How Students Destroyed BYU Religious Education

From what I understand from teachers and students there, it is not an understatement to say that student evaluations are the most important factor in hiring at BYU’s religious education. Degrees and scholarship are nice, but student evaluations are king. Many a qualified young scholar has seen their hopes of teaching at BYU religion dashed by the low marks received in teaching. The overvaluation of the student evaluation leads to easier curriculum, rewards form over content, and encourages grade inflation. Stanley Fish, an influential scholar and NYT contributor on education, offers another important reason to be suspicious of student evaluations. In today’s Times, he makes the case that education, unlike a meal served in a restaurant, has a different time horizon that cannot be fully assessed at the end of a course:

‘Deferred judgment’ or ‘judgment in the fullness of time’ seems to be appropriate to the evaluation of teaching. And that is why student evaluations (against which I have inveighed since I first saw them in the ’60s) are all wrong as a way of assessing teaching performance: they measure present satisfaction in relation to a set of expectations that may have little to do with the deep efficacy of learning. Students tend to like everything neatly laid out; they want to know exactly where they are; they don’t welcome the introduction of multiple perspectives, especially when no master perspective reconciles them; they want the answers.

From many reports from students and teachers in BYU religion, Fish offers a pretty accurate description of the problems BYU religious education faces. The idea of the gospel “neatly laid out,” unwelcome to “multiple perspectives,” with a strong “master perspective” and the assertion of definitive “answers” seems to describe the state of BYU religion. It is no coincidence that the world Fish sees as the consequence of overvaluing student evaluations is the world BYU religion already occupies, since it has long embraced them as the only real valuable tool for assessing the quality of its teaching. The obtaining of good student evaluations by teaching in the summer at BYU religion is considered, as I understand it, to be just as important as all of the other qualifications one brings, combined!

The weight of teaching evaluations at colleges and universities is a point of controversy in the academy at all levels of higher education, yet BYU religion faces a particular challenge which causes them to weight them especially high, essentially to the exclusion of other academic virtues. Perhaps it is because degrees and scholarship have not been central to Religious Education, student evaluations are especially important there as the only real standard for measuring quality. Training, precision, consistency, and depth are evaluated only in terms of student perception of these qualities.

Yet, this neatly laid out pedagogy does not reflect the complexity of the gospel, its message, or the real world. While religion teachers there enjoy high student satisfaction ratings from their early-20′s, pre- and post-mission attendees, it is rare to hear someone in their late 20′s recall the bulk of their religion classes with satisfaction. I think that part of the reason is exactly what Fish points out, that the challenges of education cannot be accurately assessed in the last week of a class, but is better appreciated with greater maturity and perspective. The invective against the “theological twinkie” remains in the discourse of BYU religion, yet all of the incentives for getting hired there encourage the dolling out of these empty calories.

I acknowledge that it is essentially impossible to evaluate teaching effectiveness on this long horizon when it comes to the realities of hiring new professors. Yet, we must not imagine that teaching evaluations are the only way, nor that other qualifications should not be weighted more highly than they currently are. What kinds of standards for good teaching could we imagine that would strengthen the quality of instruction at BYU, and incentivize impactful education for the long term?

  • http://theeternaluniverse.blogspot.com/ Joseph Smidt

    I completely agree. It is very unfortunate the teacher evaluations by students carry so much weight. When I was at BYU the teacher who gave the easy A often trumped who forced the kids to learn to work hard and master the material. I hope BYU does something about this as it does not want it’s faculty to be overrun by those who are just out to make students happy giving them easy As.

  • Nitsav

    Excellent post, and I fully agree. Besides my own experiences there, comments around the Naccle bear this out. I recall a similar post in which someone said that in retrospect, their best religion course was their least favorite at the time.

    “they don’t welcome the introduction of multiple perspectives, especially when no master perspective reconciles them; they want the answers.”

    Indeed. I’m glad to see this is not just a BYU problem, though I suspect it is particularly a problem at BYU. Students expect to absorb data from the professor, instead of learning how to think and weigh competing theories and ideas.

  • http://www.faithpromotingrumor.com Chris H.

    Student evaluations…BYU…oh the stories I should tell….

  • http://juvenileinstructor.org Christopher

    Great post, TT. It seems to me that another factor that probably leads to the over-valuing of teaching evaluations by students is the ridiculous teaching loads assigned to Rel Ed professors. It’s difficult enough to research, write, and publish, and a 6-4-2 or 5-3-1 teaching load every year makes it even more so. Perhaps the student evaluations are weighed so heavily at least in part because much more of a faculty member’s time is indeed spent in the classroom in BYU Rel Ed than elsewhere.

  • el oso

    I found that graduating senior’s and grad student’s perspectives were taken very seriously by department chairs and other senior faculty. Unfortunately, the religion faculty have the bulk of their interaction with students who are never known again after 1 or 2 classes.

  • http://www.faithpromotingrumor.com Chris H.

    “Perhaps the student evaluations are weighed so heavily at least in part because much more of a faculty member’s time is indeed spent in the classroom in BYU Rel Ed than elsewhere.”

    Christopher,

    There is no shortage of administrator is the Religious Ed. department/college. They should be evaluating based on observation and mentoring. It is not that hard.

    Why not move towards a more academic focus? It is connected to the student evaluations. Why challenge the paradigms of your student if you know that they can just go after you if they do not like being challenged.

  • Kevin Barney

    Agreed, TT. I have a friend in another dept. at the Y who has been blackballed from teaching BoM classes because of teacher evaluations. The problem is that he brings a substantive approach to the subject. Trust me, he’s got the goods, and I would take a BoM class from him in a heartbeat, but students don’t want to be challenged, and the administration kowtows to whatever they want.

  • SmallAxe

    I have more to say, but here’s an initial thought.

    This certainly isn’t a problem unique to BYU’s RE, although my sense is that it’s particularly acute there because:

    1) They have higher teaching loads than the other colleges/schools at BYU so teaching is valued even more over scholarship or service.

    2) They have little recourse to anything else besides student evals and administrative observations. In other places (even at BYU) there are majors in the department who take upper division level classes with smaller class sizes or work on longer research projects with professors. These students can provide a different kind of feedback since they develop a relationship that extends more than a couple of 2-credit hour classes in a room with 25 other students. Other places allow for curriculum development in the form of new classes, and a chance to grow a department by increasing the number of majors and minors. RE, on the other hand, has an extremely limited curriculum, so there’s little to no opportunity for becoming a part of weighing one’s teaching.

    3) RE has created an environment where practically any faculty from any discipline can teach religion. The skills and knowledge required to teach it are not unique to any one discipline, so the skills rewarded cannot be particular to any one discipline. They are judged by the general student body.

    4) In some fundamental respects, the students do control the fate of the professor (tenured or not). One of the easiest ways to get in trouble is to have parents calling the school complaining that Brother So-and-so challenged their son’s testimony. If that kid happens to the son or grandson of a GA, you’re in all the more trouble. Tenure, or continuing status, in this regard does not act as the same kind of shield that it would in other schools.

    5) CES still influences much of the culture in RE. In institute and seminary students vote with their feet.

    6) Despite what they say about their learning outcomes (http://religion.byu.edu/program.php), success is geared toward immediate positive experiences defined as “spiritual” by the student. For related thoughts on this point see my post: http://www.faithpromotingrumor.com/2008/03/church-education-as-consequentialism/

  • http://juvenileinstructor.org Ben Park

    Great post, TT. Thinking about the student side of this lopsided equation, I can only think of the numerous letters-to-the-editor in the DU that complained about religion professors (gasp!) demanding something out of the class. And then it’s depressing to see which faculty members get droves of students in their classes, and the ones who are (IMHO) best qualified to teach “college-level” courses are getting smaller numbers in comparison. A shame.

    And then there are the students who run to their GA/COB parents/grandparents when their teachers mention something like seer stones. Sigh.

  • Latter-day Guy

    I agree with this post… to a certain extent. Student evaluations are problematic, especially when given undue weight. That being said, I think that they can be very valuable in some ways. Good scholarship is indispensable, but knowledge alone is not sufficient to make someone a good teacher. BYU religion classes are, for the most part, fluff, resembling something more like seminary or Sunday school than a college-level course. Inexplicably, BYU students tend to value the “spirituality” of a professor over his/her teaching prowess or ability to prepare students for success in rigorous study. This is facilitated by the kinds of questions asked on BYU evaluations, which send the message (or at least imply it) that the administration appreciates “spirituality” over substance––it’s no wonder that students follow suit. Mormon culture, particularly our literalistic approach to scripture in Church meetings, also plays a part in setting up students to feel threatened by legit scholarship. For instance, if a professor suggests that Hebrews might not have actually been written by Paul, students’ “heresy detectors” go into overdrive, and end-of-semester evaluations replace the burning and stoning of an earlier age.

    The situation can be substantially (and very easily) remedied by rewriting the evaluation survey, being sure to frame questions in a way that gives weight to a different set of values. The current system is basically a hold-over from the mistrust of “intellectualism” so ubiquitous in the 80s and 90s. Some leaders and administration personnel are still attuned to “the ever-present challenge from the so-called scholars or intellectuals” and others who “idolize the truth. The truth is not uplifting; it destroys.”

    I think a number of people will have to retire/drop dead before we see any improvement in this area.

  • http://juvenileinstructor.org Christopher

    Chris H. (#6),

    I certainly wasn’t defending the way things are—just offering my two cents on why they’re that way. I would fully support a shift to a more academic focus and a greater weight being placed on evaluations by other faculty and administrators than those by students.

  • James

    Showing my age, I suppose, but what ruined religious education at BYU for many of my generation was the substitution of right-wing politics for religion by the faculty. They deserved to be dinged for that, but I doubt many students gave them low marks.

  • SmallAxe

    Students tend to like everything neatly laid out; they want to know exactly where they are; they don’t welcome the introduction of multiple perspectives, especially when no master perspective reconciles them; they want the answers.

    It should probably be noted that as far as RE is concerned, this, for the most part, isn’t recognized as problematic.

    On another note, has RE recently changed its mission and tagline? http://religion.byu.edu/index.php . I’m pretty sure it used to mention something about “defending the doctrine” or something like that.

    The tagline on the website also now reads: “Instruction, Scholarship and Outreach”. Has it always been there?

    One of the things that still sticks with me is from an early post we did: http://www.faithpromotingrumor.com/2007/10/byu-hiring-ancient-scrip-prof/

    From their FAQs:
    What are the research and publishing expectations? Faculty are expected to be effective presenters in the classroom and, further, to expand their classroom through focused research and meaningful writing and publication.

    How is one promoted in Religious Education? Faculty are evaluated each year in terms of their teaching, citizenship, and scholarship.

    There seemed to be a clear priority of teaching, citizenship, and then scholarship. Is that changing?

  • britt k

    Evaluating teaching is a difficult prospect. Some things cannot be easily quantified, measured and charted…then there is the monumental gap between good “teaching” and “learning”. The student can always choose not to learn no matter the teaching…

    As a highschool teacher, my husband is evluated my administration completely…one of hte common evaluatoin points is student engagement. Apparently the student engagement LOOKS liek some thing, and looks the same on everyone, and an adminsitrator can identify it…possibly even in a glance or a quick 5 mintue walk through…

    I’d rather they talk to the teacher or listen to them…are they passionate about htier subject? Are they interested in learning more and in the porcess of learning themselves? For me inspiring a love of learning is more important that fact downloads and automaton students with eager eyes.

  • Justin

    The tagline has not changed recently, but the mission statement has been revised.

    The mission statement from the 2009-10 undergraduate catalog (identical to the mission statement in the 2007-08 and 2008-09 catalogs): “The mission of Religious Education at Brigham Young University is to build the kingdom of God by teaching and preserving the doctrine of the gospel of Jesus Christ. We spread the light of the Restoration through classroom instruction, gospel scholarship, and outreach to the larger community.”

    The current mission statement (printed in the 2010-2011 catalog): “The mission of Religious Education at Brigham Young University is to assist individuals in their efforts to come unto Christ by teaching the scriptures, doctrine, and history of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ through classroom instruction, gospel scholarship, and outreach to the larger community.

  • smb

    This is all the more complex when we consider that BYU represents a huge investment of church operating funds–the education there is heavily subsidized by tithing funds. In some respects, I think many people see BYU as an extension of their church experience, particularly vis-a-vis RelEd, and surely that plays a role in the strange phenomena observed within RelEd. Most wards do not reward PhDs in Gospel Doctrine.

    And it’s worth considering that credible and important religious scholars (mostly of generations past and within the Reformed traditions) believed that knowledge of facts should never substitute for experiential religion. I suspect that the RelEd instructors think of themselves as providing experiential religion for people at the cusp of adulthood. I suspect that many measure their success in terms of fewer students drinking or engaging in sexual experimentation or disaffiliating or marrying outside the temple–the behavioral measures that often substitute for fervency of belief. Those would be hard (or unethical, invasive, and inappropriate) to measure, and I agree that student assessments would be unlikely to assess the probability of that outcome.

  • smb

    Oh, and one last thing. I think it’s inappropriate to compare RelEd to other departments of religion. In other schools, the department of religion draws people with a special interest in religion–some will be doctrinaire proselytizers, but many will be individuals who anticipate spending significant intellectual and spiritual energy on the problems of religion over several years. At BYU it’s basically a Gen Ed requirement, and every single student who happens to darken one of those funky doorways will be in a class. These are very different problems.

  • SmallAxe

    Thanks, Justin.

    The RelEd profs are undoubtedly some of the best teachers on campus (I think it was in 2008 that Bott won prof of the year at RateMyProfessor.com), and they don’t have an easy job given that motivations and expectations of students for religion classes are significantly different than for other classes. (FWIW you can see them demonstrate their pedagogy here: http://teachingreligion.byu.edu/) Given that so many of them have a background explicitly in education (attaining EdDs, for instance), it comes as no surprise that they take their classroom practices very seriously.

    At the same time, as the OP points out, student evals are given the most weight in terms of hiring and continuing status; and are problematic for the reasons mentioned above. I’ll also point out one more problem discussed in this article: http://www.onaantrekkelijk.be/achtergronden/Teachingbeauty.pdf
    It essentially argues that student reviews are often tied external cues such as perceptions of “beauty”.

    I also came across an article a year or so ago (I can’t recall its title), which argued that student evals done 5 minutes into the first class are remarkably consistent with those done at the end of the semester. In other words, “evaluation” is not often tied to outcomes of effective learning.

    This isn’t, IMO, to say that student evals are worthless; and I’m sure student evals could be worded in ways that attempt to do more then rate how well they “liked” a particular prof. The issue, though, is that they have limited value. “Good teaching” should be judged and rewarded by more then 5 minute fill-in-the-oval reflections at the end of a class period.

  • Anonforthis

    The reled problem with student evals is a real one, but it’s not unique to them. I’ve been on tenure and promotion committees at BYU for years and the student evals have become a nearly ridiculous hurdle with people being judged over literally a 10th of a point. Moreover, the evaluations contain a battery of questions which in my experience are nearly completely ignored in the faculty judgment process.

    There are two independent numbers which average each student’s overall instructor rating and overall course rating. These are not computed from the detailed questions in the rest of the evaluation. The form simply asks the student to rate the professor on his overall performance and then give an overall rating to the course.

    At one point in the past, the evals were used as a kind of red flag. Instructors not meeting the class, or doing other unacceptable things. Now, they have become the primary factor in determining retention and promotion.

    After fighting this trend for the last decade or more, I note that there is finally careful hard research suggesting that high student evals may predict good performance in *that* class, but lower evals predict better performance in succeeding courses (other factors being equal).
    (A good example is Scott Carrell and James West in the Journal of Political Economy 118/3 (2010).) This kind of research is ignored at BYU.

    The Merrill Bateman era brought the “faculty as table waiters to students” era to BYU. I sat with MB and heard him say, “we want no Nobel laureates at BYU. They would bring no value to our mission.” I said (this was an open faculty meeting) “you didn’t really mean that, right?” But he did. Research at BYU is a hammer that can be used on faculty when needed. But generally, mediocre scholarship is perfectly acceptable when student evaluations are sufficiently high. There is a whole bureaucracy embedded in BYU now which is based on student evals, their value and use. The waste of money over the thing is breathtaking.

    Chemistry and some other disciplines are somewhat different, since you need outside funding to get tenure, etc. But the evaluation disease has effected them too.

    Apologies for the length. Struck a nerve. I’ve got brilliant colleagues who have been beaten up over this and will remain associate profs for life despite some really great work, because they are not popular teachers, though competent and responsible in the classroom.

  • Owen

    There is a great irony in the way these surveys are done: technically Likert scale measurements are ordinal measures, not interval measures. This means that a mean/average has no meaning. Those tenths of a point are literally meaningless.

  • SmallAxe

    The Merrill Bateman era brought the “faculty as table waiters to students” era to BYU.

    Or, as has been relayed by other BYU profs, the student has become king.

  • SmallAxe

    I’ve got brilliant colleagues who have been beaten up over this and will remain associate profs for life despite some really great work, because they are not popular teachers, though competent and responsible in the classroom.

    From what I hear this is also an issue in the history dept where continuing status and hiring decisions have come down to issues on student evals–if the scores are high there are too many negative comments. If the comments are glowing, the scores are not high enough.

  • g.wesley

    A lot to consider.

    I agree with the Fish quote, though I can imagine at least some of the information on student evals being useful to teachers and admnistrators. Not for purposes of promotion and tenure review, however. That kind of eval should rest with peers alone based on first hand observation.

    I fear the prospect (however slim) of one day teaching a Rel Ed class and getting called out for upsetting the beliefs of a local or general church leader’s kid.

    But then again I’m not particularly keen on being the one to upset any Bible believer, in or out of Utah. What is the responsibility of the teacher of religious studies or the like to the faithful student?

    I can’t fault BYU Rel Ed for its emphasis on gospel oriented teaching, given that it is not a religious studies department. Now if their teachers are being hired and fired on the basis of student evals, then that is unfortunate.

    And in particlular, re #10, Latter-day Guy, I would strongly agree with your first paragraph, somewhat agree with your second (truth can be destructive, in my opinion), but find your reference to people dropping dead in your third paragraph to be in bad taste.

  • Latter-day Guy

    Forgive my bluntness, g.wesley, but I think my final point is legit. Attitudes shift from one generation to the next; people are (to a significant degree) the product of their experiences, so major changes in paradigm are more readily accomplished by major changes in personnel, than by attempts to change minds long set in a certain pattern of thought (e.g.: tenured professors or long-term administrative faculty––to say nothing of members of Church leadership, many of whom only retire when they pass on, cease to be, expire and go to meet their maker, rest in peace, start pushing up the daisies, go off the twig, kick the bucket, shuffle off their mortal coil, run down the curtain and join the choir invisible… or whichever euphemism you’d prefer).

    I didn’t say I was hoping for people to die, but that I doubted the situation addressed in the OP would change significantly before some people do.

    How would you rather I had put it? “Pay Charon for a boat ride”? “Take the big dirt nap”? “Buy a pine condo”? “Snuff it”? “Go in the crisper”? “Assume room temperature”? “Cash in their chips”? “Take up residence in the necropolis”? “Stroll the garden of Prosperpine”? “Beat their oxygen addiction”? “Become ineligible for the census”? “Join the party at Jimmy Hoffa’s”? “Cross the bar”? “Take up the harp hobby”? “Have their 15 minutes of flame”? (Less useful, I suppose, since Mormons tend not to cremate.) “Eat grass root-first”?

    Anyway, I’m certainly willing to entertain suggestions.

  • g.wesley

    pay-Charon-for-a-boat-ride has a nice ring to it.

  • Latter-day Guy

    Yeah, I like that one too. :-)

  • http://www.mormoninquiry.com Dave

    Strange how student opinions of religion teachers are given such significant weight, whereas student opinions on other matters (say, the dress code) are largely ignored.

  • eric

    Some truth, some sour grapes.

    Teachers complaining about bad evaluations affecting their ability to do their jobs? Hmmm… where have we heard that? Maybe from students complaining about bad evaluations affecting their ability to get and be prepared for new jobs? Anyone complaining about the students lack of insightful or useful evaluations is no better than a student whining about a biased teacher. It happens sure… but if it happens enough it’s a pattern for a reason.

    Solution? Evaluate multiple stakeholders…
    -Students
    -Co-workers
    -Administrators
    -any others, such as average grading data?
    …and then combine them for a score to reflect overall evaluation. Depend on the department perhaps different weight could be given to students or administrators to increase or decrease the balance.

    I’m 30, and rated my religion professors pretty fairly usually even positively. The church history prof was the best, Alex Baugh I believe, whom I took 2 classes from. Same for the BoM classes I took from another professor (2 classes from the same prof). He did a good job, was probably a bit strict, but that’s ok, said weird things like my choice of spouse was from the wrong influence, but what do you do. I took another class with him the next semester with my spouse :)

    My NT teacher was certainly educated. But taught too much history, and minutiae and not enough spirit and inspiration and I don’t remember any of it anyway, while I do remember a lot from my church history classes. She probably got rated poorly. I got roughly the same grades I believe in each of my courses. Maybe NT was a B- or something instead of a B+ I don’t remember.

    But student opinions should have a significant weighting on the proper criteria. Not the only one for sure.

  • Peter LLC

    I’m 30, and rated my religion professors pretty fairly usually even positively.

    Well, at least someone is above the fray.

    My NT teacher was certainly educated. But taught too much history, and minutiae and not enough spirit and inspiration and I don’t remember any of it anyway

    Then again, maybe not.

  • oudenos

    “My NT teacher was certainly educated. But taught too much history, and minutiae and not enough spirit and inspiration…”

    There it is.

    I only wish that this sentiment were a rare thing. Sigh.

  • oudenos

    “My NT teacher was certainly educated. But taught too much history, and minutiae and not enough spirit and inspiration…”

    This statement also pretty much sums up the argument against LDS being ready for a study Bible. Lots of mileage to be had in these few clauses.

  • jupiterschild

    If evaluations are so indicative of performance, why are administrators not subjected to anonymous Likert “surveys” from their underlings? Which are published (like they are at many other schools) and used to determine continuing status?

    Besides the fact that it’s as unlikely as a group of senators passing campaign finance legislation, I suspect that it’s because, as one Religious Education administrator said to a faculty member when reviewing his student evaluations, “the customer is always right.” He then explained that the student is the customer.

  • Mark Brown

    I have nothing to add except to say that I think this post accurately diagnoses our problem and that I don’t expect anything to change anytime soon.

    Our young people of priest and laurel age consider Especially For Youth to be the highlight of their spiritual experience, and they choose locations to attend based on where the most popular speakers and presenters will be. We should not be surprised when they arrive at BYU a year or two later with the similar, EFY-like expectations.

  • Larrin

    I’m an Engineering student (not at BYU), and the most difficult professor I’ve ever had receives the highest evaluations in the department, or so I was told by another professor. I don’t know if this is specific to my University, or the college of Engineering, or just our specific department.

  • Nitsav

    Larrin, I think that represents a difference in student expectations between engineering courses and religious education courses, an expectation echoed in #28 above. “My NT teacher was certainly educated. But taught too much history, and minutiae and not enough spirit and inspiration ”

    Is it possible that a BYU RelEd teacher could focus too much on history and minutiae? Sure. But I doubt any of them have ever actually done it.

  • http://www.lds-law.org Peter

    Good discussion. In part, this conflict exists in all academia, and as several people pointed out, the conflict is greater where publications or scholarship carry less weight.

    I think this problem is somewhat inherent in the way BYU chooses to run religion classes. There seems to be little difference between BYU Religious Education classes and CES Institute classes. In both, intellectual rigor or scholarship are secondary or tertiary purposes, with testimony building being the apparent primary purpose. That’s their decision to make, but if religions classes at BYU are overgrown Sunday School classes, perhaps they should do away with the letter grades. Most top-tier law schools have legal writing classes taught by adjunct or part-time professors. Those professors are judged primarily on their teaching, relying heavily on student reviews, but since the classes are usually pass/fail, the reviews tend to be more honest. A pass/fail system would introduce a different set of incentives, and once students aren’t worried about their grades, they might actually prefer a rigorous approach. And it’s not like any of those religion credits transfer to other schools anyway, so a pass/fail grading system wouldn’t create problems for transfer students.

  • KLC

    I remember when the BYU board of trustees stopped looking for excellent people to be the president, like Oaks and Holland, and decided to draw the president from lower level GAs, like Bateman. I thought it was the beginning of the end of the dreams of glory for BYU that were rampant there in the 60s and 70s; anon’s recollection of Bateman tell me I was right.

  • Secco

    TT, this post is so well placed just after the good discussion regarding an LDS study bible, because the two reflect the unique issues around aspects of BYU’s mission, religious learning for Mormons, and the still evolving interface between the academy and the Church, something that FPR is helping to explore. So thanks.

    It certainly seems like teaching evaluations have gotten completely inverted: teaching evaluations can be valuable to students, but the idea that department heads and/or administrators might look to them as a primary source of input about teaching quality seems like an abdication of responsibility. Didn’t evalutations start out as a way for students to share experiences? To make undergraduates the arbiters of what makes for excellent pedagogy… would it possibly come from laziness? Perhaps it is easier to read surveys than to actually do the hard work of deciding what makes for good instruction. And the President Bateman comments in #19…wow.

    Turning to another point, though, at the risk of being misunderstood, I’d like to somewhat endorse both the sentiments of #28, My NT teacher was certainly educated. But taught too much history, and minutiae and not enough spirit and inspiration, and the replies (#29, 30, 31, 35, etc.) that immediately pointed out that this sentiment might be an illustration of the problem at hand.

    Good study bibles, and good biblical scholarship — at least the kind I was hoping to see from the LDS study bible I’m fantasizing about — are both inspiring and Spirit-filled as well as erudite, educated, and draw on deep wells of scholarship. Examples that come to mind are a couple of passages from Raymond Brown, such as his Anchor Bible masterful exegesis of the amazing depths and parallels in John 9, with interleaving / ascending / descending of the concepts of light / darkness / blindness / seeing / Pharisees / believers, or his discussion of “the profound Johannine theological understanding of Pilate.” Or the New Jerusalem Bible’s footnotes on the biblical use & meaning of the word “knowledge.”

    In the same way, good teaching really can win raves from thoughtful students while being extremely scholarly. Of course, I want it all :-) . Sadly, though, just as the OP points out, the focus on the theological twinkie typically what is valued by much of LDS pedagogy: CES, BYU, Sunday School manuals, etc… The two problems of a lack of good pedagogy and lack of scholarship are intertwined; both come from a misperception of the role of “study and faith,” where we as a culture and a church too frequently pay lip service only to the “study.” Student reviews that celebrate the “bite-sized style of teaching” the NYT post describes are just one symptom of this; the proof-text style of scripture study that Sunday School manuals promote is another. More needs to change than simply the survey process.

  • Jack

    Haven’t read all the comments–

    Make it a calling. Then it doesn’t matter what the students think. That’s the guy/gal that was chosen by inspiration — end of argument.

  • g.wesley

    #39 is not as bad a suggestion as it may sound.

    why not turn byu rel ed into an institute like we have elsewhere? it could be staffed entirely by ces and/or by non-paid instructors called from the local stakes.

    the university could even continue with required credits, if necessary (though I’m not sure how that all would work; i’m not sure how it works now. is it possible to take an institute class outside byu for credit [at byu], even when the instructor is non-paid, non-ces?).

    that way the people looking for the more inspirational and theologcial would find it at the institute where there would be no papers, exams, minutiae. and the people wanting something more academic could … er … i don’t know … take a class from the history department.

    part of the (reason that the) problem of byu rel ed (continues to comes up here) may be that the expectations are unrealistic. perhaps it is not possible to be both an institute and a religious or biblical studies department at the same time. giving up on trying to make it do both might leave us all a bit less frustrated. and who knows … it could allow for the creation of a separate academic department one day.

  • http://ethesis.blogspot.com/ Stephen M (Ethesis)

    I had religion classes at BYU from academically challenging professors for my first two Book of Mormon classes (small section classes) and the people teaching them would have gotten the maximum rankings if they had been subjected to student feedback.

    Almost every criticism of student evaluations also applies to grades.

    I think, very much, that there are two kinds of solid teaching evaluations:

    1) how do the students do on standardized tests of the material? That is, how well have they learned?

    2) … ones that are as valid as the usual type of grades handed out by most teachers.

    The real problem from my perspective is that those who teach do not wish to be subjected to a process that is as reliable as what they subject students to.

  • http://www.faithpromotingrumor.com Chris H.

    Stephen as one of “those who teach,” I give a whole lot of A’s, so I expect the same in my evaluations.:)

  • SmallAxe

    To make undergraduates the arbiters of what makes for excellent pedagogy… would it possibly come from laziness? Perhaps it is easier to read surveys than to actually do the hard work of deciding what makes for good instruction.

    Perhaps a more charitable reading of the situation would see it as the result of servant-leadership gone awry rather than laziness. In other words, I don’t think they’re adverse to doing the work of deciding what makes for good instruction–especially since so many of them are trained in education. The relevant problem, though, is what they believe constitutes good instruction. In their opinion, if it doesn’t immediately lead to higher rates of activity in the Church, it simply isn’t good.

  • SmallAxe

    The real problem from my perspective is that those who teach do not wish to be subjected to a process that is as reliable as what they subject students to.

    For the most part I don’t believe this is true. The work of a professor is always open to scrutiny. Articles and books are blind-reviewed by other experts in the same field. Conference proposals go through a similar process. Getting tenure is accompanied by numerous letters from a variety of others in the field/university evaluating the scholarship, teaching, and service of the professor under consideration. The arguments made by one generation of scholars are always open for judgement and critique by those of a later generation.

    The problem here is that students, who are mostly 18-22 years old, are delivering the primary judgement. This isn’t to say that their critiques should be ignored, but only that they need to be given proper weight.

  • Manuel

    My two cents:

    AS a BYU graduate that loathed my religious classes at BYU (a complete waste of my precious engineering degree time, given the extreme shallowness of their content and the highly tedious work load; or given that I already had to endure a ridiculously poorly researched course full of the opinionated bs of Joseph McConkie and the resulting ooh’s and awh’s from my clueless classmates), what made it even worse is that the courses are only worth 2 credits.

    I remember enrolling on one class that seemed to have a different tone when during the first class of the semester the professor stated, “this is not going to be an easy class, you will be writing weekly essays, reading books and working really hard to earn an A.” I stood up that very moment, left the classroom and dropped the class. I am willing to do that for 3 credits not for 2.

    After all, I was also taking engineering statistics, dynamics, calculus and ethics (you know, in my student mindset “things that actually matter”).

    Being forced to take Mormon propaganda as part of my curriculum was painful enough, so the very little academic credit payback simply did not help.

    There you go. My two cents.

  • Nitsav

    “I am willing to do that for 3 credits not for 2.” I think I overheard a discussion of this kind once but not in the BYU department.

    That said, not everyone in the department teaches courses “full of the opinionated bs of Joseph McConkie.” I certainly didn’t, and I may have weeded you out of one of my classes ;)

  • http://www.faithpromotingrumor.com Chris H.

    Manuel,

    So, given those concerns, why would you attend a place like BYU?

  • http://ethesis.blogspot.com/ Stephen M (Ethesis)

    SmallAxe, you may be right. Most recently I’ve only taught a couple post graduate classes where I had students who included professionals and people who had been or were tenured faculty.

    A long time ago I taught undergraduates a few times. I was evaluated by giving them standardized tests (that came with the text books) which measured how much they were off from the mean with the teachers I was substituting for. I ran into trouble because instead of a modest drop off (which was the norm) the students actually did better.

    I was treated in a very ugly fashion following that.

    But when I was a student at BYU I loved the people who taught religion with passion and depth. The same with institute when I was away from BYU.

  • http://ethesis.blogspot.com/ Stephen M (Ethesis)

    However, religion teachers who decide to pile on twelve credit hours of work for a two credit hour class, deserve whatever problems they encounter.

    My daughter had one at BYU where the prof, in order to make the class more “challenging” gave the students material on the test that was not in the syllabus or the material.

    I had a chemistry teacher do that once. I abhor that type of behavior wherever I encounter it.

  • http://latterdaysnark.blogspot.com/ David B

    I’m coming into this late, but back in 2001 or 2002 (i forget which), when i was still on the BYU faculty, i went through the training to teach Doctrine & Covenants/Church History. (I never got to teach the course, though, sorta-unfortunately.) I still remember having my opinion of the full-time BYU religion faculty turned around entirely (i never attended any of the BYUs), though i wasn’t so impressed with the part-timers—i found the full-timers very thoughtful about religious issues, and quite willing to acknowledge the possibility of legitimate differences in interpretation of church dogma and doctrine.

    That said, i also remember being told things along the lines of “There are a number of different ways of looking at this, but the students will only accept possibility X, so that’s what you have to teach.” (A lot of these centered around the Law of Consecration, now that i think about it.) In addition, we were told to deflect questions about historical issues that might be potentially uncomfortable for students (Mountain Meadows Massacre, anyone?) to after-class or office hours discussions, when the class as a whole wouldn’t hear anything.

    I don’t think that these practices were driven entirely by student evaluations as a blunt measurement tool, but it certainly doesn’t help.

  • Manuel

    Chris H,

    For the same reason most everyone goes to BYU. It is a reputable school at a very convenient price due to its subsidized status. I’m not saying this is the “only” reason for most everyone that goes to BYU, but it certainly is one of the reasons for most. It would be quite disingenuous to ignore that fact.

    This is a capitalist world ruled by money. You have to get the most for your buck in every investment, and that is exactly what education is. Mediocre religious classes (while I truly loath them) are a low price to pay when looking at the whole context. That doesn’t mean I won’t share my opinion, especially in a public blog that is addressing the subject.

    No institution is perfect. I could have gone somewhere else and I would not liked another aspect of it and I would have an opinion about it, so who cares.

    Are you implying people can always accommodate their lives so that only their ideal goals and circumstances happen? You think everyone is 100% happy with the schools they went to? Or with their jobs? Or with their marriages? Sorry but your question is a bit silly.

    Nistav,

    “In addition, we were told to deflect questions about historical issues that might be potentially uncomfortable for students (Mountain Meadows Massacre, anyone?) to after-class or office hours discussions, when the class as a whole wouldn’t hear anything.” David B

    “However, religion teachers who decide to pile on twelve credit hours of work for a two credit hour class, deserve whatever problems they encounter.” Stephen M (Ethesis)

    Enough said.

  • http://www.faithpromotingrumor.com Chris H.

    “For the same reason most everyone goes to BYU.”

    To get married?

    Sure, it was a silly question. I am not saying that you should not have gone to BYU, or anything like that. I am just truly curious as to why people go there. The social reason make sense to me. But the academic quality for the price can easily be found at a good state university (of course this depends on your state of origin).

    I actually think that your complaints about the required religion classes are similar to the complaint I hear and see about my required American Heritage class (at a number of schools) and the required ethics class I have taught at UVU. There is always some resentment of certain GE requirements.

  • Nitsav

    Manuel, not every religion class is identical. I’m not sure if your quotes are meant to rebut my own experiences (since your commentary was so pithy), but if so I neither loaded on unreasonable amounts of work nor was I told to save difficult issues for office time. In fact, I was left disturbingly alone in my teaching, both in terms of guidance and evaluations.

    I do think some of the problems encountered in RelEd stem from systematic issues (I’ve written my own posts about that), such as the credit limitations. With that kind of time and workload limitation, it’s quite difficult, though still possible, to have good learning take place. Did you take *any* 2-credit courses that weren’t “shallow” whether in or out of RelEd?

    You seem more embittered than usual by your experiences, to the point you deny the possibility of anyone having good experiences. From my discussions with students when I was teaching, those aren’t entirely precluded by either formal policies (such as the 2-credit limit) or informal suggestions.

    It should be a big warning sign to BYU, however, that so many students seem so angry about RelEd courses years after graduation.

  • Manuel

    Nistav,

    “…not every religion class is identical…” Very true. I was by no means trying to give a scientifically correct statistical assessment of former BYU alumni experiences with their religious classes. That’s why I stated it was my 2 cents worth of opinion.

    I attended the minimum required religious courses and I am certain I have no basis for judging the whole department. I was stating the way I feel about what I experienced, period.

    What TT wrote is interesting though:

    “The idea of the gospel “neatly laid out,” unwelcome to “multiple perspectives,” with a strong “master perspective” and the assertion of definitive “answers” seems to describe the state of BYU religion.”

    I think this is probably a nice way to state what I crudely described as “shallowness of their content,” and “Mormon propaganda.” (or even BS) If this is what students demand of “good” faculty in their evaluations, then faculty presenting more meaningful material may not have a good chance at “selling” themselves to students when it comes to their evaluations.

    But you may be reading a bit more than I am stating. I am not angry about any of the classes I took (OK, maybe about the one by McConkie and what I perceived to be the poisoning of ignorant student minds, hehehe).

    I’m just grateful I don’t have to ever go through that again. And I was also adding that comment to support TT’s point that student evaluations may not be completely reliable and may be receiving too much weight. After all, ignorant students may support faculty with a McConkie last name, regardless of the content of the course. And as TT argues, students also limit the content of courses in such topics as the “Gospel” and church history. Mormons in general (not just students) like to hear a certain side of things when it comes to those subjects: the side that lets them be comfortable with who they are. I agree with TT that this may reflect in evaluations and faculty presenting alternative perspectives and tackling difficult issues may seem to mainstream jolly Mormons as “bad faculty.”

    The quotes were not intended to rebut your experiences, but they are presented as clear evidence that what I mention does indeed happen. Therefore, just as your experiences are valid, so are mine.

    I took few 2 credit courses, and they were mostly lab work complimentary to intense research 3 credit classes. Therefore, they made more sense than 2 credit classes trying to pass for intense research classes.

    Crhis H,

    Ironically, I really enjoyed my ethics class at BYU. It was an honors class and there was a lot of material to cover, read and present. But since I am love to show outrage at unethical things, I enjoyed it very much.

    I also liked my American Heritage course very much. I am a Mexican and it was absolutely helpful to me in order for me to understand how some of the current American views, practices, culture and social attitudes developed. My professor was kind of weird, but not in a bad way.