than 3Ls' evaluation of scholarship, the converse is true with regard to teaching. In other words, we care more about whether students feel like they are learning from the professor than whether some professor at another school views the teaching as objectively "good." Of course, the counterargument is that students often don't know who the most effective teachers are until they practice and that an objective assessment by an outside professor is preferable.

Of course, there are many other arguments on both sides of the issue. So, what do readers think? Does it make sense for tenure committees to start soliciting outside teaching reviews? Are the exiting methods for evaluating teaching sufficient? Is there some other method by which tenure committees might evaluate teaching? You can respond by answering the following poll and/or leaving a comment.

 

Should tenure committees solicit outside teaching reviews?




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-Colin Miller 

Posted by Evidence ProfBlogger on September 15, 2010 at 10:26 AM | Permalink

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Comments

Ani: I think that gets to the question of how much we need to supplement the views of students on teaching with an expert, objective analysis. Clearly, we feel that we need to do this with scholarship. I think that it's a tougher call with teaching.

Dave: I had in mind the outside professor reviewing more class sessions...maybe 9 or 10. Of course, I don't know how many professors would be willing to do such a review. As for the need for an outside teaching review, the reason that I think that it "might" be needed is the decrease in the percentage of students completing online evaluations. At many schools, this percentage has dropped below a statistically significant level.

Orin: I think that's probably the biggest problem and something that isn't nearly as problematic with outside scholarship reviews.

Posted by: Colin Miller | Sep 16, 2010 2:17:39 PM

Interesting, Colin. One potential difficulty is that there tends to be broad pedagogical disagreement as to the best way to teach materials and how to teach individual subjects: As a result, I'm not sure any one person is an "expert" in the topic. For example, in criminal law, one professor might teach it as a class on statutory interpretation; another as a class on common law reasoning; a third as a class on philosophy; and a fourth as a class on trial practice skills. Every professor picks his or her own approach, such that expertise in the subject does not translate into expertise in how to teach the subject from any particular perspective.

Posted by: Orin Kerr | Sep 16, 2010 9:59:46 AM

Really interesting idea. I take the other commenters' points that external review does not add expertise that might be needed to assess substance in writing, but that doesn't mean that there isn't value. For example, one might think that internal teaching reviews suffer from bias because colleagues may be too close to the tenure candidate to be fully objective. Outside review of teaching may help to cut against such bias.

I'm more concerned about the idea of basing an eval of teaching on a single class session, or even two or three class sessions, since that may well not be a good sample. Of course, this is also true of internal teaching reviews, though internal evaluation is more easily spread out over numerous classes. Then there's the concern that seeing someone's class in video form may not give a full sense of their skills, but this seems pretty marginal.

Ultimately, it seems to me that this proposal is interesting but possibly unwarranted. Is there a general sense that internal teaching evaluations are inadequate or flawed? Otherwise may be moot.

Posted by: Dave | Sep 16, 2010 2:20:51 AM

This is creative and constructive -- but ultimately not very appealing. I think it's equally plausible that you'd want an evaluation from someone who was not an expert in the field, who'd be somewhat closer to the student perspective. In any event, it's pretty clear that the kind of scholarly expertise necessary to evaluate a professor's published work is much more rarified than that needed to evaluate the content of a class (student law reviews notwithstanding), so the need to go outside the faculty for reasons of expertise is pretty slight.

What you really get from your proposal is an external perspective. You described it as objective in your post, but I suspect that the only way of ensuring a dispassionate, disinterested appraisal would be to ensure anonymity . . . what the students get.

Posted by: Ani | Sep 15, 2010 7:47:33 PM

Orin, that's a good question. With scholarship, I think the assumption is that professors at the candidate's home school know the basics of good academic legal writing generally. As you note, the external professors then help the home faculty judge the substantive quality of the work based upon their expertise in the subject area.

With teaching, again, I think the assumption is that professors at the candidate's home school know the basics of good teaching generally. If there were an external teaching review, I imagine that the external professors would help the home faculty judge the substantive quality of the class session(s), again based upon their expertise in the subject area. In other words, in my main subject area -- Evidence -- the external professor would describe whether the professor has explained concepts such as character evidence and the rule against hearsay in a clear and effective manner. I imagine that the experts would be professors in that field who have won teaching awards and/or received very positive teaching evaluations.

Posted by: Colin Miller | Sep 15, 2010 1:46:27 PM

The idea of an outside review of scholarship is to find an expert in the subject of that scholarship to explain the merits of the scholarly work to the non-experts on the home faculty -- folks who don't know enough about the field to be able to make that judgment on their own. So I think the question is, who are the experts in teaching, and what do they know that the non-experts on the home faculty don't know?

Posted by: Orin Kerr | Sep 15, 2010 12:41:00 PM

Great idea, Colin. I'm for it.

Posted by: jason | Sep 15, 2010 11:53:56 AM

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