Friday, March 26, 2010


One of the more annoying trends in academia (and there are many) is the growing obssession with the need to quantify everything. We have been forced to spend countless hours thinking of how we can quantify our performance in teaching, our research activities, and student evaluations. Is making a new syllabus equal to attending two teaching workshops? Or maybe three? Are two book reviews equal to one article? What if the article contains less words than each review? Does a book chapter count as one article? Or 80% of an article? If the student says that "Professor 'Clarissa' rocks," how much is that worth in percentage points? Does that count as more or as less than "Professor 'Clarissa' is the best teacher I have ever had"?

Of course, the academics themselves do not need these weird quantifications. We are trained to read and analyze texts, so reading a student evaluation and figuring out what it says about the teacher is not a difficult task at all. We are also intimately familiar with all aspects of our jobs and know very well that no exact equivalencies between research projects and/or teaching activities that would cover all possible cases can be worked out. We know that a value of an article does not reside in its length, or even in the perceived prestige of the journal where it appears. We prefer the students to express how they feel about our teaching with actual sentences rather than numbers. Seeing a student rate me as a 10 out of 10 impresses me a lot less than reading her own personal description of my teaching.

I just spent an entire week trying to figure out how many hours per week I spend on direct vs indirect teaching and departmental research vs individual research. And I'm still not sure how these strange categories differ from each other. Instead of dedicating my time to creating fun, engaging activities for the students or finishing an article that's due on April 15, I had to waste time on quantifying things that by their very nature cannot be quantified. I have a meeting today and another next Monday where, once again, we will spend hours quantifying like crazy.

So the silly push to quantify your every breathing moment does not come from the teachers and does not benefit either us or our students. It originates with the administration of our educational institutions. The efforts to destroy the Humanities have led to the emergence of this new breed of people who are incapable of seeing anything but numbers. Unless you can count it, they can't understand it or see any value in it. I am dreading the moment (which I'm afraid is coming) when I will have to quantify the efficiency of my class by the number of new words or new facts that we have learned during the class hour.

In Solzhenitsyn's great novel In the First Circle, the scientists who are imprisoned by Stalin are forced to record their thinking process in special ledgers. At the end of the day, they have to demonstrate "how much thinking they have done on this particular day." It is not surprising that people who have not done any thinking in their lifetime insist that we quanitfy our thinking process. What is surprising, though, is that we allow them to impose their quantification-driven value system on us.


Pagan Topologist said...

You are such a voice of sanity. I am most distressed by these trends, as are most mathematicians.

Clarissa said...

Wow, if even mathematicians support this point of view, then I wonder how anybody can still insist on these practices.

Anonymous said...

One of your best posts, I think. This is such a huge problem, and not just in Academia. In elementary and middle schools, the obsession with quantifying student's progress with test scores is truly dizzying. We're forced by administrators to teach to the test, when many students are behind grade-level and need a much more individual attention.

Clarissa said...

Thank you! This excessive reliance on test scores, college drop-out rates, and counting avery aspect of your existence is very annoying and ultimately unproductive.

Pagan Topologist said...

The people in favor of such things are administrators who are trained (as opposed to educated) in the MBA sort of way.

steve said...

Here in florida, the legislature is mandating that in the future, 1/2 of a teacher's pay will be based on the students' standardized test scores.

Clarissa said...

Geez, this is the latest installment in the test-driven education insanity that is a culmination of a horrible practice.

Isn't Obama trying to change all that??

Kola Tubosun said...

I rate this post 10/10 ;)

Lindsay said...

(I found this post through your latest post on standardization; that's why I'm commenting so far after the fact!)

Thanks for this eye-opening post. As one whose experience of academia has only (so far) been as a student, I've only had glimpses of how much cumbersome and time-wasting administrative crap professors have to deal with.

On evaluations, the numerical-rating thing always gave me a lot of trouble! I'd have to figure out exactly what the difference between, say, an 8, 9 or 10 rating on such things as "professor explains things well" or "professor is accessible outside of class hours" means. Some of them strike me as simple yes-or-no questions, which makes it awfully hard to fill in the incremental spaces between Yes and No!

Because of this ambiguity, I always try to write something, too.

Professor evaluations take me a *LONG* time to do.

I suspect that, not only do the people who design them think numerical ratings are more objective than writing down your impressions, but that they are also easy to arrive at. Such people must be in the habit of rating things in this way, for it to seem at all easy or natural to them.

Clarissa said...

Thank you, Lindsay! I wish our administrators listened to students' feedback a little more often.