My review of CHEROKEE IN CONTROVERSY, by Dan Wimberly, in the Journal of Southern History Vol. 84, no. 3 (August 2018): 721-722
Bucking Conventional Wisdom: Henry Clay was NOT the Chief Driving Force Behind Biddle's Re-Charter Effort in 1832
A few years ago I submitted an article manuscript on the Bank War to a prominent journal in my field. In one sentence I repeated the received wisdom that Henry Clay’s presidential ambitions in 1832 figured prominently in Nicholas Biddle’s decision to apply early for a new BUS charter, four years before the current one would expire. This is the standard, conventional view of the re-charter controversy. Presumably a reluctant Biddle got caught up in Clay’s desire to be president.[i] The citation I gave in the manuscript was to Robert Remini’s 1991 book on Clay. An anonymous reviewer hammered me for this, saying that this was not Remini’s best work and that I should look into this more. So I did. And ultimately I came to a very different conclusion about what impelled Biddle to apply early. And Henry Clay had very little to do with it. In recent weeks I have heard this received wisdom come up at least 2-3 times by other scholars in my field. As someone who cares a lot about getting the details right in a project I’ve dedicated a major part of my life to, I feel obligated to write this post. I’m really not looking for a fight here, but my motivations for doing this are to present what I think is the best and most detailed evidence and in doing so, to challenge, complicate, and perhaps even overturn that received wisdom.
A lot of what follows below is from my book, which is due to come out in January with the University Press of Kansas. I have added in some things for clarity and to walk the reader slowly through all of the evidence. Most of my book deals with how both sides in the Bank War engaged nationwide communications networks funded by public and private money. The Bank used its interregional network of branch offices and subsidized newspaper editors with loans and printing orders while the Jacksonians appropriated the powers of the federal bureaucracy, including the Post Office, to defeat the Bank. So the topic of this post is only a sub-argument of one chapter. If what you read below seems a bit too insider baseball and lacks context, you can always buy my book! I'm such a great capitalist, right?
My basic point is this: it was not Clay and Webster, but Thomas Cadwalader and the Bank’s board of directors, who were most influential in pushing Biddle for re-charter. On September 1, 1831, Biddle attended an important board meeting in Philadelphia with the Bank’s leading stockholders, directors, and managers. The purpose of this gathering of financial higher-ups was to comment on the condition and future of the Bank. Biddle submitted a report to the stockholders detailing the Bank’s assets and liabilities, and the Bank paid for its printing and dispersal. One section stated, “[The Bank’s] circulation is in all respects equal, and in most respects superior, in value, to any metallic currency of the same amount” and went on to say that never had there been any paper currency, spread out over such an extensive country, that was comparable to the Bank’s bills and notes in its security, convertibility, and uniformity of value. This was strikingly similar in tone and language to the early-1830 reports on the Bank’s currency presented in the Senate by Samuel Smith and in the House by George McDuffie. One likely explanation is that Biddle had authored all three reports.[ii]
According to the Bank’s charter, this type of meeting only happened every three years, which meant that the next meeting would not convene until September 1834. If one assumed that procuring a bill to re-charter the Bank, and then passing it through Congress, would take several months, then waiting until the next triennial meeting to authorize an application to re-charter would fall perilously close to the Bank’s expiration in March 1836. Most businessmen dread uncertainty and for an institution as economically influential as the BUS, it was not unreasonable to wonder if the Bank, once discontinued, might have to wind up its affairs and call in all of its obligations with potentially disruptive consequences. Put another way, if the Bank wanted to apply without unsettling risks, it needed to apply now. The power that the stockholders invested in the Bank’s president and directors was broad and elastic: “if at any time before the next triennial meeting… it shall be deemed expedient by the president and directors to apply… for a renewal of the charter… they are hereby authorised to make such application.”[iii]
Having received the go-ahead from the board, Biddle needed to find the right time to submit his application for re-charter to Congress, which involved delicate political considerations and a range of options. I would group the four different options as follows:
Option 1: pass the Bank bill and try to get a 2/3 majority to override the president’s veto. This was only a remote possibility. Party discipline was already a key attribute among Jacksonian politicians and enough congressmen would rally to the president’s aid under almost any circumstance.
Option 2: modify the Bank’s charter enough to assuage Jackson’s objections. In many ways this is what actually transpired (see Chapter 4 of my book), but many Bank War scholars have missed or downplayed the ways in which Jackson was fairly consistent in his opposition to the Bank. Biddle hoped to reach an agreement with Jackson over a significantly modified bill to re-charter with the likes of Treasury Secretary Louis McLane, William Berkeley Lewis, and Secretary of State Edward Livingston acting as intermediaries. McLane had authored a report praising the Bank’s functions and recommending re-charter “at the proper time” while the president had refrained from criticizing the Bank in his third annual message to Congress, feeding rumors that Jackson might be softening his stance.[iv] The most intimate of Jackson’s correspondents knew otherwise. As a somewhat irritated Jackson wrote to John Randolph, “You have done me no more than justice when you repelled with indignation that I had changed my views of the Bank of the United States.” The president declared emphatically, “I have uniformly on all proper occasions held the same language in regard to that institution.”[v] In volume 10 of the Jackson Papers, see Jackson’s letters to John Coffee and Alan Ditchfield Campbell for more of his consistency on the Bank question. The unfortunate reality for Biddle was that he almost never corresponded with Jackson directly and the intermediaries he used may have overestimated their ability to persuade the president. When viewed in combination with Jackson’s call for a substitute national bank in 1829 upon entering office, Jackson’s letter to Randolph illustrates that, contrary to what some scholars have speculated, the president was rather consistent in opposing the BUS even if many of his cabinet members were open to a modified re-charter.[vi]
Option 3: wait until after the presidential election of 1832: There were some who cautioned Biddle not to provoke Jackson until after the presidential election. This contingent included one of the Bank’s cashiers, Edward Shippen, Senator Samuel Smith of Maryland, and McLane. Jackson, they said, would interpret an early application as a hostile act and would place the Bank question at the center of the upcoming election. As I show below, this was Clay’s view in 1830.
Option 4: Submit now because Jackson would certainly veto in his second term if he won reelection. The men who vouched for option 4 assumed that while an early application carried risks and Jackson’s future behavior was unpredictable, the president would have almost no incentive to compromise with Biddle during a second presidential term. Submitting early could potentially corner Jackson into taking an unpopular stance, which would weaken his support before the fall elections. Representatives Charles Fenton Mercer and George McDuffie in the House and Senators Clay and Webster were in this camp. On December 15, 1831, Clay wrote to Biddle, asking if the Bank president had decided to apply early. Clay stated, “The course of the President, in the event of the passage of a bill, seems to be a matter of doubt and speculation. My own belief is that, if now called upon [Jackson] would not negative the bill; but that if he should be re-elected the event might and probably would be different.” This was hardly a gung-ho, ringing endorsement of an early application as Clay expressed some doubts about Jackson’s views. We should emphasize that Biddle informed Clay a week later, on December 22, that “nothing is yet decided” on whether he would apply early.[vii]
There’s an important context to consider when we look at Clay’s letter to Biddle from December 1831. In September 1830, the Kentuckian wrote a missive to the Bank president. I’ve summarized much of it, but interested readers can look to pages 263-264 of the Seager and Hay volume. Essentially, Clay argued that to renew the Bank’s charter, they needed the president to acquiesce because they would never get a 2/3 majority in both houses of Congress. He wrote, “If you apply at the next Session of Congress, you will play into the hands of that party. They will most probably, in the event of such application, postpone the question, until another Congress is elected.” The Jacksonians, Clay predicted, would point out that there were still several years remaining in the Bank’s charter and that they ought to ascertain and follow public sentiment. In the event of a presidential veto, Clay believed that the BUS would become “the controlling question in American politics” and that “The friends of the Bank would have to argue the question before the public against the official act of the President, and against the weight of his popularity.” Unless Biddle could be assured that the president would sign the legislation, Clay held, Biddle should not submit early. The Kentuckian recommended that Biddle wait until after the election of 1832. Biddle wrote back in November 1830, largely agreeing with Clay.[viii] Something had clearly changed by December 1831, when Clay was now advocating an early re-charter. One could presume that Clay’s nomination as the National Republican candidate was one key difference, but what should be emphasized in my view is that Biddle had numerous correspondents, each with different bits of advice.
In the face of conflicting recommendations, Biddle dispatched Thomas Cadwalader to Washington to count votes in Congress and meet with prominent members of the Senate and Jackson’s cabinet. A senior BUS officer and director, Cadwalader was connected to Biddle through marriage and served as the Bank’s acting president when Biddle was absent. Excerpts from a series of letters written between the two men testified to the degree to which Biddle trusted Cadwalader’s opinion. “With you I have no reserves,” Biddle wrote in one letter, and in another, he confided, “I have not said this to anybody except yourself.” As further testimony to the close relationship the two men had, we might consider that Biddle dispatched Cadwalader to Great Britain to negotiate with Baring Brothers concerning payments on the public debt, and all without informing the Bank’s public directors. On December 25, 1831, the ever cautious Cadwalader stated to Biddle, “I do not yet decide – but incline to suppose that after the council at the Treasury, I shall advise the Comee to start the memorial.” A few days later, Biddle firmed up his decision. In a letter to Smith explaining why the Bank was moving forward at this time, Biddle underscored, first and foremost, the desires of the Bank’s stockholders and the need to avoid uncertainty.[ix]
To review, Biddle only made his decision for an early re-charter after hearing from Cadwalader, a colleague and close confidant. In his letter to Smith, the first reason he gave for an early application was avoiding uncertainty—something the Bank’s directors and stockholders emphasized. Clay’s advice in December 1831 marked a shift from a more thoughtful missive he wrote to Biddle in September 1830, where he predicted an early application would play into the Jacksonians’ hands. And while there is some evidence to show that Biddle was uncertain about an early application, he had also been waging a public relations campaign since early 1830 that included small bribes, vote counts, correspondence with financial theorists, loans to members of Congress and printing orders for newspaper editors like Gales and Seaton. Finally, Jackson predicted in his 1829 annual message to Congress that the Bank’s stockholders would submit an early application. He ended up being right.
Some might look at all of this and say, so what? Is there a major theoretical point at stake? My answer is “probably not,” but it’s also important to get the details right and the story straight. There’s a particular problem in the Bank War historiography of uncritically passing down received wisdom throughout the generations; of repeating things over and over that are ultimately based on thin evidence: state banks hated the BUS; Jackson hated paper money; Jackson and Biddle could have compromised. All of these subjects are very complicated. Wilentz and Baptist, who have perpetuated the interpretation that Biddle was caught up in Clay's presidential ambitions, cited only two letters in their endnotes--far less than the amount shown below. And in reexamining these letters from December 1831 and June 1832, respectively, I do not find clear evidence of Clay's political aspirations. The only clear evidence I can see is that both Clay and Webster advocated an early submission for re-charter, against the informed opinions of Biddle's other contacts. In their defense, Wilentz and Baptist were offering sweeping interpretations of broad spans of early American history, and as such, they emphasized breadth rather than depth. On the other hand, it is important to point out when major historians do not have sufficient evidence to support their claims.
I won’t be as bold to claim that what I’ve written above settles the matter once and for all. I’m open to hearing countervailing evidence. But given what I have laid out, I’d hope that any rebuttals would be quite detailed. Is anyone up to the challenge?
[i] Historians who have emphasized Clay’s role in Biddle’s decision to apply for an early re-charter include Robert Remini, Henry Clay: Statesman for the Union (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1991), 379; Sean Wilentz, The Rise of American Democracy: From Jefferson to Lincoln (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2005), 367–368; and Edward E. Baptist, The Other Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism (New York: Basic Books, 2014), 250.
[ii] Niles’ Weekly Register, September 10 and October 8, 1831.
[iii] Ibid. Annals of Congress, House, 14th Congress, 1st Session, Appendix, 1812–1825. House Journal, 21st Congress, 1st Session, 11–28.
[iv] House Journal, 22nd Congress, 1st Session, 9–21; Register of Debates, 22nd Congress, 1st Session, Appendix, 25–33.
[v] Jackson to John Randolph, December 22, 1831, in Daniel Feller et al., The Papers of Andrew Jackson Volume 9, 1831 (University of Tennessee Press, 2013), 782–783.
[vi] For Jackson’s consistent opposition to the BUS, see Jackson to Van Buren, December 6, 1831; Jackson to Hamilton, December 12, 1831; Randolph to Jackson, December 19, 1831, in PAJ 9, 731–733; 768–769; 780–782. Cadwalader to Biddle, December 26, 1831, in Reginald Charles McGrane, ed., The Correspondence of Nicholas Biddle: Dealing With National Affairs, 1807-1844 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1919), 160–161.
[vii] Shippen to Biddle, December 6, 1831; Mercer to Biddle, December 12, 1831; Smith to Biddle, December 17, 1831; Webster to Biddle, December 18, 1831; McLane to Biddle, January 5, 1832, in McGrane, ed., Biddle Correspondence, 88–91; 136–138; 140–146; 154–161; 165–168. Clay to Biddle, September 11, 1830 and December 15, 1831; Biddle to Clay, December 22, 1831, in Robert Seager II and Melba Porter Hay, eds., The Papers of Henry Clay, Volume 8: Candidate, Compromiser, Whig, March 5, 1829-December 31, 1836 (University Press of Kentucky, 1984), 263–264; 432–433; 435.
[viii] Clay to Biddle, September 11, 1830; Biddle to Clay, November 3, 1830, in Seager and Hay, eds., The Papers of Henry Clay, Volume 8, 263-264; 287-288.
[ix] To make the claim that Cadwalader and the Bank’s stockholders were more important in Biddle’s thinking than Clay and Webster, I had to consult a large number of letters, paying close attention to chronology. In December 1830, John Norvell wrote to Biddle, in reference to an early push for re-charter, “In any event, it appears to me to be the interest of the stockholders and officers to bring the matter at once to issue.” McGrane misspelled Norvell’s last name as “Norvall.” Norv[e]ll to Biddle, December 16, 1830; Cadwalader to Biddle, December 20, 21, 22, 23, and 25, 1831; Biddle to Cadwalader, December 24, 1831; Biddle to Smith, January 4, 1832, in McGrane, ed., Biddle Correspondence, 120; 146–158; 161–165. Biddle to Cadwalader, December 29, 1831, in Biddle Papers, LOC.
Condy Raguet was a financial theorist who wrote about banking and trade in the 1830s and 40s. In order to wrap my head around the ways in which bills of exchange worked, a daunting task for those without formal training in economics or accounting but one that I deemed necessary for my book, I consulted Raguet. His work was helpful. I would group him with William Gouge, Nathaniel Appleton, George Tucker, and other theorists of the time who implemented Smithian precepts in their writing. I wanted to send a link to Raguet's A Treatise on Currency and Banking (1839) to a colleague. A few years back, when I was working on my dissertation, I was able to easily access this book as a free, downloadable PDF via Google Books. Unfortunately, this is no longer the case. The radical, ideologically rigid Ludwig Von Mises Institute has seemingly purchased the rights to this book so you can only buy it for a little less than $4. I wasn't happy about this (I did not do any deeper research on Google Books to see if free copies were still available). Certainly $4 is not going to break anyone's bank. But it was the principle, I thought, and not the price, that mattered. A good deal of my irritation can be attributed to the fact that the LVMI is an Alabama-based "think tank" that produces a lot of shoddy scholarship. I wrote about them before for Perspectives on History when I had to edit the poorly cited Wikipedia entry for the Panic of 1837. LVMI scholars like Thomas DiLorenzo have expressed contempt for Abraham Lincoln, who is widely considered to be our greatest president. They've also dabbled in gold buggism and Ayn Randism. Nancy MacLean wrote about them in Democracy in Chains. Essentially, they're a bunch of libertarian cranks who only care about the property rights of white businessmen, even if it supersedes the environment, health care, social security, wages, civil rights, or even democracy itself. It is for this reason that I am attaching my own downloadable copy here. People should know that this Institute is not a respectable organization. If I had to guess, they probably run in the same circles as Freedom Works and Prager University.
I am pleased to announce the release of my interview with The Age of Jackson podcast. In this interview, we discuss Robert V. Remini's Andrew Jackson and the Bank War (1967), including the book's main arguments, strengths, and weaknesses. At the end of the interview I say a little bit about my own research. Many thanks to host Daniel Gullotta for this opportunity. If you like what you hear, feel free to leave a review of this podcast on Itunes.
Another review! This is my third one of the year and boy has it been exhausting! I'm up late at night and just found out that this came out recently with Ohio Valley History. A good chunk of the review is excerpted here, but if you want to see the full thing, you'll have to get the hard copy or have a digital description to Ohio Valley History through a library database.
Common-place: the Journal of Early American Life, has published my latest book review. This will be great for financial historians. Enjoy!
The briefest of entries here as I take a break from grading essays...I have some VERY GOOD NEWS to share with you. The University Press of Kansas has offered me a book contract!! I will have a published monograph! If everything goes according to plan, my book will come out about a year from now (the final draft is due in February). This is a wonderful honor and I am truly grateful for the opportunity to publish with a well renowned press that is notable for its strength in political history. Many of you have supported me in this endeavor, so for that I am thankful! This project has been a big part of my life for many years. It has involved a lot of toil and sacrifice and I am SO EXCITED that it will be PUBLISHED! I've got a very busy January ahead of me in terms of teaching, so making revisions to this project will occupy a lot of my time over the holidays. So no guarantees of any extensive blogging for the foreseeable future. But I'll be marching full steam ahead with a purpose!
Most academics have been immersed in their classrooms for a few weeks now. Cal Poly is on the quarter system for one more year before it officially transitions to the semester system for the 2018-2019 academic year. I am glad I had a full, three-month summer that was both relaxing and productive because next summer will be short!
As I close out the summer and get ready for my classes, here are a few thoughts related to a book I'm currently reading. The Slow Professor by Maggie Berg and Barbara K. Seeber challenges the way we think of productivity under an exploitative, corporatized, and neoliberal academic system. Among many lessons discussed in this book, which has been reviewed by Kritika Agarwal in Perspectives on History, one that has the most potentially liberating implications for professors is the advice to work at our own pace. The sad truth is that hyper-productivity, especially in terms of the publication of peer reviewed articles and research, has little payoff in academia if you are not lucky enough to be on the tenure-track. Even then, there are significant costs to being a publication machine. Why publish fifty peer-reviewed articles, some of dubious quality, when you can feel proud of ten?
Just last night I came across a reference to an article on the subject of laptop use in the classroom. Written by Faria Sana, Tina Weston, and Nicholas Cepeda, and published in Computers and Education in 2013, the article shows how using laptops in the classroom can inhibit students' ability to learn concepts from lecture. The authors came to this conclusion because after conducing experiments, they found that students who used their laptops scored lower on tests. Even more troubling than this, laptop use, they found, doesn't just distract the user; it distracts users around them, too. I know, I'll try not to exude that smug "I told ya so" feeling, which usually doesn't go over well. But it sure does feel good to have proven research justifying my policy of prohibiting digital devices in the classroom.
The Talk (Almost) No One is Willing to Have, Part 5: Ratemyprofessors.com is a Joke and No One Should Take it Seriously
A professor I once knew at a different institution in California—not one of my current places of employment—had major disagreements with me about what makes for effective teaching. He had tenure at this place but confessed to me that this was largely because he was buddy, buddy with the dean. In many community colleges, deans, not department chairs, are the ones who assign classes to instructors and even visit your classes for evaluation. This professor, in addition to having multiple personality issues, was demanding, demeaning, argumentative, combative, and obnoxious. Multiple people I knew shared my assessment of his character. In conversation it was difficult to get a word in edgewise. He would not communicate anything lengthy with me over email and would not use Blackboard. He refused to talk to me one time for committing the cardinal sin of being on my speaker phone in the car. Keep in mind that I was, and sort of still am, a freeway flier teaching ten classes per year with an average of 50 students per class when less than half of this amount would be ideal from a pedagogical standpoint. He asked, nay, demanded, that I call him back at a time that was more convenient for him, as if his time was more important than mine and I could easily shift things around for his schedule. If I didn’t call him back at this time, he said he would write a negative review for me to the dean. He may not have used Blackboard, but he was quite adept at using blackmail.
In a behavioral pattern that might be justifiably characterized as borderline abusive, this professor, who certainly did not deserve the position he had attained, took on this constant air of superiority as if each and every day of the week it was his job, and his job alone, to impart all of his precious knowledge to me about how great of a teacher he was and how much I had to learn from him. This was several years ago but even at that point I had taught at four different institutions of higher education and to say the least I resented his attitude and demeanor. Just a real unpleasant, in-your-face type of guy who got irritated and upset if you tried to engage him in debate and offer countervailing evidence to his sweeping proclamations. Oh, and he wasn’t a historian either, never finished his doctorate, and yet had the temerity to tell me that I had gotten my facts wrong in class when he evaluated me; that the subject of eugenics I had spent only about 10-20 minutes covering in lecture was a “footnote to history,” and therefore shouldn’t be covered (even though there are entire classes taught on this subject at R1 institutions). As if this wasn’t enough to stomach, he told me that the absence of white men in my classroom on that day, and that day alone, was proof that I was alienating students. This was a class of only about 20 students at a college in a heavily non-white part of California. To write about this belittling experience at the hands of a crackpot professor is almost as painful emotionally as it was to experience it in real time. Having been so troubled by the experience, I wrote down the details and am, thus, able to recall them with a fair degree of accuracy. It was deeply insulting and beyond outrageous that such a contemptible human being, so lacking in character, knowledge, and the subtle graces of interpersonal communication, would have a tenured position and be in any position of management over others.
I bring up this experience because he was one of many professors I’ve encountered over the years who cite their own reviews on ratemyprofessors.com (RMP) as incontrovertible evidence that they are, in fact, good and respectable teachers. I shake my head in disgust to even write that sentence, as if we should take these reviews at full face value, with no grain of salt. He had noticed a few negative reviews of me on RMP. It just so happens that his reviews on the site were by no means perfect, seeming to capture the very qualities I described above, so in my mind he was in no clear position to be telling me what to do. But that is besides the point. It was because of these RMP reviews and a few poor student evaluations at the college at which we were both teaching at the time that he suggested that I should not be teaching. Let me say that again because it bears repeating. Because of a few poor student evaluations, some of which were from a highly questionable website, he recommended that I should consider giving up on my chosen career path. Again, a contemptible human being I had the unfortunate experience of knowing.
I did not intend for a blog post on the interrelated phenomena of grade inflation and student evaluations to turn into a five-part series. But I came across so many articles and so many legitimate points made by professors and researchers that I had to explicate them. Because of its fairly extensive usage by students, RMP deserves its own post. For those of you who have not thought critically about RMP, here are just a few of the negative characteristics:
* it is voluntary, which will skew the sample toward students who really want to leave a review, either for good or bad
* Students and professors can manipulate it easily. Students, upset by the grade they earned, can write nasty reviews anonymously and even get their friends to do the same, regardless of the merits and veracity of the comments they write. Professors can log onto the site and promote themselves, too
* It allows reviewers to rank professors by their “hotness,” or whether they are physically attractive. This, of course, has no bearing on the intellectual worth of a class.
According to one professor, “I am rated very well on Rate My Professors. I have a colleague who is an excellent teacher but who is far stricter with her students who gets a much lower rating. It is a popularity contest.”
* There is no way to tell if the person who has left a review on RMP has actually taken the course in question
* One student can leave multiple reviews so long as they use multiple IP addresses, which can be accomplished by switching computers and other techniques
* RMP is run by the Princeton Review, which is not associated with Princeton University. It is owned by Viacom, a large media monopoly. Like any corporation today, Viacom is concerned chiefly with short-term, consistent profits that it can deliver to its shareholders in the form of dividends, not the long-term goal of an informed populace necessary for the healthy functioning of a constitutional republic.
* The “About,” “Contact Us,” and “FAQ” pages on the website present no specific information about who staffs the website or what people manage it beyond claiming, without evidence, that it is “built for college students, by college students.”
The most significant problem with RMP, and student evaluations in general, is that they promote a consumerist, anti-intellectual, non-substantive, and entertainment-driven model that is that antithesis of what pubic education ought to be. It asks professors to consider, first and foremost, whether students are pleased as customers rather than whether professors have offered the best classes they are capable of delivering and whether professors have inculcated their students with admirable values. To this precarious predicament, I say…if entertainment rather than knowledge is our chief goal, why not put a salesperson in front of the classroom? A supermodel? A motivational speaker? A Hollywood actor? If we take the steadily creeping entertainment-driven value system to its furthest logical extent, we would not at all be pleased with the outcome. I keep saying this over and over, but as tragic and catastrophic as Trump’s election was, we shouldn’t be surprised that he came to power in a cultural milieu of RMP and reality tv.
Chances are likely that you or someone you know has owned or worked for a small business. Have you ever received an unfair review of your business on Yelp? If so, would you like it if one bad Yelp review plunged your business into bankruptcy? Business owners, operating under the trite cliché that “the customer is always right,” sometimes have to swallow their pride and do things that they otherwise would not do because it is too costly to potentially alienate their clientele. If this mentality is applied to higher ed, unfortunately, the lowering of standards is the inevitable result. Ratemyprofessors.com is basically the Yelp of academia. Imagine that a few bad reviews on RMP got a highly qualified professor fired. Would this be right? Can you see, then, why we should categorically reject the pro-business philosophy that has infected academia?
Let me return to Stroebe’s thoroughly-researched article in Perspectives on Psychological Science. Stroebe cites a study by Felton et al. (2008) showing that if a professor graded easily, reviewers on RMP were much more likely to view the professor favorably. What is more damning to the site is that the reviewers gave higher ratings to professors they deemed “hotter” (806). I spent a decent amount of time examining numerous studies from many articles to show that my perspective here is not some off-the-rails rant; more and more professors have come to the same conclusion about student evaluations, despite the risks and obstacles to publishing their findings. Indeed, Davidson and Prince (2009) put it nicely: “In a consumerist environment, student evaluations are not ‘good’ data. They measure how easy the instructor is, how fun, and sometimes, as in the case of the Rate My Professor website, how sexy he or she is. Such data should not be used by students or organizations to evaluate an instructor’s ability to teach.” It would be one thing if students took official, in-class evaluations seriously and used RMP to air immature grievances. Unfortunately, social scientists have found that students essentially took the same approach to both (806-807). In both instances they considered superficial qualities like “good looks” when evaluating professors. If a) studies show that RMP is flawed; and b) studies show that students take essentially the same approach toward RMP as they do for official evaluations, then it follows that c) we should be highly critical of the utility of student evaluations.
We have not descended to the point, as far as I can tell, of including RMP as part of the official evaluation of college professors. But anyone who has witnessed the steady decline in professors’ salaries and bargaining power since the 1960s will not be fully shocked if this terrible, nightmarish scenario were to occur one day. RMP may be used informally and unofficially to gather information about a job candidate a university is thinking of hiring and if this is the case, it should be discouraged at all costs. A website that dares to judge the worth of professors by their looks, and not their works, should be confined to the dustbin of history. It is garbage. And not one person should ever hold it up as justification of whether or not a professor is effective. I need to close with a specific message to my fellow educators…If this blog series has shown anything, it is that you may very well be a great teacher and if so, I commend you. But if you are truly a great teacher, it is almost certainly in spite of your student evaluations, rather than because of them.
Why have I called the title of this blog series “The Talk That (Almost) No One Is Willing to Have”? It is because grade inflation and student evaluations, both of which emanate from the pro-business model of higher education, fall under an informal, de facto gag order. It is hush, hush for most. One can also think of it as a game to which everyone is privy. I recall a Wall Street Journal op-ed written by South Carolina State psychology professor, Geoffrey L. Collier, entitled, “We Pretend to Teach, They Pretend to Learn.” A cynical title for sure, but cynicism in this realm is warranted. It seems like virtually every week the Chronicle of Higher Education publishes yet another article with depressing data showing how academia is the furthest thing from the idealistic “life of the mind” that it purports to be. Aside from the professors out there who uncritically prop up their stellar student evaluations as evidence that they are “good” teachers (and I have met these folks and am always stunned that the critical thinking skills they promote every day in the classroom are immediately thrown out the window when the make this argument), most of us know that this is a wink and a nod. I wonder if professors who make this argument are really covering for their insecurities in other aspects of their professional lives. We know it’s a game but we throw up our arms anyway and say, what can we do? We are somewhat powerless to change a system in which too many entrenched stakeholders benefit: parents (in many cases) who are footing the bill of high tuition; administrators whose interests sometimes do not align with those of faculty; politicians who promote the ostensibly laudable goal of “access” so they can say that they have created a more educated populace (regardless of whether that is truly the case), and most of all, students who clamor for the requisite A- from solid, but not exceptional, work. However much professors may protest against this game, unfortunately, it seems, they are up against too many opposing forces from powerful constituencies.
Student evaluations first came onto the scene in the 1920s. In 1953, behavioral psychologist Edwin Guthrie at the University of Washington wrote that they could provide “objective evidence of merit,” and function as at least one factor in promotion, but he also said it would be a “serious” misuse of student evaluations to accept them as the “ultimate measure of merit” (221). Unfortunately, they have only grown in importance since then. A survey of deans of private liberal arts colleges in the 1990s found that student evaluations have become the prime source of information in the evaluation of teaching and are given more weight than classroom visits or examination scores (Seldin 1998).
I spoke to a college professor I know about cell phone use in the classroom. He shared my view that it is pervasive (and I would add disrespectful to a positive learning environment), but sadly, it was because of student evaluations that he could not say what he really wanted to say to students about using their phones. This is a form of self-censorship. Implicitly we are taught that we should not rock the boat; that we should not speak truth to power. This is particularly true for those of us who are not tenured or on the tenure-track. Make no mistake…student evaluations reduce our job and our worth as professors to whether we are well liked—an artificial, subjective, and arbitrary quality that may or may not have any bearing on our expertise, knowledge, or pedagogical acumen.
If you’ve gotten this far in my blog series and still don’t believe me, here are some articles I’ve read that point to many of the same conclusions. To save the reader time, I have summarized the key arguments in bullet point form:
One of the best academic pieces on grade inflation and student evaluations was written by Wolfgang Stroebe and published recently for Perspectives on Psychological Sciences. Stroebe starts by addressing the trend that average grades have increased over time even though the time that students devote to their classes has actually decreased. Like other authors, he attributes this paradox to “grading leniency, encouraged by the practice of university administrators to base important personnel decisions on student evaluations of teaching.” Because many instructors believe that the average student prefers courses that are entertaining, require little work, and result in high grades, they feel pressure to conform to those expectations. Stroebe then affirms what seems to be the growing consensus that data do not support the notion that positive student evaluations reflect genuine student learning. If they did, we would expect students who left a positive evaluation in one course to perform well in upper division courses, but if anything, the data suggests the opposite. The example provided in this article is first-semester and second-semester calculus. Instead, the data indicate that students are not a very good judge of whether they have learned a lot and further, that students who received lower grades (and therefore rated their professors and classes more poorly in many cases) were actually better prepared for the upper division courses (801-808).
When student evaluations factor heavily into whether professors are hired or fired, as they do now, professors adjust by essentially teaching toward an arbitrary test. It standardizes and routinizes the art of teaching (and yes, teaching is an art form) and as a result, professors are constrained from basing their courses on their own individual, unique personalities and areas of expertise. It promotes a one-size-fits-all approach to teaching. When I was a college student, I always thought it was a joy to experience a diverse range of opinions, ideas, and approaches to various disciplines. In many cases I enjoyed philosophy, political science, and sociology classes as much as I did the history classes that were required for my degree. Students of American history might be familiar with Taylorism in the early-20th century—a method of regimenting employees' work habits in order to maximize efficiency and productivity. Taylorism was supposed to be scientific and rational, but it did give more power to the owners of capital rather than labor. In effect, student evaluations control professors in the same way that Taylorism controlled industrial workers. Over time factory owners discovered that they could better control their workers, and thus, maximize profits, if they cornered workers into a closed factory shop rather than allowing workers to work at leisure from the home as had been customary in the pre- and proto-industrial economies. Workers who experienced a sense of loss and alienation did not go quietly into the night: they often responded with violent strikes and destruction of property. Think of the Luddites here. I am not advocating that professors should be Luddites, but if professors are workers and managers are trying to control them, why would we expect acquiescence from them?
Some technophiles in Silicon Valley and libertarian circles—the same types of folks who would largely ignore the pitfalls of Taylorism—often fall into the “inevitability” fallacy. We’re operating on a 19th-century model, they say, that does not provide “skills” for 21st-century students. There are faulty assumptions at work here, embedded in a neoliberal discourse. Funny how the argument of inevitability only points in one direction: toward greater “consumer choice,” “free markets,” privatization, and deregulation. Proponents of this discourse seem to care little that professors are deskilled and stripped of their once proud authority, or that students are burdened with debt. This bottom-line mentality has no place in public education. If we must have student evaluations, and one of the larger points of this blog series is to argue that they should be relegated to the very bottom of all the criteria we use to judge professors, then we should train students on how to write them. I have taken this idea from a fellow conference-goer. At the end of the day, save for the select few of us who are lucky enough to work at R-I institutions, the fickle opinions of students can have a large impact on our career paths. Therefore, put the following directions in the questionnaire…do not comment on the professor’s appearance, race, clothing, gender, personality, or age. Instead, answer this question: did I learn a lot in this class? This would make things a whole lot easier for everyone.
Link to the next installment in this series.
Disclaimer: This is my personal blog. While I do my best to offer reasonable conclusions based on verifiable, peer reviewed evidence, I neither speak for my employers, nor do I require my students to read or agree with the thoughts expressed here. Opinions are my own.