I recently participated in a survey of higher education professionals about various aspects of the job. It was very clearly designed by and aimed at scholars in the humanities and social sciences, to the point where answering questions honestly made me feel like a Bad Person.
For example, there were numerous questions about teaching methods that just aren’t applicable to what I teach– things like learning through community service. while there is some truth to the old cliche that you never really learn something until you have to teach it, something like turning a bunch of would-be engineers from our first-year mechanics class loose on a local middle school isn’t really going to help anybody. Similarly, the hot trope of the moment, interdisciplinarity, really doesn’t come into play when the main task I face is teaching a bunch of first-year students about Newton’s laws. While you can sneak in the occasional biology or physiology-related example, those are pretty much physics through and through.
Still, as I went down the list checking “No” to each of the areas they chose to highlight, it was hard to avoid feeling like I was horribly inadequate as an academic. When, in fact, it’s just that the survey isn’t a good fit for the sort of thing that we do.
I was also asked to rate the importance of a variety of ideas and concepts, which again, is hard to do honestly without feeling like a jerk. Do I think that the personal growth of college students in terms of ethics, morals, appreciation of diversity, and so on is important? Sure. Is it important to what I directly teach? Not really. Do I think engagement with the community outside the college is important? Absolutely. Is there any practical way to make it an important part of my teaching? Not really.
So, I end up answering a bunch of questions in ways that probably make the grad student sorting the results think I’m some kind of conservative dinosaur still grumbling that we were too soft on the hippies back in the 60’s. But really, it’s just that the questions being asked are a bad fit for my particular discipline.
It’s also striking that there are very few items that might go the other way. There was basically nothing on there that could reasonably apply to labs, for example– a question or two about the amount of time spent prepping labs and demos, but nothing asking about, say, the importance of hands-on learning, or student involvement in the construction of research apparatus. Labs and undergrad research are a huge part of what we do in physics, but because they’re not a big part of professional activity in the parts of academia where they collect and analyze survey data, they don’t really get counted.
The last time I participated in this survey, I had the exact same complaints, and went to the trouble of sending email to the survey organizer. I got a very polite reply telling me that feedback was appreciated and would be taken into consideration. As near as I can tell, though, they’ve added new humanities buzzwords to the survey since then, but nothing relevant to my concerns. so this time, I’ll just bitch about them on the blog, and ten years from now, when they ask again, I’ll probably skip it, because there are lots of other ways I could use the time it takes to fill out the survey.