Thursday, June 27, 2019

Misdirection and the Fun Theory in College Teaching

As I have been preparing some materials for my class in the fall on the Economics of Organizations and a significant part of our topic coverage will be on various compensation schemes that provide cost-effective ways to provide motivation for employee and/or contractors, it's good for the students to reflect on their own motivation in school.  Partly for that reason and partly because it is also good to begin with familiar examples before jumping into the more general approach, I start the first couple of weeks of the course on two examples that should be readily familiar - the class as an organization and then again the university as an organization. (This approach is also my way of coping with the adds and drops that happen during the first 10 days of the term and encouraging the students to get the textbook, which we will get into during the third week of the semester.)

The very first day of the class, as a I give an overview of the course, I will tell students that the course might help them think like a manager, though it is definitely an Econ course, not an MBA course.  My guess is that this will draw them in, both because they'll have aspirations to become managers themselves and also be curious about how their manager thinks when they're in their first jobs after college.  Then I'll do my little schtick about managing down and managing out.  Most of them, having done some summer job already, will think about management mainly as managing down - supervising other employees.  Managing out, which is more of what upper level management does, was my strength.  At least in the university setting, it is mainly about establishing peer relationships.  I certainly like doing this, with other faculty, with ed tech people, and with other campus administrators, as well as peers on other campuses.  It needs schmoozing that builds a trust relationship, but it also needs some quid pro quo - usually that's just information sharing, sometimes it's a service or a program to initiate or tweak. 

In contrast, I'm mediocre at best when managing down and I will let the students know I should not be their role model in that dimension. My ideal of this sort of management is Jean-Luc Picard communicating with Riker.  When I first started in SCALE, Lynn Ward also started at the same time.  My job was to be an ambassador of sort.  Hers was to manage the office. We came in as peers and remained that way when I took over SCALE, only four months later. This continued when Jolee West replace Lynn.  It was Lynn who found Jolee for the job, not me.  If I have only one person to manage I can probably do that and then I will treat it as a peer relationship.  I got overwhelmed, however, when I had 8 direct reports, when CET formed.  I really wanted the office to run itself and not devote much time to it at all.  This is not the mindset of someone who takes managing down seriously.  That someone was not me.

With this as background, I will try to make a parallel between the manager and the staff, on the one hand, and the teacher and the students, on the other.  If employees want to understand their manager they might get an initial inkling of this by asking whether as students they understand their teacher.  What does the teacher do to motivate students?  Are those attempts successful or are they flawed?  When is it one and when is it the other?  Does that depend on who the students are or is good teaching universal so provides motivation for all students?

Since this is an economics class, when considering popular examples of teaching thoughts immediately turn to Ben Stein boring the students to tears in Ferris Bueller's Day Off.  The movie came out more than 30 years ago.  A decade or so later that clip, and the movie in its entirety, became iconic in ed tech circles as exemplifying the difficulties with the old pedagogy and a need for something else to replace it.  Further, while others might not have realized it Ben Stein was exactly the right person to be cast in this role of the economics teacher, because his dad, Herbert Stein, was a very well known economist and was Chairman of the Council of Economics Advisors under Nixon and Ford.  But the students may never have seen the clip from Ferris Bueller, so after polling them on that I might then show it in class, along with this clip from the little rascals about playing hooky from school.  (Will they know Spanky and Alfalfa?  I'm probably as old as their grandparents now.  Do their grandparents talk about the TV they watched as kids?)  And then there is the Pink Floyd song (and movie) Another Brick in the Wall.   Together these clips present a rather dim view of school and of teachers.

On the flip side are movies such as Mr. Holland's Opus and Stand and Deliver; the latter is based on a true story. Both movies are inspirational.  Each features a teacher with such dedication and concern for the students that the teacher is able to elevate them to performances beyond their own expectations.  Other movies in this vein, Dead Poets Society and Goodbye, Mr. Chips, deliver a similar message.  While we should all applaud such instructor dedication, the reality is that in the world of ed tech it is pedagogy that we hope saves the say and we'd like to see excellent results even from ordinary instructors, as long as they practice effective pedagogy.  So one might ask, what does effective pedagogy look like and what does it do to encourage student motivation?

Ten years ago when I was teaching a class for the Campus Honors program, one of the students in the class introduced me to this video about the piano stairs that exemplified The Fun Theory.  (I think the video was on a different site at the time.)  The idea is self explanatory - take a tedious task, one that many people avoid if they can, and redesign it in a way where it is piques one's interest, so people want to engage in it.  Are all tasks subject to such redesign provided that the designer has a good imagination?

In thinking about this I quickly remembered my high school years, particularly math with Mr. Conrad.  He was my favorite teacher and I ended up taking 4 classes from him: 9th grade algebra, analytic geometry and trig in 11th grade, math team workshop, and number theory.  Those last two classes were non-standard and probably are not offered anymore, an example of enrichment classes being crowded out by AP classes. I wrote about my experiences with Mr. Conrad in a post called Math as a gateway to creativity.  Mr. Conrad did many things to make the math fun for me.  Probably the most important was The Problem of the Week.  A nonstandard problem was posted on the bulletin board outside the Math Department Office.  You got no recognition for solving it correctly.  You did it for the challenge only. I enjoyed having to think those problems through.  But then, it's true that I was a math guy, high scorer on the Math Team as a senior, and a math major in college.  Is this sort of fun only for nerds like me?  What other fun might be more broadly encouraging of the learner?

Rather than answer that question directly, I want to note that even with the piano stairs some people continue to ride the escalator up rather than take the stairs.  If my arthritis was giving me a hard time, I'd be one of those who'd take the escalator.   We might ask, can a person do something in the person's own approach to things to make the person more likely to take the stairs when seeing something as unusual and amusing as the piano stairs?  With this question I mean to take some of the burden off the pedagogy and put some burden on the learner.  It stands to reason that more redesigns would encourage learners if the learners were eager for them.  How then might we bring that about?   When I pose this question to my students I will again bring into focus the parallel with the workplace.  The manager may want to do some redesign of tasks to make them more engaging to the employees, but the manager is also hoping for the employees to step up so that even tasks that haven't been redesigned get their full attention. Is that a reasonable quid pro quo?

In my class, I'm going to treat this redesign question just as Mr. Conrad treated the Problem of the Week.  It will be a challenge for the students to come up with their own redesign ideas.  They can either email me with them privately or post them to the class site (the latter would be a way to get some recognition, although that would only be recognition within our class as they post under an alias).  They will not get course credit for it.  And then I will challenge them with something similar about their other classes.  Can they do things to change their own orientation and thereby make other courses more engaging to them, even without those other courses going through their own redesign?  In other words, might a person choose to walk up the stairs even without the innovation of the piano, by just imaging the innovation to exist?

Let me close by talking a bit about misdirection, which until now I've not mentioned.  I'm pretty confident the students will be interested in this stuff from the supervisor-employee angle.  After all, they will soon be entering the world of work and this is an important consideration in that setting.  But in this exercise I'm using that only to keep the students interested.  I'm far more concerned with how they go about learning in my class (and in the other classes they take) and I think most of them take a far too instrumental approach.  I'd like them to reach the same conclusion, but I'm afraid that if we talk about it directly, they'll become defensive and say they have to worry about their GPA.  So rather than go that route, we'll start with the supervisor-employee angle, where I've already told them I'm no expert, and let them invent in that domain by inventing in a more familiar one.  I won't tell them my true intentions even if it works, at least not for a few weeks after that.  Then we'll see.

Thursday, June 13, 2019

The Long and the Short of It

I'm reacting to a couple of pieces I've read recently that talk about writing. As part of the message the authors delivered, each piece said to write less.  In my post I want to consider when that is good advice and when the advice should be challenged, perhaps even discarded altogether.  And I want to do this twice, first for more experienced writers, then for student writers.

Of the two pieces, the more recent is this one from the Chronicle of Higher Education called, Why Writing Will Make You a Better Person. (This piece is behind the Chronicle's paywall.  If you don't have access to the Chronicle but want to read the piece, contact me and I''ll send you a copy.)  The authors are two philosophy professors who want to treat writing as an ethical activity - be kind to the reader.  It is a novel approach from which to consider writing, one that made sense to me.  Yet I thought they made a rather serious error that I want to highlight, after which I will consider my alternative.   The other piece is called How to Get Every Email Returned - Or at least how to try.  The author is a former Op-Ed editor of the New York Times.  She talks about psychological factors that readers confront, which influence how they will read a piece, and then she bases her recommendations on these factors.

Now a bit about my writing online experience.  I got started with that in two different communities.  One was on campus done in FirstClass, with faculty who were teaching with ALN (what the Sloan Foundation called online learning at the time) and ed tech types who were supporting those faculty.  This started in late summer or early fall of 1995.  Then there was a discussion group for the various grantees of the Sloan Foundation in their ALN program, with representatives on many different campuses.  I found some comfort and social life in these discussions, as a parent with young children we were pretty much homebodies during the evening.  I also found I had some flair for this.  It was a way to meet interesting people and a way for me to contribute ideas to the community. This writing served as a gateway for my career change, from an academic economist to an ed tech administrator.

About ten years later I started this blog. The immediate cause was an analytic post that I wrote for a discussion that had stalled on the then Sloan-C listserv.  I received several private emails from well situated people on the list, thanking me for that post. But no subsequent discussion ensued on the list.  That bothered me, a lot.  So I thought to expand the audience for my analyses by making the writing public.  After a few months of doing that I got discovered by Scott Leslie, which served as a launch point for entering into the edu blog community.  A year or so later I met Barbara Ganley online, and along with a few others began some very interesting conversations about how to find the right sort of social adaptations to get the technology to truly work in service of learning, and about a lot of other stuff as well that all tied in. Barbara was featured in this piece about the slow blogging movement, which is a useful read now if only to show the tension to shorten online pieces and the push back from some writers who did the opposite existed even then, when Blackberry was still the smartphone market leader.  As for me, I too was a slow blogger and had something of a large following within the edu blog community, as indicated by this post.  Coincident with this I participated in several different professional listservs that stemmed from my administrator job, and I had an enormous amount of one-on-one and small group email as well.

Part of the reason to emphasize this background is to point out that how we write depends on context, in a community setting the mores of the group matter, and when there is an ongoing group discussion that you are reacting to, you need to ask - are you pushing the discussion further, providing a different framing for considering things or otherwise helping members of the group think through the issues?  Or are you mainly echoing what has been said before?  As I said earlier, I have a flair for this sort of thing, at least with respect to certain subject matter about learning and technology, and giving an analysis that takes some substantial writing to explicate may try the patience of some in the group while pleasing others who want that content.  In other words, readers are not a homogeneous group.  I believe that the philosophers who wrote the Chronicle piece linked above tacitly assumed they are.   What then should the writer do about reader heterogeneity if as a writer you want to treat readers ethically?

I'd like to illustrate the issue with some data.  We live at a time where analytics is the new buzzword. Unfortunately, for written documents online, such as this blog post, one can get measures of "hits" but hits don't indicate whether the person read through the entire piece carefully, merely skimmed it all, or didn't even get that far.  And, with tabbed browsing the norm, a person can have the piece open in the browser for quite a while, yet spend very little time on reading it.  Consequently, I want to momentarily looked at such data for video of a micro-lecture, specifically this one I made on the principal-agent model for a course I teach.  YouTube tracks not just hits, a bit more than 3,100 for this video, but it also tracks minutes viewed, with the average viewing time per hit less than 3 and a half minutes, while the video itself is over 12 minutes long.   On average, then, the video doesn't seem to be reaching the audience.  Yet there are a bunch of positive comments, only one negative comment, and a dozen likes with no dislikes.  How does one reconcile all this information and what does it tell me about how I should make other video micro-lectures in the future.  My conjecture is that the audience is bimodal, with the larger mode impatient and not willing to sit through the entire video and a smaller mode of students who watch it all the way through.  If that's right, is it ethically okay for me to focus on the smaller mode and as long as they are happy with the piece then I should feel I'm on the right track?  Or must I make content that the larger mode would watch in its entirety?

Having made that little embrace with data, let's return to talking about writing in the presence of reader heterogeneity and note that the issue has been around for some time.  Consider this essay by Saul Bellow from the New York Times series Writers on Writing, published in October 1999 when the Internet was still in its gestation period. It shows a parallel argument about writing novels in an era where most people were going to the movies (or watching TV) rather than reading books.  It is an eloquent defense that the writer is entitled to concentrate on the smaller mode, consisting of those readers who still appreciate the writing.  Of course, Bellow had won the Nobel Prize for Literature more than 20 years earlier and the audience for his writing, though much smaller than the audience for blockbuster movies, was still sizeable.  What of us writers who are not as skilled as Bellow and have a much smaller audience?  Can we still make a case that it is ethical to appeal to the smaller mode?

I think that's a tough question and I certainly don't have an ideal philosophical answer to it.  I can report what I do, which is to take a mixed mode approach.  Theses days, I definitely have more hits on my Twitter posts than on my posts at Blogger.  I do something novel with Twitter, which is to post short rhymes there (which I re-post to Facebook).  Some of them resonate with the audience and in Facebook I will occasionally get a friend to rhyme back at me - the most sincere form of flattery. But I do this longer writing too.   At this point, the blogging is not that different form an alternative  where I keep a journal only for myself.  I need to process my thinking and the writing helps with that.  Having even a little bit of an audience then encourages the proofreading after the processing and the tracking down of links to insert into the piece.  I also do a fair amount of other writing in the volunteer work I do, editing training documents, putting together grant proposals, and communicating with the others who are also volunteering.  The context determines much about the writing.  I am for clarity, always, but brevity, only some of the time.  I do think that writing supports collegial interaction and I try hard to be a good colleague. I think it is important to develop a sense of taste in these things, more so than simply follow a set of rules.  That sense of taste come from reading and finding other authors whom I enjoy reading.  (When I started the blog I tried to emulate Stephen J. Gould, as he would write in the New York Review of Books.)  Now I always try to please myself with my writing.  I can sign off when I've done that.

* * * * *

I want to switch gears here and talk about student writing.  In the class I teach I have students write weekly blog posts.  I first did this when I was teaching a class for the Campus Honors Program and wrote about the experience here.  This was before I retired so the teaching was done as an overload, work you'd only do if you really enjoy it and/or if you thought it contributed to doing your full time job better. Teaching honors students is always fun and I've learned that my little experiments with pedagogy are much more likely to give good results with honors students.  Those good results then encourage me to try the approach with regular students.

I retired just a few days after that article was published, which was more than a semester after the class had concluded. When I've taught since then it has been for the Economics Department, once intermediate microeconomics, all other times upper level courses in the majors.  From 2012 on that has been a course on the economics of organizations.  Student blogging is a mainstay of the course and what I write here is based on which I've learned from that experience.  Students post weekly, typically in response to a prompt I give them, which relates to subject matter the class will consider, though they have the freedom of writing about something else, as long as they can connect it to course themes.  There is a 600 word minimum requirement for these posts.  I don't enforce this strictly, but I mean to convey by the requirement that the students should put in real and substantial effort in the writing.  I comment on each post students make, provided the posts don't come in too late.  I also require students to comment on my comment.  That much of the mechanism is fixed now. I've also sometimes required students to comment on the posts of other students.  That has been more of a mixed success, though it does make the students aware of how their peers write.  They sometimes get discouraged when comparing their own writing to mine.

I don't think of this as teaching writing.  I think of it as using writing to build connections between the economics we are studying and the experiences the students have already had.  This is not something they do in their other classes and eventually, though definitely not early in the semester, students come to appreciate the value in making those connections for their learning.  The students do grow some as writers during the semester and I would like to mark that trajectory a bit.

I should note first that the students are writing under an alias, but then are writing out in open.  A potential employer won't know who the student is, but the student's classmates might be able to match the alias to the person.  As I assign the aliases to the students, I am not in the dark about which student is writing under an alias.  In spite of this particular form of protection, many of the students are extremely uncomfortable with the blogging early on.  It takes about a month for them to relax about the blogging.  Much of this is about poor self-image as a writer.  Apart from the required rhetoric classes and some dreaded term papers in other general education courses, the students don't do much writing academically, a downside of attending Big Public U.

Even after they relax some, many students still struggle with generating prose.  I talk about pre-writing with them in class and the necessity of that, but I don't think it sinks in, especially not at first.  The benefit from this struggle to generate prose is that the students subsequently become more amenable to suggestions from me.  They may then be ready to embrace pre-writing and come to understand why it is necessary.  Of course, writer's block happens even to experienced writers who have put in substantial time thinking prior to sitting down at the keyboard about what they will say.  I like this page from the Online Writing Lab at Purdue and especially the suggestion to start in the middle, which is very easy to do when writing on a computer, as paragraphs can be moved around via a simple copy and paste.

Eventually, most of my students find that the minimum word requirement doesn't bind (at least during weeks where they don't have exams or term papers due in their other courses).   Yet the students still often only gloss the surface of the subject they are writing about.  My comments are meant to encourage them to explore their topic further.  Sometimes they also have a cognitive issue when describing their own experiences.  They are eye witnesses, but the reader wasn't there and needs background and context to understand the experience.  Providing such context is a particular writing skill that will serve them well later and does make the the student more empathetic for the reader, but it does not lead to the student writing less.  If anything, the student needs to write more.

A very small number of students treat the blogging as if they are opening up a vein and then just let it flow, producing a large volume of prose.  If it is coherent, I will not object.  If it is scattered, I will encourage the student to spend more time on editing and them make sure the various bits connect to one another.  But such students are the exception.  For most students, getting more depth in their pieces remains the goal through the entire semester.

Therefore, I believe it is a mistake to tell such students to write less at this time in their development.  Ultimately, of course, the skill they need to develop is to be able to write a cogent memo or perhaps to be able to write a tolerably good (1 page) executive summary to accompany a white paper. Eventually, writing less will be an important lesson for them to learn.  But they need to understand that a lot of thought was put in before that cogent memo was produced.  They simply will not understand that until they've done a lot of other writing that demanded substantial pre-writing from them.

I haven't yet talked much at all about proofreading and editing.  Many students don't get why that's necessary, because they have yet to develop empathy for the reader, and feeling the writing in the class is just another hoop to get through.  As I think comments about grammar and spelling are rarely effective (except, for example, when they use a homophone for an economic term, principle-agent model is one common student error) I will not give feedback at all on that front, but will encourage proof-reading, which in the ideal should happen with some time interval after the composition of the piece.

Editing for substance is a different matter, one I don't discuss much in the class because I don't think students are ready for it.  Instead, with some of the better students I've tried a strategy where they split their blog post into pieces.  The first part is a reflection on the blog post they wrote the previous week. The second part addresses the current prompt.  The going back to what they've written earlier is in lieu of editing the earlier piece.  I only do this for the very good students, who are willing to do the extra work.

* * * * *

I want to wrap this up.   As income inequality may be the number one social issue of our time, I'm sensitive to criticism about being elitist.  Indeed with respect to my teaching I've opted to teach regular students rather than honors student partially because with my teaching I think it is right to focus my attention on the larger mode (although I continue to believe that typical students need to raise their game about what they bring to the academic table).  But I may very well be elitist in writing slow blogging posts like this one, though the few readers I still have may not consider themselves elite at all, but rather are hungry for more thoughtful analysis expressed in generalist writing, which is becoming increasingly rare.

I do think we need to be careful about sending messages to students that encourage them to put in less effort in their studies and to imitate the communication strategies they've adopted when they text with their friends.  It is a reality that the students are very busy and they tend to have their heads focused on their electronic devices at all times.  But I believe that reality needs to be combated int their class.  What I see, instead, is acquiescence.  There is no short cut to thinking well. That's a hard lesson to learn and, until it is learned, focus on the limited attention span of some readers is likely to be counterproductive.

The writer who produces long form writing regularly but is cognizant of the reader learns to be able to produce short form writing that is effective, when the need arises for it.  Along the learning curve, it is my belief that should come later.  An effective one pager has its uses, no doubt.  I'm not denying that.  I'm only questioning how people come to develop that skill.   And I want to note that many college educated people never do, which I surmise is because they haven't spent enough time writing.  If students don't have enough practice and the message from the instructor is - write less - what does that say about the amount of practice students will get?

Thursday, June 06, 2019

Do undergraduates benefit from campus and department reputation based on research?

I am preparing some content for the class I will teach this fall on The Economics of Organizations.  We begin the semester with some examples that in certain ways will be familiar to students.  I've decided to do that more slowly than in the past and to get a little deeper into the examples, to highlight the richness of the potential economic approaches one might bring to look at some of the questions raised by the examples.  Probably in the third class session we will consider the university as an organization, with some focus on the U of I.  I have a slide in my PowerPoint that says universities are brands, which is definitely true.  With each brand we associate a certain reputation.  For R1 universities, the academic reputation is typically based on well-known research done at the university.  (As everyone knows, the Four Color Map Theorem was proved at the U of I!). The issue in my title is whether undergraduates are able to internalize the benefit from that reputation.

The most obvious way such internalization might happen is by taking a course from the researcher or, if not that, then taking a course from one of the researcher's disciples.  But perhaps this only matters in a course designated as a special topic so the instructor can teach about the research  In other courses, where there is a fairly standard subject matter to cover, does the instructor's research inclinations and accomplishments matter to the student?  It's a good question, but I will defer it for a bit and then get back to it.  Let's also rule out the possibility of an undergraduate student working directly with a faculty member on the faculty member's research outside of the class setting.  That does happen some and the student clearly benefits from that, especially if the student plans on going to grad school.  I want to concentrate, however, on students who will enter the world of work after graduation and not go for an advanced degree.  Do they benefit from the U of I reputation simply by attending the university and having their resume say U of I, in the part of the document where they describe their education?

I am going to frame the question to the students this way.  For those who are from Illinois, I will ask what their next best choice of college was?  If it was a private college or university or a public university in another state, I will then note that because of the rather large tuition differential, their demand for the U of I is rather price inelastic - modest tuition increases wouldn't have changed the choice, unless they were getting a substantial scholarship from the other institution.  If it was another public university in the state, the situation is different as the U of I is the higher tuition school.  If the U of I was chosen then it must be taken to have higher quality (or some other factor is at play such as their friends are going to the U of I).  These other factors are a biggie in practice, but in our analysis we'll rule them out.  I will wave my hands a bit and say that if the students are on average better at the U of I, say as measured by their standardized test scores, then that might improve quality as students learn from other students and we can't sort out the different effects.  But then I'll want to get at the question, what makes the U of I a better school other than this student to student effect?

This much I've talked about in my classes before, but I thought to do something novel and get the class to look at some data that are publicly available.  So I built the Excel workbook linked below that has some interesting information to consider.

Excel Workbook

The are three spreadsheets. The first is from the Campus Profile that the unit which does institutional research, the Division of Management Information, provides for us.  It relates instructional staff to IUs (instructional units).  Each credit hour per student is an IU. The course I will teach gives 3 hours of credit and will have 60 students enrolled.  So I will be generating 180 IUs.  There are three categories of instructor:  Faculty and Visitors, Graduate Assistants (TAs), and Specialized Faculty.  The first category captures those who are tenured or are on the tenure track.  The third category might be referred to as adjuncts or in the Economics Department's euphemism, Teaching Faculty.  Frankly, I don't know how retirees like me are counted, but the campus is now down on using retirees for instruction, so they shouldn't impact the aggregates very much.

The data show an upward trend in undergraduate IUs, which if credit hours taken hasn't trended much at all, a reasonable assumption in my view, then it can be interpreted as an upward trend in enrollments.  There has also been an upward trend in the share of instruction done by Specialized Faculty - in introductory courses, for all undergraduate courses, and overall.  This is matched by a downward trend within each category in the share of instruction done by Graduate Assistants.  For regular faculty, my eyeballing of the overall data show the share pretty much flat until 2017, and then a big drop-off.  Off the top of my head, I can't explain that.  I need more information to understand what happened there.

The second spreadsheet gives some salary data - of Assistant Professors in Economics and of Teaching Faculty, who hold the title either of Lecturer or Clinical Professor.  Those on the tenure track who come to the U of I with their dissertation not yet completed,are also called Lecturers.  But for the Teaching Faculty, the designation means something else, as most if not all of them do have the PhD.  It is the lower peg on the rung of possible appointments for adjunct instructors.  Clinical Professor is the higher peg.  I believe the term used to refer to faculty who previously worked in industry and that their prior experience in industry was relevant for their current teaching.  But the term no longer has that connotation.

I first went to the Economics Department Website to download the names in each category.  Though they are publicly available, I decided to xxxxxx them out here so as not to get anyone bent out of shape.  I don't want to pinpoint particular individuals.  I just want to provide a general picture of what is going on.  If you click through the Assistant Professor names you get to their Web pages, many of which offer a further click through to their CVs (academic resumes).  They include when the person started at the U of I.  Starting date might matter somewhat for salary.  Indeed, the numbers seem to indicate some salary compression issues within rank, meaning newer people are hired at a salary above more experienced people.

After uploading all the names I went to the Daily Illini Salary Database and did a search by department.  Please note that when you do this you get results back for faculty and staff from the departments at all 3 campuses.  My interest here is only with the Urbana campus.  Then I simply copied and pasted the salaries for the names I had already put into the spreadsheet.

For good measure, I also put in my starting salary from back in 1980, both in 1980 dollars and inflation-adjusted to 2018 dollars, using this inflation calculator.  I know such calculations aren't beyond critique, but they are good enough for the exercise I wanted to do.  The upshot is that even adjunct instructors today are paid more in real terms than I was paid in 1980.  When I started, the standard teaching load was 2 courses per semester and I believe every instructor was tenured or on the tenure track.  I got a one course buyout my first semester to help me start my research portfolio, which in my case I used to finish my dissertation.  I also got summer money guaranteed for the first summer.  Now, I believe the standard teaching load is 3 courses a year, Assistant Professors get a course buyout every year in rank and I believe they get guaranteed summer money too, but on that last one I'm not sure.   In any event, it should be clear that Assistant Professors are given every chance to prove themselves as researchers and are well advised to devote their time to their research, if they want to get tenure. But in so doing, they become very expensive as teachers.  Is it any wonder then, that the category of Teaching Faculty emerged as a way to deal with, mainly, undergraduate instruction in a cost-effective manner.

The third spreadsheet gives a historical look at tuition, both in-state and out-of-state, base tuition and fees, as well as ancillary costs.  Alas the last 5 years are missing, but students probably are well aware of the current numbers, and the time trend from 1980 to 2014 is unmistakable.  Higher Education has experienced hyperinflation in that period.  The numbers show that.  Again I did an inflation adjustment to compare 1980 tuition to the tuition and fees in 2013-14.  There was about a 7-fold increase in real terms.  Note that the State of Illinois, which contributes tax revenue to the U of I, has had its share of the U of I budget decline substantially in this time interval.  So one explanation for the increase in tuition is to make up for that.  A second explanation is to cover the increased costs of instruction shown on the previous spreadsheet.  A third represents expenditure on capital improvements (DKH had no air conditioning back in 1980 and it was not with sufficient electric wiring to manage the needs of Internet usage).  Many business processes experienced large quality improvements (course registration is one prominent example).  There has also been a large expansion of student services.  I don't believe the Counseling Center or the Career Center existed back in 1980.  And the athletic facilities that students have access to now are a cut above what they had back then.

Nevertheless, one might focus more narrowly, just on courses and tuition.  There seems to have been a shift from research faculty to teaching faculty for undergraduates while at the same time tuition has been on the rise.  Can we translate that into saying something about quality of instruction and the tuition paid by students?

Some years ago when I used to watch Illini Football and Basketball on TV, I would make a point to watch the commercials about the university that were featured at halftime.  Invariably those commercials would feature a prominent researcher who was interacting with undergraduate students, with everyone seemingly upbeat and getting a lot out of the experience.  Some of that was obviously hype.  Was any of it reality?  As an old timer, I would like to say that there was some reality in it.  But I have to say there are reason to believe that the teaching faculty are better than the researchers at teaching undergrads.  One obvious reason is enthusiasm for the job.  Many researchers want everything they do to relate to their research in some way, shape, or form.  If they perceive that undergraduate instruction does not so relate, they will give it short shrift. How common this is I don't know, but it is something to consider.  There is also the matter of developing empathy for typical students.  Research Faculty tend to come from the top tier of students and they tend to teach to a conception of students based on their own experience that way.  It might be a wonderful way to engage future professors, but it may be a poor way to engage other students.  Further, such faculty tend to be quite theoretical in their orientation.  Students are far more practical about what they want to see in their classes.  There is a disconnect here.

Yet there are arguments that say Teaching Faculty are also compromised in their teaching.  The biggest of these is that such instructors are dependent on getting good course evaluations in order to keep their jobs.  As students are very grade conscious, the instructors design their courses so that students well understand the approach, view it is fair, and in fact it produces many high grades.  In that circumstance students will give good course ratings.  But to achieve that end there may be a lot of teaching to the test and not a lot of challenging the students to go beyond exam material.  So students may be able to notch up another A, but actually haven't learned much from the course.

If this is going on, should the students themselves be concerned about it?  Overtly, most don't appear to be, treating college as something to get through not as something to experience for itself.  And if they get better job interviews because they went to the U of I instead of Illinois State, maybe that's enough, for them.

It isn't enough for me and my instinct as a social scientist is that the market will catch up to what I perceive as a big imbalance this way.  What has been happening to students who major in the liberal arts, with regard to job opportunities after graduation, might start to happen to Econ majors.  Either the work they had been doing has been automated away or the quality of new grads is perceived as too low as to be worth the investment in developing the talent further.  But if that were to happen, then why pay the tuition in the first place?  I've been worried about this sort of unraveling for some time.  It hasn't happened yet.  And I've got my fingers crossed that it won't happen ever.  But I would like to be more proactive than that, if at all possible.  So I write blog posts, like this one.