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.


Matt Olver said...

That first picture of Macomber is fantastic. Sounds like a fascinating guy whose courses would have been interesting to someone like me.

"...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."

I like this educational philosophy. The professors I most remember from my undergraduate years at the UW-Madison were the ones that challenged my worldview and sometimes even abrasively forced me look at things differently. I've got some stories about that, but that's for another time and place.

Regarding the anonymous student course evaluations: I think they have their place. Where they are most effective and useful is gauging the teaching quality of teaching assistants rather than professors. When I was at the University of Wisconsin-Madison I never had one bad philosophy professor, but unfortunately I couldn't say the same about the TA's in the department. One of the UW's biggest academic problems is not having consistent standards for TA's. The lack of enforcing TA grading standards as well as their teaching standards seemed to foster an inconsistency across the board on every TA I had in any department (I had a handful of really good TA's in the philosophy department too). TA evaluations are helpful in weeding out people who aren't committed to students, their discipline, and their future profession.

matt w said...


Thanks for the post. Macomber's case sounds like a sad one. I also think that your analysis of anonymous teaching evals is on target.

Matt O-- While the problems you point to about TAs are no doubt real, I'm very skeptical that TA evaluations are an effective means of "weeding out" bad TAs. It seems to me that the evals are as problematic for TAs as they are for instructors. For instance, I've known some good TAs with mediocre evaluations and, in a couple of cases, terrible TAs with high evals.I could go on at length why I think this occurs, but it seems to me to have only a little to do with teaching effectiveness.

While it might be obvious, I thought it might be relevant to note that Lester's point has a flip-side to it. Not only are some great professors punished by student evaluations, but there is a certain type of terrible professor who is unjustly rewarded by this system. In my career as student I've come across this latter phenomenon twice (happily not at Madison). In both cases the professors were ineffective (i.e. had little knowledge of the material, didn't convey it in any substantial manner etc.) but received very high evals. In both cases the profs were (1) excessively easy graders and (2) treated any student opinions, no matter how fatuous, as pure gold. This fits with Lester's view. It seemed that the less challenging the prof was the better the evals he received.

Lester Hunt said...

Matt O.,

I am sure that student evaluation of teaching forms (SETs) of some sort might have a place in a sound scheme of teaching evaluation. The possibility that it might be more appropriate for some portion of the teaching population than for others had frankly not occurred to me.

I have to say though that I find Matt W's argument persuasive. Also, in an egalitarian culture like ours, subjecting one group to SETs while letting another group escape them would be a pretty hard sell. Whatever regime we have, it will have to be applied in some form or other to everyone in any given institution.

matt w said...

Concerning the idea of having evals for some (TAs) but not for others (profs), I have further reservations about this based on Lester's thesis. The worry, as I see it, is that the types of problems Lester raises are likely to be exacerbated in the TA setting.

I've both TAed and lectured. When I lectured, I had little personal contact with students, and the students seem to expect this. When I've TAed, however, there is much more direct contact with students. It seems to me in the latter situation, it is much more likely that factors irrelevant to teaching (charm, social grace, agreeableness, lack of controversy) will have an impact on students than the former case because of the increased amount of contact. Thus, while I don't think evals are reliable for instuctors or TAs, I suspect they might be even less reliable for TAs.

Matt Olver said...


TA's are definitely a portion of the teaching population that could still benefit from evaluations because they are still learning their pedagogical style and any input is valuable. I don't know whether these evaluations even factor in as to whether a TA gets another teaching gig the next semester so maybe I'm way off in saying they help weed out. Now whether or not evaluations are used to determine professors' tenure or salary raises the most serious question. I believe they shouldn't be weighted that seriously to prevent cases like Macomber's. If they are, students should be made aware they are serious evaluations. I knew a lot of students who didn't take them seriously. My final point is that these evaluations sometimes represent the only opinion voice a student has in a large lecture of 100+. Yes, you can visit office hours but its harder to tell a person they're good or that they suck to their face, and it's likely that won't result in any action. Sometimes it's the only influence, however little it may be, that a student has in helping things get changed or aptly praising someone who has done a good job.

Matt W,
However effective or ineffective the student evaluations are for profs and TA's they represent the student voice. I think the big question here is whether they should be weighted heavily or not at all. I could see them being beneficial in a system that gives them very little if any weight. My main point in the first post I made was that there are larger problems with instruction at the UW that involve a lack of attention to TA instruction and how their growth as teachers is evaluated and helped along. I'm glad you acknowledge that it exists because me and a host of other people could tell you some horror stories about different departments around campus.

matt w said...


There's no question that there is a problem with how TAs are handled at the UW (and across the country). I've TAed/lectured in three different departments and none really took much effort to substantively mentor TAs. I remember being quite shocked when, after about 30 minutes of pointers from older grad students, we were sent on our merry way to TA for the first time. I have also seen first hand how bad some TAs are.

My sense is that, at least at UW, student evaluations of TAs play a very large in who receives lectureships, gets funding past their 5th year, etc. I'm not aware of any TAs losing funding for an inability to teach, but I am aware of some TAs who got "called on the carpet" because of teaching inadequacy. Thus there are some measures taken to deal with the problem, but they could be improved. My worry is that the evals just aren't that effective at tracking good teaching. My sense is that empirical research backs this up. Clearly, student input is important; I just wish we had a more effective means of getting it.

I'm curious, Lester, how much of a role TA evals play when comes to faculty. My understanding was that, at a place like UW, they took a major back seat to research. Thus an individual with fairly low evals would still be granted tenure/raises if they had quality publications. Am I wrong about this?

Lester Hunt said...

Matt W,

As you probably know, there are three areas in which profs are evaluated (for raises and tenure)are 1) research, 2) teaching, and 3) "service" (ie., committee work). At a research institution this is their order of importance. Teaching is considerably less important, but it (as measured by SETs) can still make or break you. At the (far more numerous) institutions with more modest research ambitions, teaching can be just as important or more so than research. And in all cases, except when the tenure dossier is being compiled, teaching is evaluated solely (I think) by students.

Matt O,

Well, I've learned at least one thing from your comments. You seem to be saying that a lot of students don't realize that SETs are used for anything serious, like deciding how much someone is paid. That is horrifying.

Both Matts:

Thanks so much for your thoughtful comments.

One thing I've learned here is that the way we evaluate TA's is also bad. I've heard of TA's losing their TAships, but almost always as a punishment for something they've done that has no direct connection with TAing (like taking too long to take their prelims, not getting good enough grades, or accumulating too many incompletes).

Martin Cantrell said...

Martin Cantrell, also a student and teaching assistant for Bill: I'm crying sad to hear Bill died last year without me knowing it, but I shall try to make up for lost time. I remember your wonderful melodious voice when you came into the department, so enthralling that I could be entranced without really caring what it was you were saying! Bill used to sit up all night pounding away on his Royal Standard and in the morning we'd read what he'd composed, some about us, a lot about him and all tied in with the world of ideas that he was so enamored of. That was his whole shtick, to bring the great ideas to life, to our lives and his. He was a real genius and though he lived the truth that students are a teacher's life's blood, anyone who reads "The Anatomy of Disillusion" will see the validity of my acclaim. I've kept some of the things, he wrote on those endless nights, cigarette holder or joint in hand, including a book length letter he wrote me when I moved away to Seattle for a while, wondering if I should try to clean it up and try to do something with it someday. Maybe I should. I do have a different story to tell about the end of the academy for him though. He actually was the only one of all the profs hired with him who was recommended for tenure by the department, but Thanks to Gov. R. Reagan's (only) kept campaign promise to screw the UofC, the Admin. only granted a few department's wishes and not Bill. His openly spoken homosexuality to those Phil. 1 classes, and his barely veiled pot smoking made that an easy decision for them. The transcription some of his undergrad students made of the Symposium lectures was so full of life and certainly publishable except that somehow the chapter on Agathon got left out. The last I saw of him was in 1987. He lived in Berkeley
and was now Christian again, no longer Greek. He was in very high spirits, having uncovered his new goal - to publish footnotes (much needed) to "that other W.B." as he referred to W.B. Yeats and thus earn his way back into academia. Bill was the best. He taught me and many others that we could think golden thoughts. He had a great gift: although he could write and talk with the best of them, he had an even greater and more uncommon talent - as Art Linkletter, who died this week, put it (my paraphrase) 'It's all in the listening. A lot of guys can talk.' Thanks again for letting me know.

Lester Hunt said...


Thanks so much for your kind words.

You know, if one person is responsible for Bill's sacking, I think it was Harry K. Girvetz, speechwriter for Gov. Brown (the elder) and friend of Hubert Humphrey. He used his considerable clout to increase the size of the phil. dept. faculty until it was doomed to contract if the Vietnam era student draft deferment ever ended. Also, he eventually conducted a sort of campaign against Macomber, sitting in on his classes, conducting a formal interrogation of his TAs, and writing up an idiotically biased report to the department of the supposedly damaging things the we (the TAs) said.

Not long afterward, Harry died and (one can only hope) went to Hell.

Dave Private Equity Partners said...

To all,

I appreciate the blog post, and the thoughtful replies. As a former student of Dr. Hunt (25 years ago, which seems like yesterday), and veteran of several professional careers and graduate school later in life, I feel qualified to chime in on this topic.

First, nearly anyone who has graduated and moved on in life will agree that which teachers, whether assistants or professors, really mattered in the long run. This is particularly true in the humanities, where questions of value and meaning are more important than more technical instruction.

Second, students are in no position to be qualified in matters of teaching evaluations. It is the students who are to be evaluated, and if the evaluated becomes the evaluator, a kind of Heisenberg uncertainty principle issue arises, in which fairness of evaluation by both parties arises.

As a mid-career professional, I am extremely grateful for all of the advanced philosophy coursework that I was able to pursue at UW-Madison. It was the perfect complement to my other major, chemistry, which though extremely valuable, was a little sterile and lifeless.

Good luck to all who read Dr. Hunts musings here. It is very refreshing in a time when protests over "je ne said quoi" are erupting nationwide, with thousands of arrests, and no clear argument on either side of the "debate." This is precisely the kind of situation that calls for cooler, more philosophical, richer world views.

redwoodtwig said...

Thanks for posting this so that I could find it when I needed to find out where Bill was these days. I'm glad he lived as long as he did, and I'm sad he was unable to continue teaching in a formal setting where he really excelled. In a seminar or small class situation, he was great at bringing out the best in those who wanted to let it out. And sometimes he was even able to bring out more than the student had thought he or she was capable of. The first photo is exactly right, that's the fully engaged philosopher. The last time I saw him was in 1974, when he was living in Oakland, not from from the UC Berkeley.

The reason I was searching for him was something he said in one of the many time I was in the group around him doing philosophy. I can't be sure of the exact words, but it went something like

"When doing philosophy, nothing else is more important, nothing should interrupt exploring the great ideas. Unless, of course, you have to catch a plane."

And this thought tied in with what I wanted to say about Tai Chi Chuan in my blog called Doing the Flow where I've put a link back to here, if that's ok with you.

Brandon Smith

Lester Hunt said...

Oh, that's definitely ok with me! So you became a photographer and Tai Chi instructor in Missouri -- bet there's an interesting story behind that.

menoeceus said...

Thanks for posting the story about Prof. Macomber. I was a philosophy major at UCSB from 1969 to 1972 and remember him well. Unfortunately for me, I didn't take any courses from him, but I appreciated that there was another approach than the standard one of linguistic analysis pursued at that time.