Paul L. Caron

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Prof Denied Tenure for Using Socratic Method

MaranvilleInside Higher Ed, Socratic Backfire?:

Some students didn't take well to Steven Maranville's teaching style at Utah Valley University. They complained that in the professor’s “capstone” business course, he asked them questions in class even when they didn't raise their hands. They also didn't like it when he made them work in teams.

Those complaints against him led the university denying him tenure – a decision amounting to firing, according to a lawsuit Maranville filed against the university this month. ... [T]he allegations in the lawsuit raise questions that have been raised and debated about the value of student evaluations and opinions, how negative evaluations play into the career trajectory of affected professors and whether students today will accept teaching approaches such as the Socratic method. ...

A twist in Maranville's case is that he gave up tenure at the University of Houston to come to Utah Valley, with the expectation that he would be awarded tenure there after a year. He is now an associate professor at Westminster College, in Salt Lake City, and his suit says that he earns considerably less than he did in his previous position. ...

The Socratic style of teaching that Maranville used is hardly novel. But experts say that while it remains popular in law schools, there are reasons many faculty members have never used it extensively with the current generation of students. ... Walter Parker, a professor of education at the University of Washington, said he teaches using the “Socratic seminar” method. He cautioned against stereotypes of the Socratic method, namely the depiction in the 1973 movie The Paper Chase, which shows a professor giving harsh evaluations to a student, leaving the students embarrassed. "That is not the Socratic method," he said. ...

Students did not want to work in teams and did not want Maranville to ask questions. “They wanted him to lecture.” They also complained, according to the suit, that he did not know how to teach because he is blind.

The department chair –- Scott Hammond, who is named in the lawsuit –- apparently agreed with how Maranville taught his courses and called him a “master teacher,” according to court documents. Hammond visited his class, and so did an associate dean.

But a few months later, during the spring semester, Maranville received a letter from university president saying that his classroom behavior was not suited to his being granted tenure.

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If I had a dollar for every minute I waited for classmates to "think and reason their way" to a trivial conclusion, I would be a wealthy man.

I agree that the Socratic method is best, provided the students are first trained in elementary logic and then grouped by talent.

Posted by: FC | Nov 2, 2011 10:52:23 AM

Well remember what happened to Socrates.

Posted by: mike livingston | Nov 1, 2011 11:51:58 PM

"I hate to say it but I probably would have agreed with the students. I paid to learn from the professors, not to hear the ignorant and illogical opinions of my fellow undergraduates."

Spoken like one who has never actually been exposed to the socratic method. A good professor using the socratic method won't let you get a bunch of unfiltered, irrelevant BS - a student can generally be made to arrive at the correct answer if a specific line of questioning is used by the professor.

I never learned or understood concepts better than when professors used the socratic method - my particular experience has been that lecturing tends to encourage and reward memorization while the socratic method requires students to actually think and reason their way to their answers.

Posted by: Tyler | Nov 1, 2011 9:39:58 PM

BTW, BYU is run by the LDS church. You must be a Mormon in good standing to attend and due to world wide demand by Mormons, getting in is rather difficult. Moreover, due to being self-selecting in this manner, it tends to be rather intolerable to the non-believer. There are several good colleges at BYU, particularly engineering, hard sciences, business, accounting and law, but others that are between bad and terrible, such at almost the entire liberal arts and computer science.

UVU is a very good local university for those who aren't Mormon, such as my children. It is also very accepting of older people who want to finish degrees later in life.

Do note that it was a junior college and then a community college and only recently got university status. It hasn't yet settled on what it's best at, though it trains IT people better than BYU and as good as the University of Utah, though U of U produces better programmers.

Posted by: Joe | Nov 1, 2011 5:42:26 PM

There is another side to this story; students complained that he was capricious, would humiliate students on a daily basis and threaten students with failure just to see how they would react.

That aside, the notion that he is deserved tenure is nonsense and points to how perverse the system is. Probationary period means just that.

Posted by: Joe | Nov 1, 2011 5:33:45 PM


Utah Valley University (UVU) is the principle public university in Utah Valley, the private university down the street is Brigham Young University (BYU). The current president of UVU, Matt Holland, is the son of a former president of BYU (Jeff Holland, now a top official in the Mormon Church).

UVU has long had the reputation as where kids go who can't get into BYU.

Posted by: Doug | Nov 1, 2011 3:52:26 PM

Utah Valley University has gone on my list of universities whose graduates I shall never hire.
Makes the recruiting process ever so much easier.

Posted by: PacRim Jim | Nov 1, 2011 2:51:19 PM

They don't want a professor; they want a TV. They don't want to learn to think; they want a cookbook. No wonder you don't see any job ads demanding MBAs.

Posted by: Steve Gregg | Nov 1, 2011 2:48:22 PM

This is highly suspicious.

Tenure denied because of classroom teaching issues?
That's unheard of.

Now, lack of high dollar grant winning skills, there's a career stopper.

Posted by: RS | Nov 1, 2011 2:42:15 PM

How much does anyone get out of pure lecture that they can't get from some other place with less money and possibly less time?

Without the immediate feedback provided from questioning the lecturer has no means (until an exam) to determine if the material is getting through. Exam-time is too late to find out.

Posted by: chuckatpdo | Nov 1, 2011 2:12:13 PM

I have had it with current college students who think that a university is a high school with pubs!
I never had the pleasure or experience to learn with a professor who used the Socratic method but I was blessed by having a few professors from Cambridge and Oxford. Just peeking at their reading lists discouraged all the lame students who couldn't find the points on which we were expected to make any arguments. I wish there were debtors prisons today for the lame excuses for intellect that suck the working class taxpayers of today in order to spend a few moments each week in the campus pubs on subsidized dollars.
We can only hope that whoever holds the pink slip on student loans is ultimately able to collect from the poor middle class parents but hopefully from the soon to retire semi-professional parents who've got state-paid pensions to demand repayment from.
More than half the students in colleges and universities don't belong there because more than half the professors are mailing it in too!

Posted by: Pedro | Nov 1, 2011 2:04:57 PM

I had several professors in college (BS in Business, Auburn, 2001) who used the Socratic method with great success and others who used it to outsource the lecture, so to speak. It was lazy teaching. It not only prevented energetic discussion, but it also made the professors look like petulant little bullies.

As a student, you're paying top dollar to access the minds of supposed "experts." You're the customer whose purchases fund the business. If the customer isn't happy, I think management has the right, if not the duty, to launch an evaluation and take steps to correct the problem. That seems to be what happened here. If the kids are simply complaining that his classes are too hard, then they can take another course (to their own detriment). But if his classes are just not very beneficial, then he's failing at his job. Why should he be shielded from accountability?

This story has been percolating for a few weeks now and everyone seems to be jumping on the "these damned kids are too coddled" bandwagon. Maybe that's true and maybe not; I don't have all the facts. But maybe this professor is just not reaching his students. Not every expert makes a good teacher, and not every good teacher is an expert. Finding the right people to cultivate the middle should be the chief concern of the administration. It seems to me that they got it right in this case.

I had a marketing professor who was utterly terrible. I'd been warned that he was a supreme egomaniac and there was little value in any of his lectures. I thought of his class as a challenge and was pretty eager to learn from the master (everyone in marketing thinks they're gong to end up making TV commercials and/or magazine ads for huge, well-branded clients). I soon realized that his critics were right. He belittled anyone who had the temerity to speak up. Students dropped like flies and he seemed to revel in it. He'd posit advertising strategies for the future, ask for thoughts, and then shoot down any responses. He was the worst teacher I've ever had. But because he's in the Advertising Age rolodex for occasional commentary, he was held in the highest regard by his Dean. I'm sure he's still down in Auburn, thumping his chest and collecting a fat paycheck. It's tragic, really.

Posted by: CC | Nov 1, 2011 1:44:07 PM

I well remember a medical school professor who was in the habit of asking questions about a subject and going around the circle of students present until someone came up dry. You would sit there with an answer ready but the guy before you would raise it and you had 30 seconds to come up with another. He would continue the round of questions and the temptation to say something stupid would become overwhelming.

In those days medical school classes were all men, at least mine was. I wonder the gender of the complaining students.

Posted by: Michael Kennedy MD | Nov 1, 2011 1:26:25 PM

I hate to say it but I probably would have agreed with the students. I paid to learn from the professors, not to hear the ignorant and illogical opinions of my fellow undergraduates.

Posted by: FC | Nov 1, 2011 1:09:19 PM

It seems odd that there apparently was a massive shift -- or perhaps breakdown -- somewhere between (roughly) generation X & Y and the groups that came after. I have heard this from teacher after teacher, that around the mid-1990s, students became incapable of being challenged and held inflated but fragile images of their own capabilities and accomplishments. It also seems to fit with the intern stories I've seen. And I must admit, it comports with my own experience watching those two cohorts pass through high school. If true, it's hard to see what could have caused the break with previous patterns of behavior. Is that when "self esteem" teaching really kicked in, in the late 70s or something? In any case, I agree with the professor in this story that student evaluations these days are close to useless. Challenge the students, and you get a bad grade from them. Make it easy and you have glowing reviews. Surely this is not the metric by which we want to judge our teachers.

Posted by: Conor | Nov 1, 2011 1:05:50 PM

I had one professor (Property) my first year who used the Socratic method strictly. If he called your name at the beginning of the class, you were on the spot for the full 50 minutes. But he was never mean, and he used the technique to to convey legal understanding effectively. If you were one of the sharper students, he would ask difficult questions, and tons of follow-up questions, that really tested your understanding and ability to reason. If the student was not capable of that sort of dialogue, he would start with difficult questions, but then quickly devolve into leading questions, where it was pretty obvious what was the "correct" answer. The one thing he would not tolerate was someone who had not read the assigned cases, and was therefore not prepared to participate. The first student to say he was unprepared was asked to leave; it never happened again.

Posted by: Tim_K | Nov 1, 2011 12:58:33 PM

Although this is bit off-topic, my first reaction was to ask why a tenured professor at a Carnegie-designated tier-1 research university would resign to take a non-tenured position at a relatively unknown school? I mean no disrespect to UVU students (I'm certain many are very bright), but this is not the normal career path for a professional academic. It turns out that the professor was tenured at U of Houston (Downtown), an entirely separate entity from the main UH (University Park)campus.

That said, it appears that the professor sought to bring the boardroom to the classroom. Day-to-day business is governed by the Socratic method. I've been there. Nobody gets a hug or ribbon just for showing up. Those who worked hard to learn from the professor and meet his grueling requirements will thank him for the rest of their lives. Those who failed to do so will spend the rest of their lives mastering their burger-flipping technique.

Posted by: Tyler | Nov 1, 2011 12:56:28 PM

Hey, have you met any undergrads in the last 10 years? I wouldn't want to work in teams with any of those simpletons either. I'd gladly take the risk that my GPA would fare much better in an individual setting.

Posted by: Big_Mike | Nov 1, 2011 12:50:17 PM

As a professor you want to position yourself in the upper 2/3 of the bell curve - above average, but not super-competent. The Dean cares less about how well you teach than how many complaints about you land on his desk. You don't want to be on the President's radar at all.

Posted by: Southern Man | Nov 1, 2011 11:43:31 AM

He the made the poor creatures think instead of passively soaking up what he said. What they thought, as a consequence, was that they would get rid of him. They and we will be the poorer, but they'll probably never understand it.

Posted by: KenB | Nov 1, 2011 11:32:25 AM

On the one hand, I think tenure is an indefensible anachronism, so this doesn't bother me.

On the other, since tenure continues to exist I find the reason for not granting it outrageous especially in light of the professor giving up a previously tenured position to make the move.

Posted by: Dan Palmer | Nov 1, 2011 11:27:28 AM

I earned a BS and an MS in Math at a school that used the Socratic Method a collegial manner in its math classes for math majors. We had to daily defend our solutions in front of everyone and also be able to explain why others' solutions were good or bad. It also taught us to think while we were talking and taught us how to follow an oral argument.

Most organizations transmit a great amount of information orally in meetings and from person to person. This skill at being able to argue, question, and listen has set me apart from my peers. The higher up in the food chain, the more often the SM is used.

When I went to MBA school, the students were poorly prepared for those of us with this skill. Even a very gentle session of Q&A would cause them to wilt. These guys would not have lasted a minute with a Senior VP or activist Board much less an irate customer. Some bolder students tried to tell me that "we work together in this school" to try to get me to stop asking questions that "made them look bad."

I've met a number of French post-docs. Their oral skills are PHENOMENAL as they use the Socratic Method much more than we do.

I am a big fan of the SM and think it should be used the moment kids are formally educated.

Posted by: TXMath | Nov 1, 2011 11:22:18 AM

He's blind and they complained that he called on them when they didn't raise their hands? (ADA violation?)
(Not that it should matter. If they're warming a seat they should be prepared for class or to suck up embarrassment at being caught unprepared.)
They're taking business courses and don't want to work in teams? What do they think they're going to be expected to do when they're working in businesses?
I wonder if anyone correlated the complainers and non-complainers vs. bad grades and good grades. (sour grapes?)

Sounds like Westminster college is getting a great deal.

Posted by: Ed Nutter | Nov 1, 2011 11:20:44 AM

Business majors who don't like to work in teams, or unexpected questions from their bosses, are in for a rude awakening once they leave the cocoon...

Posted by: snowflake | Nov 1, 2011 11:17:14 AM

As if these kids (yes, they are children) weren't at a disadvantage coming from "God Knows Where Utah State" in this job market. Now, they actually don't want to learn, or think, or collaborate - just memorize rot information. What's really sad is that the school, in its quest to sustain and profit from its institutional existence and line the pockets of administrators, apparently capitulated to these childish demands. Why don't I give a single dime to my law school anymore? Because they built a $150 million "state of the art" law school building with every gizmo possible, but have managed to drop from about top 20% to top 70% in every category, survey, and rating, in their zeal to secure as customers that mid-group of students who can pay big bucks but can't get into U of C, Harvard, Michigan, etc. Why does my 2nd grader's teacher need a smart board when she - a fairly bright young girl - still hasn't mastered her multiplication and division tables? Top to bottom, it is disgusting pandering for the almighty institutional dollar.

Posted by: CHITownTaxAttorney | Nov 1, 2011 9:56:26 AM