Saturday, July 25, 2009

William B. Macomber, 1929-2009

I recently got the devastating, long-dreaded news that my old teacher and friend, Bill Macomber died. He died on Father's Day, just shy of his eightieth birthday.

To the left is a picture of him in his office, talking to students, from the University of California at Santa Barbara yearbook and dates from about 1970. I have kept it with me ever since and it is now on the wall of my office at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

Below is a picture I took of him in the summer of 1991, when he was living in a cheap apartment in a scary neighborhood in Oakland. He is holding a cigarette holder, a cheap lighter, and one of his half-Camels. (Bill thought that cutting his cigarettes in half would help him to smoke less.)

Maybe the best memorial I can present him here is to offer a short segment from an essay I wrote recently in which I talk about him. The essay is an attack on the current practice of evaluating university teaching solely on the basis of anonymous student evaluations:

I think I can best introduce this problem by telling a story. Unfortunately, it is a true one. During the sixties there was a professor of philosophy, William B. Macomber, whom I knew both as his student and his teaching assistant. Of all the teachers I had, he is the one who had, and continues to have, thirty years later, the most powerful influence on the way I think and the way I teach. He was, it is very safe to say, a controversial teacher. He was most notorious for his Introduction to Philosophy course, which had an enrollment of over 700 students. There was only one assigned reading: one of Plato’s “erotic dialogues” (one semester it was the Symposium and the next time it was the Phaedrus). The exams were all multiple choice, and were meant simply to make sure that students did the readings and attended the lecture. The only other assignment was to write a paper. The lectures were brilliant, but otherwise hard to describe. They were a mixture of argument, epigram, and anecdote. The anecdotes were mainly about his own life. His basic thesis was that the ideals envisioned by the ancient Greeks, especially Plato, have never been surpassed, and that our own civilization is in comparison, denatured and decadent. It has been corrupted in every aspect, but especially in its educational system, by the influence of Christianity. He frequently referred to his own homosexuality, relating it to the homosexuality of Plato, and using the very different attitudes toward homosexuality in Christianity and the Hellenic world to illustrate the (in his view) deep divide between these two civilizations. In their papers, the students were to defend their views on one of the issues touched on in the lectures, and it was expected that in many cases they would of course disagree with the professor.

Like the lectures, student reactions to Macomber are difficult to describe. As I have said, he was controversial: by this I mean that students either loved him or hated him. Someone who is universally loathed is not controversial, no more than one who is universally loved. This of course was no accident. In another of his courses he handed out copies of an essay by the classicist, William Arrowsmith, called “Turbulent Teachers: The Heart of Education,” to justify he own educational practices. In that essay, Arrowsmith argued that the principal aim of a liberal education, especially in the humanities, is to show the student that “a great humanity exists.” Since human consciousness does not normally and naturally have much contact with the ways of thinking represented by the great creators of culture, the function of the teacher must be primarily to go against the grain of our ordinary ways of thinking. Inevitably, this means they must upset us and stir us up. Obviously, this is what Macomber was doing. It was widely believed by the faculty in our department that his courses inspired more people to become philosophy majors than those of any other instructor. Partly for this reason, and also because of his having recently published a distinguished book, some of us were confident he would get tenure. He didn’t, and he never worked in the academy again.

I have often thought of him as an early casualty of the anonymous student course evaluations. At the time Macomber was fired, our department had only been using them for a year or two. All the people who were teaching at that time had developed their pedagogical styles in a completely different regime, in which teaching quality was typically either evaluated by faculty or simply ignored. Some of them were still using methods and approaches that could not well survive in the new system. Those who did not change fast enough would have to face some unpleasant consequences, such as, if one is not already protected by tenure, being fired.

Of course, it would be difficult, after all these years, to show that this is what actually happened. (For whatever this information might be worth, I asked him five years ago about the evaluations he got in those courses, and he said that all he could remember was that "they were dreadful," and that they were noticed by the people who had control over his tenure decision.) However, what is really important is to realize that this is just the sort of thing that would happen in a regime of numbers-driven student evaluation of teaching. Arrowsmithian pedagogy is not well adapted to survive in the numbers-dominated academy. The new regime rewards people who can identify, and practice, behavioral strategies that please students. But that is obvious, and it is not the point I wish to make here. The point is that not all strategies of pleasing others are the same, and the new regime systematically discriminates between such strategies. Some of the things that we do that please others are displeasing to no one. They may not please everyone, but they are inoffensive. Others are pleasing to some but displeasing to others. Macomber was a master of the latter sort of strategy. It is entirely the wrong sort of strategy to be using in the numbers-dominated regime. If one student gives me a 5 (the highest score in our department) on the question about my overall effectiveness and another gives me a 1, they do not merely cancel each other out and disappear from the world. They average to a 2.5, which is substantially below average in my department. If I make one student loathe me, I have to get at least one student to love me, just to approach the semblance of mediocrity.

When such a system is linked to pay-raises for teachers, it is obvious that it will result in a massive (if subtle on the micro-level) change in pedagogical behavior. My point is not that this change represents a shift from a superior style of teaching to an inferior style. It is rather that it constitutes an arbitrary narrowing of the array of available styles. Defenders of anonymous student course evaluations sometimes point out that they have virtually done away with a certain obnoxious method of teaching, memorably embodied by John Houseman in the film and television series The Paper Chase, in which the professor motivates students to study by humiliating the ill-prepared in front of the whole class. This, I think, is substantially true. I would only point out that it does more than that. It harshly discourages the use of any pedagogical technique that can be expected to be abrasive, annoying, or upsetting to anyone. In the current regime, the most rational course is to choose strategies that are inoffensive.

Here is the obituary that appeared in the Redlands Daily Facts for July 2:

William Burns Macomber, PhD, born in Redlands on July 13, 1929, he passed away here June 21, 2009. His siblings John, Robert, and Mary Gene preceded him in death. From childhood, he was dedicated to achieving academic excellence. Upon graduating from Santa Clara University, he served 3 years in the Army during the Korean War. He then resumed his studies abroad at the University of Heildelberg and at the Institute Catholique in Paris. Returning to North America he continued his studies at the University of Toronto Pontifical Institute where he taught for 9 years and earned his PhD. His thesis on Martin Heidegger, "The Anatomy of Disillusion," was published in 1968. He taught at UCSB from 1965 to 1973. His latter years were spent in his home town of Redlands.
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