Teaching for Tenure and Beyond: Strategies for Maximizing Your Student Ratings

Franklin H. Silverman
Westport, CT: Bergin & Garvey, 2001
229 pp., 29.95 hc

Paul Trout
Montana State University-Bozeman

Franklin Silverman, a speech pathologist at Marquette University and a clinical professor of Rehabilitation Medicine at the Medical College of Wisconsin, wants to help tenure-track professors "maximize" their teaching-evaluation scores to get tenure. He warns neophytes that evaluation numbers have to be strong because review committees and administrators often use low or marginal numbers as a ruse to get rid of "uncollegial" colleagues (viii). So, to be safe, numbers can never be too high.

In the opening chapters, Silverman sets the table by explaining why beginners need high evaluation ratings, how most schools evaluate teaching, and that student rating forms of teaching are valid and reliable. From Chapter 4 on, Silverman examines the basic aspects of "effective" teaching to be found on most evaluation forms: clarity of presentation, knowledge of the material, concern for students, enthusiasm, fairness of exams and grading, etc. To his credit, Silverman, under these headings, often gives valuable practical tips for helping students learn more effectively, whatever the impact on ratings. He touches on other valuable but often overlooked topics as well. For instance, he also helps new faculty select textbooks that students will find useful, gives faculty very helpful advice on how to prepare promotion and review documents, and on how to anticipate the "semantic reaction" of reviewers to the teaching section of a tenure application (210-13). The closing chapter helps senior faculty prepare for post-tenure review and how to deal with burnout.

Now, to the real purpose of Teaching for Tenure and Beyond. Will it help junior faculty get higher evaluation scores? I think it could. But for both good and bad reasons. This explains my very divided reaction to this book.

Silverman has been teaching tough subjects for over 30 years, has won a university teaching award, and has discovered all kinds of ways to help students learn more effectively and to make classroom teaching more enjoyable for both student and teacher. Those who implement some of his practical suggestions about everything from maintaining eye-contact with students to choosing student-friendly textbooks will teach better, and may even raise evaluation scores with no ill side effects. It's always good to encourage students to express their own opinions even when they differ from your own (111); to explain to students the value and relevance of the material being taught, preferably in images and terms their generation can relate to; to encourage student research (Chapter 18); to learn student names; to avoid speeding up the presentation of material at the end of the semester; to not cut short fruitful discussions simply because they interfere with covering all of the material; to allow students to argue for the correctness of their answers on tests; to spice lectures with stories, illustrations, visualizations; to use active-learning classroom strategies to keep students awake and attentive, etc.

Silverman is aware that the challenge facing teachers today is motivating students to learn (the reasons for the problem are scanted). He advises teachers to be warm and especially "enthusiastic," and to explain to students why they should want to know more about what is being taught-that is, how the information can enhance their life now or in the future. "The ability of a teacher to convince students that an understanding of the material he or she is presenting is relevant to them is likely to influence (perhaps determine) their motivation to learn it and, consequently, the amount of it that they are likely to learn" (7).

It's fair to say that for Silverman, teaching is classroom therapy more than anything else. The psyche and self-image of students are fragile and injured, and it is the job of the college professor to repair the damage. Or, as he puts it, it's the job of the professor to challenge students' negative self-fulfilling prophecies. Silverman goes so far as to suggest that profs pump up the self esteem of students by contriving exams and grading standards that guarantee success to all or most students (115). Since nothing succeeds like success, "The best way to get students to believe that they're capable of learning particular skills or concepts is to create opportunities for them to experience success doing so.... Ask them to do only what they can be almost certain to do successfully. The certainty of success they're likely to gain in this way can help to sustain their motivation to struggle to get to the next level and that gained there, to higher levels. Initial failure, on the other hand, is likely to reinforce their certainty that they're incapable of learning the skills and/or concepts that they're expected to learn. Such a certainty is likely to keep them from struggling to learn and, consequently, will increase the likelihood of their failing to do so. This scenario, of course, is one for a self-fulfilling prophecy" (115).

What this student-centered or "success" strategy leads to, of course, is all kinds of academic dishonesty, certainly not the least of which is further grade inflation. This prospect does not bother Silverman in the least, because he's convinced that positive reinforcement inevitably enhances student learning. "Relatively high grades are more likely than relatively low ones to make students feel competent. And consequently, they are more likely to enhance their motivation to learn more. During my 30-plus years of college teaching, I've contributed significantly to what has been referred to as 'grade inflation,' and I don't apologize for doing so" (67). For him, there is only one form of "insincere" feedback, and that is "inadequate positive reinforcement" (68). No wonder that most of Silverman's students leave his classes feeling "good about themselves," and apparently about Professor Silverman's teaching. Unfortunately, Silverman provides no evidence for his grandiose assumption, and, needless to say, does not look at the growing number of studies that question the long-lasting efficacy of the "success" model, employed with such disastrous effects in secondary education.

Let me turn to more serious shortcomings. For Silverman to pursue his enterprise in good conscience, he must believe that what professors do to improve their evaluation ratings also improves their teaching (defined as increasing student learning). Silverman, in short, assumes there's a happy and perfect congruence between what professors do to benefit their careers and what they do to benefit their students. They are one and the same! A nice thought, if it were true. He comes to this self-serving view by absurdly claiming that the research literature showing that student evaluations are valid and reliable is "not equivocal" (39). But this is nonsense. Hundreds if not thousands of studies have trenchantly questioned both the validity and reliability of evaluation forms in general, and many of the specific ones most widely used to determine the fate of academics. I have discussed many of these studies in other things I've written for The Montana Professor and I do not have space to review them here other than to say that the work of Anthony Greenwald, Larry Stanfel, Larry Barnett, Harry Tagomori, James Ryan, and David Reynolds, to name only a few, should keep anybody from uttering the irresponsible and misinformed nonsense about evaluation vented by Silverman. But he has to believe in the perfect congruence of all evaluation forms and the aspects of good teaching or otherwise all he's telling junior colleagues is how to get higher numbers at the cost to classroom standards. And, while he doesn't want to admit this, it is precisely this cynical message that permeates this otherwise naive book.

Let me now take up the most egregious aspect of this book--its sycophantic tone. Too often for my tastes, Silverman's student-centered approach goes too far, essentially asking professional educators to suck up to students if they want high evaluation scores. Sometimes, the advocacy of ass-kissing is positively shameful and unworthy of a professional educator. But his is what the growing power of evaluation forms have reduced many of us to--fearful, servile impression managers. Silverman wants to put a Happy Face on contemporary pedagogy--professors help themselves by helping their students! But throughout the book, Silverman is warning junior colleagues not to irritate students or provoke complaints. Instructors who-for whatever reason-provoke complaints from students are likely to be fired, he warns, because no chairperson likes to waste time defending colleagues from student complaints, and the prospect of having to do so for several decades, once a person is tenured, is surely enough to scotch a person's candidacy. So faculty members, especially the untenured, have to walk on eggshells for fear of crossing testy students.

Just listen to Silverman's rhetoric. Throughout the book, Silverman warns professors how to avoid "attacks" from students, how not to provoke their "resentment," "hatred," "fury," and "revenge," words which occur with dismaying frequency. He assumes that many students, when they don't get what they want, will be spiteful and unfair. For example, should your syllabus not rule out extra-credit assignments, students with low grades will ask for them. If they are told that extra-credit work is not available, these students "are likely to give you lower teaching ratings than they would otherwise in order to get even" (46). So much for the validity and reliability of this item. Silverman also warns that asking students to make up for their 'deficiencies' on their own will provoke complaints to "your chairperson or dean and/or...relatively low teaching ratings" (77). "I've occasionally had students become furious with me because I didn't meet their expectations for how reading assignments should be handled" (123). The message is quite clear: untenured faculty have a lot to fear from their students, and need this book to avoid making any mistakes that could unfairly end their career.

The subject of workloads is especially revealing in showing how Silverman can justify dumbing-down courses to be a better teacher (and thus get higher evaluation scores!). Who determines what constitutes a "reasonable" workload? Silverman is quite clear on this score: it's not the educated, professional opinion of the professor, but the perceptions of the students! "While the instructor may be right, the reality is that the students do the ratings" (117). In short, the basic consideration that should govern how much a teacher teaches is how much students are willing to learn, and how much they will reward or punish those professors who satisfy their preconceptions about a "just" workload. Workloads that students perceive as "excessive" will only "anger" them and hurt a professor's evaluation scores and career. You draw the lesson. When setting workloads, then, Silverman advises dumbing down. He doesn't put it this baldly, of course, nor does anyone else, but he codes it by saying that professors should somehow compute the "other demands on the students' time and energy." But this nonsensical notion requires a God-like perspective that no professor can possibly have. In the absence of this God-like wisdom, what profs will do, if they want to play it safe, is set workloads and standards at the lowest common denominator, thus satisfying as many students as possible (it is only a minority of students who demand higher standards and more work, of course).

The book is sloppily edited and poorly written and structured. Typos are everywhere (9, 77, 131, end page, etc.), and Silverman's stylistic mannerisms set my teeth on edge. He uses "to risk" and "to impact" as intransitive verbs, "my publications continue to impact" (9), instead of "to have an impact." He also uses "to impact" with a useless preposition: "Try to recall a teacher who impacted on you in ways that" (66), "I impacted significantly on my students' lives" (100). When something is "veneer" it is "thin," so one need not add "veneer thin." Obvious point after obvious point is repeated in different chapters and sometimes in the same chapters.

In summary, there are some good practical tips in this book about how to communicate with students, how to organize a lecture and a course, how to write a syllabus, how to structure exams, how to anticipate student needs and objections, and many other things that any responsible professional educator would want to do. But the theoretical underpinnings of this book are meretricious and wrongheaded, encouraging a slavish caving in to student shortcomings and a dumbing down of standards and workloads all in the cause of improving course ratings.

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