Professor Annemarie Bean taught at Williams for several years but was denied tenure in 2005. (And note that this denial was never reported by the Record.) Fun-filled EphBlog threads that mention Bean are here, here and here. What happens to professors in many/most of the humanities if they don’t get tenure at Williams? Little good. The New York Times provides an update.

A single mother, 42, with a 10-year-old daughter and an 8-year-old son, Bean found herself unemployed. When we met for health food in June, she was not sure what would come next. “I’m going on unemployment starting July 1,” she told me. “I am selling my house in West Hartford. I have an open house tomorrow, because I can’t afford the mortgage payments.” In July, she and her children moved to Bennington, Vt., where they now live with her boyfriend.

Of course, not every professor in the humanities who leaves Williams is forced into such dire straights. Most continue to teach, but at lesser schools and for lower pay. Most will never be as comfortable and prosperous as the tenured colleagues that they leave behind in Williamstown.

The article covers the debate over the use of student evaluations in college promotion/retention decisions. Did Bean’s student evaluations play a big role in her tenure-denial at Williams? I don’t know. If the College wants to have more African-American faculty, then it makes little sense to have a white professor teach courses in Africana Studies. (See Evelyn Hu-DeHart’s discussion in conjunction with the Diversity Initiatives.) Would the College have tenured Bean if she were African-American? I don’t know. What about if she were an alum? (Note how three of the four tenures her year were alums. I can’t remember the last time an alum came up for tenure and was denied.) Again, I don’t know.

See below for excerpts from the article that mention Bean.

Annemarie Bean, who goes by Anna and is a distant, poorer cousin of the family that owns the L.L. Bean clothing business, is the kind of professor who draws students to small New England liberal-arts colleges like Wesleyan. She is funny, enthusiastic, devoted to her students and passionate about what she teaches. Her subject areas are offbeat and slightly avant-garde, the kind of stuff that students, and their ostensibly liberal faculties, are said to find thrilling: African-American theater, the history of minstrelsy, “whiteness studies” — essentially, the intersection of race and theatrical performance in modern America. Beyond her subject matter and top-notch education, including a Ph.D. from New York University’s acclaimed performance-studies department, she just seems like a good fit for Wesleyan. She is an alumna of the college, class of ’88; she is informal in her manner, tall and limber like a dancer, bright-eyed, the opposite of stuffy, eminently approachable; and she suggested lunch at It’s Only Natural, the pride of Middletown, Conn., a regional mecca for vegetarian, vegan and macrobiotic dining. (Nothing says “Wesleyan” like lunch at It’s Only Natural, where you eat bulgur wheat beneath paintings by local artists.) Bean knows that she belongs at Wesleyan, which is why she’s especially sad that her students fired her.

They did not actually give her the pink slip, of course, and for that matter Bean did not receive a pink slip. A visiting professor on a one-year contract with the African-American studies department, Bean was fired by not being rehired. Before her first year of teaching, she received a letter from Renee Romano, her department chairwoman, saying that she would be recommended for a second year if she met certain benchmarks in her students’ evaluations of her. Specifically, for the fall 2007 term her teaching and the overall quality of the course had to be “rated in the top two categories (Outstanding and Good) by at least 85 percent of the students in both your courses.” When, at the end of the semester last December, she got only 76 percent in one of her classes and 73 percent in the other, she knew her job was in jeopardy. In January, she asked Romano if she should begin looking for another job. She heard nothing until mid-March, when the dean, Donald Moon, still wavering, asked her to write a self-evaluation.

Finally, Bean says, Gayle Pemberton, the new chairwoman of African-American studies, told her she was out of a job — partly because, Pemberton said, Bean had not received high-enough marks in the category of “student effort,” a category unmentioned in Romano’s letter. According to Pemberton, not enough students had marked “strenuous” to describe their own effort in Bean’s class. Put another way, Bean was being punished for her students’ admitted laziness. When Bean asked Dean Moon what had happened, he referred back to the original criteria of quality of the course and quality of the teaching. Neither Moon nor Pemberton, who has since retired from Wesleyan, would speak on the record about Bean’s case. A university spokesman, citing Wesleyan’s policy of keeping personnel matters confidential, would say only that Bean’s description of her contract “is not accurate.” But Bean maintains that her students — about three-quarters of whom, after all, rated her class and teaching “good” or “outstanding” — gave the administration sufficient reason to end her time at Wesleyan.

A single mother, 42, with a 10-year-old daughter and an 8-year-old son, Bean found herself unemployed. When we met for health food in June, she was not sure what would come next. “I’m going on unemployment starting July 1,” she told me. “I am selling my house in West Hartford. I have an open house tomorrow, because I can’t afford the mortgage payments.” In July, she and her children moved to Bennington, Vt., where they now live with her boyfriend.

On one level, Bean’s case seems a simple miscarriage of justice. A highly qualified teacher and scholar was hired, received good student evaluations, but was not rehired because she failed to reach course-evaluation standards that were created seemingly at random. But it might change your opinion to know that Bean was denied tenure at her previous school, Williams College, partly because of concerns about her teaching.

And it might change matters further to know that at both schools opinion about Bean was highly polarized: many students adored her, and her classes were oversubscribed, but a small minority of students loathed her. To judge from her student evaluations, she was less an amiable mediocrity than a controversial iconoclast, striking some as a master teacher and others as an incoherent mess. “I love Professor Bean,” reads one typical evaluation. “I learned very little,” reads another. Or try this for a contrast: “I’ve probably never learned as much in any class before” versus “Bean was enthusiastic, but it was not contagious.”

Whatever Anna Bean is really like in the classroom, her situation highlights the difficulties encountered every time a student is asked to evaluate a professor. Today there is hardly any college or university that does not have a formal system for soliciting student feedback about teachers. How these evaluations are used varies by school. At the top universities and elite colleges, a good research record can easily outweigh poor student evaluations in the eyes of the tenure committee. Indeed, a frequent complaint of students at the best universities is that administrators don’t care whether their top faculty members can teach (or even do teach). But at most other schools, the drive to teach students well — and keep them happy and attract more applicants — has elevated the role of student opinion in the faculty’s fortunes. Administrators say their forms, often filled out by students during the last class of the term, before they take a final exam or receive final grades, provide relatively objective criteria for measuring how well a school is educating its students.

This conundrum surely accounts for some of the murkiness surrounding the case of Anna Bean. She says she believes that part of her job is to discomfit students, to rid them of easy assumptions (for example, that being white, as she is, is the norm while everyone else is a minority). And in principle most professors would agree this is a laudable goal. But students don’t always want to buy what teachers think they’re selling. In their 2006 article, “My Professor Is a Partisan Hack,” the political scientists Matthew Woessner and April Kelly-Woessner, who obtained course evaluations from almost 1,400 students at 29 colleges, found that political-science students give poorer evaluations to professors whose perceived political views they disagree with. “Students even report they learn less from professors whose views are different from their own,” Kelly-Woessner says. “That’s counterintuitive. You’d expect that students would learn more from people with different ideas. But what the political psychologists say is that people tune out those who make them uncomfortable. It’s like why liberals don’t listen to Rush Limbaugh. Students believe they learn more from people who say what they say.” Kelly-Woessner found that the bias works against liberal and conservative professors almost equally. “There’s some expectation today that a professor be objective or evenhanded, and if professors violate those norms, they can pay a price for it in student evaluations,” she says.

I have taught college students, and read evaluations of me, but I was unprepared for the naughty thrill of reading evaluations of somebody else. Getting to read what Anna Bean’s students thought of her was like finding your neighbor’s bank statements, or maybe medical files, on the sidewalk.

Bean prepared me for what to expect. At both schools where she taught, many students adored her. (When she was denied tenure at Williams, many alumni wrote letters in protest.) Others, of course, were indifferent or lukewarm. And a small minority couldn’t stand her. When I looked through evaluations of Bean’s class, Blackface Minstrelsy, Then and Now, I found all three groups. The great: “I found the teaching amazing. . . . I believe that the love and expertise that the professor obviously has in the subjects shines through in her teaching.” The good: “Teacher is well informed and has interesting topics.” And the very, very bad: “In general this course deteriorated and by the end of the class we weren’t even talking about minstrelsy. Tremendous amounts of time were wasted by Bean’s lateness (due to yoga class), absence or even inability to operate technology. . . . I found her completely unstimulating and unable to lead productive classes.”

If you came across the whole pile of evaluations on the sidewalk, you’d form a picture of a somewhat disorganized, technologically inept, very learned, passionate teacher — an acquired taste. It would be clear that her particular cocktail of traits was very appealing to some students, the ones who loved her passion or her subject matter so much that they didn’t think her tendency to be late or frazzled was worth mentioning. You’d see that other students, meanwhile, were unmoved by her considerable energy and deep knowledge — instead, they felt abused by her politics, her scattered style or her deviations from the syllabus.

Bean told me that she had a good sense of who had written the most negative evaluations. “I found there was a small group of mostly white men,” she said, “who sat there the whole time wearing their white hats on backward, sitting there angrily, who didn’t like the class.” The stereotype Bean was invoking is well known to recent college alumni, especially of wealthy Northeastern schools. There is a look popular among athletes and their hangers-on, who wear white baseball caps with the name of a college embroidered above the brim. When you see those boys in class, you do figure — at least I always do — that if they’re not jocks, they’re part of a jockish, frat-boy scene. On a campus like Wesleyan, these are the boys who have not bought into its famously liberal culture. And if you’re Anna Bean, and you’re teaching classes called Whiteness or Blackface Minstrelsy, you worry, despite your best efforts, that they might be suspicious of what you have to say.

Where Anna Bean saw “white men . . . wearing their white hats,” Caroline Byerly saw an “almost exclusively white, almost exclusively upper-middle- class” campus. In each case, their caricatures of the students they were paid to inspire probably say something truthful, if crudely expressed. There was a certain kind of student, they knew, who simply was not going to like Carolyn Byerly, the outspoken lefty, or Anna Bean, the WASP aficionado of blackface history. And there’s a certain kind of class material that is bound to elicit mixed reviews, especially if a teacher lacks a deft classroom touch. When one student wrote that “Bean constantly referenced certain individuals in the class in inappropriate ways,” I couldn’t decide who those students might have been. Were they minorities whom Bean asked about their own life experiences? Were they white-hatted athletes whom Bean singled out to provoke? Whichever it was, at least one student felt that “the class dynamic was not only uncomfortable but never addressed.”

Reading some students’ overblown praise, and others’ righteous anger, made me crave objective criteria for evaluating teachers. But for Bean’s and Byerly’s classes, there is no way to know what criteria to use. It would be impossible to perform Weinberg’s study on the classes that Byerly and Bean teach. We could never agree on which higher-level classes would measure how much students learned the previous semester — in what class can you demonstrate the skills mastered in Blackface Minstrelsy?

If there’s no consensus about how well evaluations work in a class like basic microeconomics, it’s even more difficult to know how seriously to take them in classes like Byerly’s or Bean’s. An administrator must synthesize multiple ways of looking at a humanities professor — one who was given no set syllabus and no canon of knowledge to convey, just a simple charge to develop students’ minds in ways they might only appreciate decades later but are asked to describe in 20 minutes carved from the last class before vacation. If the evaluations themselves are subjective, so, too, is reading them; no matter what you think of Anna Bean, it’s hard to be unmoved by one student’s poignant critique that she “made ‘jokes’ about how these evaluations will influence her position here and her children’s health care.”

Indeed. How shall we evaluate professors like Bean? There are no easy answers. Yet public display of her students written work (perhaps with their names, perhaps anonymously) and her comments on that work would be a good place to start. Want to see how such a scheme might work in practice? Keep on eye on ECON 18. The student papers and my comments on them will be posted for all to read.

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