RealClear Staff


     Since 1992, US colleges have allowed students to rate their experience via surveys. In 1999, the Rate My Professors website availed itself to college students—built by undergrads. It wasn’t until around 2007 that these student outlets had a strong impact on whether or not professors kept their jobs. More and more, students’ voices are being heard.

Not too long ago, the tradition was to go to college, study hard and earn the desired grade. Tuition was viewed as a self-investment, professors were looked upon as respected mentors possessing much wisdom to impart onto young minds.

Today, with tuition costs rising, students no longer view college in yesteryear’s light. To appease collegiate candidates’ higher expectations, academic institutions (public and private) are having to go to great lengths to make themselves more marketable. More, young minds are no longer interested in what the professional world deems valuable—they want pop culture. With all this change, professors are feeling the pressure, as some have even been terminated based on otherwise-ridiculous complaints from students—e.g., they didn’t want to do the assignments that merit a better grade.

One professor, five-year UIC (University of Illinois at Chicago) Lecturer John Casey, who has colleagues who’ve been fired on such grounds, shares his expertise with

RealClear: How do colleges determine whether or not a professor gets rehired for another semester?

John Casey: Students fill out reviews on a class. A department head will [assess] those reviews with a committee. These are only for the contractual employees—the people who aren’t eligible for tenure or haven’t retained tenure yet. Those reviews play a deep role in determining who’s going to teach class [in the future]. One of the effects that has, in terms of what gets taught in the classroom, is faculty doesn’t like to pick controversial subjects necessarily. They’re afraid it might offend someone in the class, or they’re not sure how to work through any controversy that might come up. They try to find non-controversial topics students might enjoy—instead of things that challenge students intellectually. That’s why there are a lot of pop-culture classes now. I’ll never forget when I taught at Columbia [College Chicago], and there was an incredibly popular course on zombies. They’d watch zombie films and read various kinds of fan fiction. To this day, I’m still scratching my head, trying to figure out how that’s a literature class. It’s an example of something non-controversial (at least right now)—zombies are really popular. That’s the stuff that’s going to get good reviews. [However,] it’s not until long after graduation that students realize the classes most useful to them are the ones that kicked their butt. 

RC: So you’re saying later down the road, students realized those pop-culture classes really didn’t help them at all?

JC: They’re just empty; it’s essentially entertainment. When you’re going to’ve to ask yourself, ‘Why am I doing this? What’s the reward for me doing all this hard work?’ When you’re a kid, it’s really hard to answer that question—even at 19 or 20. Part of a teacher’s role is similar to that of a parent—they’re picking things in advance for you. You’re not mature enough to know what’s good. [Professors] want to ensure you’re getting what you need. They aren’t trying to be jerks by making you take an advanced Calculus course. [E.G.,] If you really want to be an engineer, you’re going to have to know how to do this. If you walk into an engineering firm and don’t know how to do advanced-level math but know a shitload about Pokemon, they’re going to look at you and say, ‘Yeah, you’re not working here.’ However, you don’t want to make a class so hard that nobody could ever possibly pass it. But there also is no value at all in making a class that’s just purely entertaining—it’s like an expensive daycare at that point. 


Casey went on to add that while colleges won’t admit it, a lot of lesser-known schools are focusing more on revenue from students. Additionally, he added that institutions are becoming more PR & market driven and creating classes that have a buzz to them in order to attract more people—rather than allocating money for the education itself. 

As academic institutions continue to bow to students’ will, focus more on entertainment value, US schools will continue to fall down the rungs of the educational ladder



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