Sometime after the spring of their sophomore year, the mailboxes of college-bound teenagers begin filling with college brochures. Alongside scenic photos and smiling faces, these glossy pamphlets brag about low student-faculty ratios, small class sizes, and state-of-the art classrooms. They promise dynamic teaching, caring professors, expanded horizons.
Campus visits repeat the drill. Guides walk students through shiny new academic buildings, cite statistics on robust undergraduate research, and boast about experiential learning opportunities.
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Campus visits repeat the drill. Guides walk students through shiny new academic buildings, cite statistics on robust undergraduate research, and boast about experiential learning opportunities.
The message: We care about your education. Good teaching is important to us.
But is it?
Look past the hype, and troubling details appear. The vast majority of professors at most colleges received almost no training in graduate school on how to be effective teachers. Once hired, they quickly learn that their teaching is rarely examined, or rewarded.
Annual reviews and the tenure-and-promotion process claim to evaluate teaching, but typically lack meaningful methods for discerning whether a faculty member is an excellent teacher or simply OK. Student course evaluations — notoriously unreliable — often form the foundation of that review.
Tenure-track professors at a research university may be advised by senior colleagues to spend no more time than needed on their teaching, because scholarship is what will earn them tenure. And while teaching centers are more common than they used to be, according to a new study, only 26 percent of higher-education institutions even have one.
On top of all that, the instructional work force is now dominated by contingent faculty members, who typically carry heavier teaching loads than their tenure-track colleagues while receiving less teaching support. Yet on many campuses they perform the bulk of the work in the foundational courses that introduce millions of students to higher education.
Decades of research have shown that high-quality teaching is fundamental to student success. Students perform better in their classes and have a better college experience over all when they feel academically challenged, connected to their professors, and engaged in their coursework. But that’s hard to achieve when faculty members are discouraged from doing more than chalk-and-talk lectures.
“Good teaching matters. It really matters,” write the authors of How College Affects Students, a landmark, three-volume analysis of existing research that claims to offer “21st-century evidence that higher education works.” Overwhelmingly, they write, studies show that classroom educators “have the greatest impact on student learning,” not just when it comes to subject-matter competence, but also in terms of a student’s intellectual, cognitive, and moral development.
Yet the forces working against good teaching have had an effect. In the words of one recent study, the first of its kind to examine teaching across a range of disciplines and institutions — from liberal-arts colleges to regional public universities to research powerhouses — teaching is, more often than not, “middling.”
“If you looked at the average person outside of higher education and said, you know, ‘We’ve created a culture in higher ed where our core thing we do isn’t valued,’ that makes absolutely no sense,” says Amy Hawkins, assistant provost for teaching and academic leadership at the University of Central Arkansas, which has been working to change that dynamic on campus. “It would be like saying in a company, ‘Well, customer service isn’t really a big deal to us. We’re about product development. We treat our customers like crap.’ I mean. That’s nonsensical.”
Does the public know this? And does it care?
Surveys show that what the public values most about higher education is good teaching and meaningful learning. It’s through classes and academic programs, after all, that students and graduates engaged with college. Top-flight research and nationally known scholars bring gravitas to the enterprise. Sports and community-service projects foster school spirit and good will. But educating students is the reason college exists in the first place.
For her recent book, Great College Teaching: Where It Happens and How to Foster It Everywhere, Corbin M. Campbell, an associate professor of education at American University, commissioned a public survey asking: What is the most important factor in what makes the “best” college or university? Topping the list, 80 percent of respondents chose, “It has professors who are excellent teachers.” That was followed by: “It has students who learn a great deal” and “It has highly satisfied students.” Excellent researchers and graduates who have high-paying jobs came in far lower.
A new national poll from The Chronicle found a similar emphasis on teaching. Sixty-eight percent of respondents said that, beyond educating students for their individual benefit, it was very or extremely important for higher education to develop a well-informed citizenry. Seventy-nine percent said it was very or extremely important for higher ed to develop a skilled work force.
Yet there is no way for the public to know which colleges prioritize and support good teaching, notes Campbell, whose research found that typical college teaching is “middling.”
No easily digestible measure of teaching effectiveness exists, and colleges rarely pull back the curtain to show families what they do to elevate teaching. Nor have any outside organizations taken on this challenges.
Instead, parents and students are stuck parsing reputational rankings and guidebooks that rely on the same arbitrary metrics that colleges themselves tout. What does the student-faculty ratio or average class size really tell you about the quality of the undergraduate experience? Not much. And while new buildings are nice, they don’t indicate whether the professors inside run engaging classes.
U.S. News & World Report, for example, relies on reputation — polling presidents, provosts, and admissions deans — to come up with its list of colleges with the best undergraduate teaching. It’s not clear how those administrators would even know what goes on in other colleges’ classrooms. Research shows, in fact, that institutions that have striven to rise in college rankings decreased instructional expenses and increased marketing budgets, probably because reputation plays a significant role.
In a recent opinion essay, Campbell, who is also associate dean of academic affairs, wrote that parents would be better off ignoring rankings and instead asking questions about how much teaching counts in the tenure process and how much of a role teaching and learning centers play on campus.
Colleges may not be particularly forthcoming about how well they support teaching, but surveys suggest that the public’s well-documented disillusionment with higher education is tied at least in part to disappointment with teaching quality. When The Chronicle asked how well survey respondents think colleges do in educating students, just 40 percent over all said “excellent” or “very good,” and the share was lower for people who had some college, an associate degree, or even a four-year degree.
As families become even more keenly aware of the costs of college, Michelle Miller, a psychology professor at Northern Arizona University, wrote on her Substack, “students and their parents will increasingly perceive it as bait-and-switch to enroll and then find that your education is simply not that important in the grand scheme of things.”
Higher education’s champions are often frustrated with the public’s declining faith in the system. And to be sure, some of that disillusionment is based on misunderstandings and factors beyond colleges’ control. But focusing on those issues can lull college leaders into missing something important. Part of that growing mistrust is based in the public’s awareness of a real problem: Colleges don’t always prioritize the education of the students they claim to serve.
The system never did pay a lot of attention to good teaching, experts say. But the stakes were lower for most of the 20th century, when colleges saw themselves as gatekeepers and sorters of high-school graduates wanting to enter the world of white-collar work. If you dropped out of college because you weren’t on the right side of the grade curve, or had difficulty in class, that was on you. The myth of the natural teacher —- which often simply meant that someone was funny or charismatic or a good storyteller —- was also alive and well, which many today find puzzling.
“No one is making the argument that people are born researchers,” says Penelope Moon, director of the University of Washington’s Center for Teaching and Learning. “No, they’re taught to research, and they have support systems and funding.” In fact, she notes, researchers are often given lighter teaching loads to carve out more time for that work. Yet, she says, “there’s folks that still kind of think about teaching as something that’s inherent or genetic, and that you either have it or you don’t.”
The landscape has changed radically, of course, since the attitude of up-or-out went unchallenged on many college campuses.
College has become increasingly necessary for many people to land solidly in the middle class. It also now attracts a far more diverse group of students, whose academic preparation is all over the map. The student-success movement has brought attention to persistent gaps in graduation rates by race, ethnicity, and income. Those gaps also raise questions about whether college really does offer a leg up to everyone, or just furthers existing class disparities.
The scholarship of teaching and learning has become a vibrant, if relatively small, area of study within higher education in recent decades. Research on how students learn has presented academe with a rich body of knowledge on why certain teaching practices work well and others don’t. High on the list of strategies that have repeatedly been shown to bolster learning: teaching that is interactive, connects with students’ prior knowledge, provides regular feedback, and resonates with their values. Rarely does someone walk into a college classroom, untrained, and know how to create such an environment.
And yet, even as colleges have been put on notice that they need to shed their old ways, many have not. Critics point to a few key factors.
Teaching doesn’t increase prestige.
What counts for prestige? The powerhouse institutions — those doing high-level research and bringing in millions in federal funding — have strong national reputations. Student selectivity is another marker: High test scores and low acceptance rates add to a college’s luster. Selective colleges also benefit from attracting students who are likely to thrive no matter how many rote lectures, large classes, packed PowerPoints, or confusing assignments they must navigate.
The pursuit of teaching excellence, by contrast, has far fewer external motivators: maybe a grant here or there to study more-effective methods.
So when Campbell and her researchers dug into the question of where good teaching resides, they were curious about what they would find. Would the most prestigious institutions also have the best teaching? Would more-selective liberal-arts colleges do better than open-access ones?
She chose nine colleges and universities, including one public flagship, one highly ranked private research university, one highly ranked liberal-arts college, and several mid-ranked or broad-access institutions.
Campbell trained a group of graduate students in higher-ed programs to evaluate instructors in 732 courses on a number of components of good teaching, all of which had been shown to elevate student learning. The factors include cognitive complexity; active learning; depth of subject-matter knowledge; making connections to students’ lived experiences and prior knowledge, including culturally relevant practices; faculty members’ support of student learning, both cognitively and emotionally; and developing a positive classroom climate.
In a comparison of the prestigious flagship university to two broad-access regional public institutions, the former scored higher only on cognitive complexity. When it came to subject-matter expertise and connecting the material to students’ prior knowledge, there was no statistical difference. And the two regional publics scored higher on teaching strategies that support student learning.
In general, across all institution types, the more highly ranked institutions scored lower than their unranked peers on several key teaching practices. But such differences did not exist among the liberal-arts colleges. Teaching quality there was similar despite differences in resources and reputation. Faculty members at those colleges, Campbell notes, were also more likely than their colleagues elsewhere to say that teaching was supported on their campuses.
In short, Campbell notes, an institution’s prestige does not reflect the quality of teaching it offers. But therein lies the dilemma. If you invest in good teaching, you might not be rewarded through, say, increased enrollment, because nobody is measuring or ranking good teaching.
But what if that changed? Beyond the most competitive institutions, couldn’t some colleges benefit from a different kind of system, one that focused on how much institutions support good teaching? Based on what the public says it wants, Campbell believes so.
“If the public knew which were the better teaching colleges and universities,” says Campbell, “that might shift enrollment patterns. That would matter to institutional leaders.”
The student-success movement sidestepped teaching.
In How College Affects Students, the authors note that several studies have found a correlation between an increase in instructional expenditures and an increase in the probability of graduation. But, they report, the picture is “murkier” when it comes to increases in spending on student services and academic support, such as libraries and academic computing: Some studies have shown an increase in graduation rates, and some have not.
Yet the student-success movement of the past couple of decades has largely focused on what happens outside the classroom. There are a host of reasons why, including the well-documented need to make the undergraduate experience less opaque and remove roadblocks, all of which require bolstering offices such as mental health, financial aid, advising, and career services.
But spending on instruction has not kept pace. A Chronicle analysis shows that, on average, institutions increased their total expenses by 105 percent from 2005 to 2021. Instructional spending increased by only 93 percent. Meanwhile, growth in spending on student support and academic support outpaced total expenses in nearly every Carnegie classification.
The net effect of that shift: As a percentage of operating expenses, spending on instruction declined to 27.7 percent of the total in 2021 from 29.5 percent in 2005. During the same period, academic support grew to 8.3 percent of the total from 7.3 percent, and student support rose to 6.3 percent from 5.6 percent.
The lagging growth of instructional spending has been a long-term trend, with one driver being the rise in the use of contingent faculty members. In 1987, 47 percent of faculty members were contingent, according to data from the American Association of University Professors. In 2021, that figure was 68 percent. And almost half of all faculty members that year were employed part time.
One 2017 study noted that full-time contingent faculty members earn 26 percent less per hour than do their tenured or tenure-track counterparts. Part-time faculty members earn 64 percent less per hour.
The study, supported by the TIAA Institute and the Delta Cost Project at the American Institutes for Research, found that the money saved on salaries did not end up elsewhere in teaching. From 2003 to 2013, public four-year colleges appeared instead to spend that money on maintenance and administration, such as recruiting, admissions, financial aid, registrars, student counseling, student organizations, and athletics. Community colleges and private four-year colleges simply spent less over all.
Some faculty members feel as if they are being needlessly sidelined in the student-success conversation. Students come into more regular contact with their professors than they do with any other professional on campus, they note. And many student services are optional; attending class is not.
Plenty of academics have written about that shift in spending, sometimes framing it as administrative bloat or the rise of the “other university.” As Chad Wellmon, a professor of German studies at the University of Virginia who helped lead an undergraduate curricular reform, wrote in The Point magazine in 2021, “The Other University does not have a faculty; it has a staff with professional degrees and doctorates in higher-ed administration. The Other University does not have a curriculum; it has programming: health and wellness, multicultural awareness, community outreach, personal enrichment, and career counseling.”
Aaron R. Hanlon, an associate professor of English at Colby College, picked up on that idea in an essay this year in The New Republic. Students today, he says, study two curricula. There is the academic side of campus. Then there is the residential curriculum. Why are administrators directing students to engage with different perspectives through, say, an online training program, he asks, when they could encourage them to instead take a course in social psychology or African American studies?
Hanlon’s concern isn’t that other facets of undergraduate life aren’t worthwhile, but that college leaders have assumed that much of this intellectual-development work is better done outside the classroom. Whether it’s helping students develop time-management skills or find their purpose and vocation, those are the things that professors, given enough time and support, can do, he says.
He notes in an interview that many higher-ed leaders don’t come from a teaching background, “so they are not necessarily trusting of the faculty to deliver the whole package.” They especially are skeptical of faculty members in the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences, he says. “They’re not seeing how you can get from Chaucer to job skills. I think everybody who teaches that stuff knows that you can and you do.”
Hanlon points to his own experience in advising students. Many first-years arrive on campus with grand plans to become, say, an orthopedic surgeon or a tech entrepreneur. One semester in, they realize they don’t actually like medicine or computer science. When they get to that point, he says, “they will come to us, usually, no matter how many times you advertise resources. They’ll develop trust with us because we work with them on a routine basis.”
Hanlon acknowledges he can provide that kind of intense mentoring because he works at a place like Colby: a small, wealthy institution. And certainly there are plenty of professors who are not particularly adept at, or interested in, advising and mentoring, even with manageable teaching loads. But what if you’re one of the thousands of faculty members who work at a place where the norm is a heavy teaching load, and classrooms of 100 students or more?
In those cases, support services like professional advising are absolutely necessary. And, in fact, larger universities are at the forefront of creating data-driven, just-in-time academic support for students who might otherwise fall through the cracks.
Higher education, then, might have created one problem and tried to fix it with something else.
Colleges don’t reward teaching.
Professors who want to foster a culture of good teaching are often inspired by younger faculty members who arrive on campus much more aware of the problems that the old weed-out, lecture-heavy approach fostered. But legacy structures — such as promotion-and-tenure criteria, lack of professional-development opportunities, and attitudes of more senior faculty members — often stand in the way of turning idealism into action.
One faculty member at a highly competitive liberal-arts college, who asked not to be named because he is involved in conversations about teaching on his campus, recalls being dropped into an organic-chemistry class when he began teaching more than 20 years ago.
“There was nobody else who taught organic chemistry at that point in time for a variety of reasons,” he says. “And so, two weeks in, I went to my chair and I was like, ‘Do you need to check and see if I’m doing a good job?’ And my chair was like, ‘I haven’t heard any complaints, so I’m sure it’s fine.’”
Awareness of good teaching on his campus has improved since then, he says. The college now has a teaching center and offers teaching awards. But there remains a significant difference in how excellence in research and excellence in teaching are rewarded. The former results in endowed chairs; the latter in one-time payments. (That’s a common challenge across higher education. At research-intensive universities, in particular, teaching-focused faculty members often lack a path to advancement and are typically paid less than are their tenure-track colleagues.)
The chemistry professor continues to see junior faculty members struggle during their annual evaluations because senior colleagues don’t understand their more progressive approach in class.
He’s known of cases in which more junior professors were told to raise the scores on their student evaluations if they wanted to get a positive tenure review. “And it’s like, what are you talking about? That’s insanity” — because of how little those evaluations can correlate with strong teaching.
While students can speak to, say, a professor’s organizational skills and willingness to work with students, they understandably don’t know the work that goes into course design, or the learning science behind a classroom strategy they find uncomfortable. Active learning, for example, in which students work together on problems, has been shown to be more effective than lecturing. But students don’t necessarily like it as much. Furthermore, they might focus in their evaluations on whether the instructor is agreeable and the workload manageable. Decades of research, in fact, has shown that evaluations are higher for courses that give less work, while women and faculty of color are routinely rated lower than are their male and white peers.
Yet often the evaluations are a college’s main — or only — measure of teaching effectiveness, particularly on campuses where teaching loads are heavy, time is scarce, and enrollment numbers are precarious.
“To some extent you’re competing against the idea of keeping butts in seats,” says Nicholas Schlotter, an associate professor and chair of the chemistry department at Hamline University. Administrators are “terrified that students will leave if you actually focus on learning rather than popularity.”
This past spring Schlotter was asked to sit on a committee to reconsider how teaching is evaluated at Hamline. The emphasis now, he says, is to get the best possible scores from students on a one-to-seven scale. “Without getting sixes, you’re kind of going to get grief.” In the three-year and tenure reviews, one or two faculty members might drop by your course and see what you do, he says. “That’s pretty much it.”
Members of his committee looked at how those evaluations played out at Hamline and researched other campuses. They filed a report at the end of the academic year saying that creating something more meaningful, which they recommended, would take a lot of time and effort. “That’s the last I’ve heard of it,” Schlotter says.
The lack of response from the administration is not surprising, he says. Like a lot of campuses, Hamline operates on a tight budget, relies heavily on contingent faculty members, and has cut back on professional development, such as money to attend conferences. The campus’s teaching and learning center, which is typically the main resource for professional development at most colleges, is a small operation. Where would the time and money come from to do more? “Everyone is overworked,” he says.
Many campuses offer short workshops and seminars for professors who want to improve their teaching. And there are outside groups, like the Association of College and University Educators and the John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education, that work with institutions to help instructors incorporate evidence-based teaching practices into their work. But such training is rarely required for advancement. In fact, as Campbell has noted, instructors who focus on teaching are often found in colleges with fewer resources, while those who focus on research — and might not teach undergraduates at all — have some of the highest salaries in the sector.
What might alter this dynamic? The impending enrollment cliff for one. If colleges are already struggling to keep the students they have, reformers say, they will need to work harder to attract and retain students from a shrinking pool of applicants. For some campus administrators, that means bringing conversations about teaching’s role in student success from the sidelines toward center stage.
The pandemic also sparked such discussions. Faculty members found themselves having to take crash courses on how to rework their classes for remote learning. Talking about teaching with colleagues was a novel and revelatory experience for many, one that motivated them to experiment with new practices and think carefully about how to reach disconnected students.
Another driver is the growing body of research on teaching, particularly when looked at through the lens of race, ethnicity, and income. Hawkins, the assistant provost at the University of Central Arkansas, calls it an ethical and moral issue.
She remembers talking with a biology professor five years ago about reforming gateway courses, and having him respond by asking what the pass rates were at peer institutions. “I looked at him and said, ‘Does it matter when 78 percent of Black students are failing Bio 101? Isn’t that, ethically, enough to think that something needs to change?’” she recalls. “I mean, maybe for some people it’s just pragmatic. But I think there’s a lot of folks for whom it is an ethical issue.”
A number of national organizations have taken up this cause, framing good teaching as necessary to support an increasingly diverse student body. A 2022 report by the Boyer 2030 Commission of the Association for Undergraduate Education at Research Universities, for example, called for universities to change how they view themselves. “Defining excellence in terms of equity rather than, for example, selectivity and sorting, unsettles at least 70-odd years of practice,” the authors noted.
The Association of American Universities, the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities, and others, with the support of funders such as the National Science Foundation, have also been advocating for more use of inclusive and equitable teaching, particularly in STEM courses. In fact, Campbell noted in her book that STEM courses at the flagship research university she had studied scored higher on effective teaching practices than other disciplines did.
While national organizations might provide the spark, universities that want to change need to reframe what they do on multiple fronts, education experts say. Amy L. Chasteen, a professor of sociology at the University of Southern Mississippi who recently stepped down as executive vice provost for academic affairs, has put her training as a sociologist to use in considering how to create systemic change in teaching on her campus.
“Let’s say you’re a university president and you want to invest in teaching because you believe that people can change or be affected in how they teach,” Chasteen says. “Then where do you start? How do you motivate people when there’s no existing or pre-existing structures for reward, or any kind of a way to measure how good of a job they are doing?”
While it has evolved into a research institution, Chasteen notes that Southern Mississippi was founded as a teaching college. “There’s a general value on teaching,” she says, “but as we’ve become more and more research-intensive, it’s become less a part of the culture.” She believes that investing in teaching will help with enrollment.
“Quality teaching may not recruit students,” Chasteen says, “but it’s appealing to their families, who are more and more involved in the selection of schools and then the students’ day-to-day experience.”
Starting in 2016, her campus began putting small cohorts of faculty members through training with the Association of College and University Educators, or ACUE. The organization offers certification in effective college instruction, in collaboration with the American Council on Education, through a series of courses on evidence-based teaching practices. Groups of instructors, often from the same campus and working with their teaching-center staff, learn and practice together.
Since then, about 25 to 30 percent of all faculty members at Southern Mississippi have become fully certified. And about half have had some training. Because it requires a significant time commitment, the university created an incentive system. Those who complete certification are named distinguished teaching scholars.
Fostering good teaching has also brought tangible benefits for both faculty members and students, says Chasteen. Professors have been energized by the teaching communities created through the campus. And research has shown that students who took at least one course from a trained instructor had higher grades and higher course completion than those who didn’t. The impact on students of color was particularly noticeable, an important finding given the changing demographics of the student body, says Chasteen. “What it’s telling me is that the skills you need to teach a diverse classroom are in this training.”
ACUE has, in fact, been using that return-on-investment approach to pedagogical training to gain the ear of college leaders. In its first national conference this year, presenters encouraged faculty members to speak the language of budget officers when advocating for more professional development.
“This is the part of what we know that we didn’t before,” says Kevin P. Reilly, president emeritus of the University of Wisconsin System, who has been on ACUE’s board since 2014. “More and more research says that if your faculty are teaching effectively, that means more of your students are going to stay longer and graduate.”
Training is one thing. But deeper structural reforms are harder. One of the hardest to create: evaluation systems that capture the components of good teaching.
“We have a whole culture and structure built around the assessment and evaluation of research productivity,” Chasteen notes, including the number of publications produced and research funding brought in. “And we don’t have the equivalent when it comes to teaching.”
Some national efforts are underway to help colleges and universities with that process. The Association of American Universities, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, and others have directed attention toward reforms of the teaching-evaluation process.
Another project, Transforming Higher Education: Multidimensional Evaluations of Teaching, has designated three universities as incubators for such changes.
One is at the University of Kansas, which since 2017 has worked with faculty members across campus to create a new framework for evaluating teaching that departments can adapt to their discipline. It includes a detailed list of all the work that goes into good teaching, including well-designed coursework, clear measures of student learning, revision of teaching practices based on student outcomes, and engagement with peers on teaching.
One of the biggest challenges in measuring good teaching is the absence of a common definition or standard of what effective teaching looks like, notes Andrea Follmer Greenhoot, director of the university’s Center for Teaching Excellence. Such a framework can be a place to start. So far eight departments at the university have incorporated it into their promotion-and-tenure standards.
Real reforms of undergraduate education will need to involve moving multiple levers in coordination, including teaching evaluations, governance structures, and professional-development opportunities. In her book, Campbell reviews the strategies that faculty members and institutional leaders already have at their disposal. Colleges that truly support good teaching can collaborate with peers and broadcast their successes more loudly. Research-intensive institutions can change their reward structures, perhaps by encouraging faculty members to pursue teaching-focused research grants and acknowledging such work in the tenure-and-promotion process.
“Folks will say quality teaching is hard to measure,” Campbell says. “Quality research is hard to measure, but we do it.”
Mark E. Lee, an associate professor of biology at Spelman College, Cassandra Volpe Horii, associate vice provost for education at Stanford University, and several other authors recently laid out the complex challenge in an article focused on STEM teaching. “We think about the work force as what the students are heading toward,” says Horii. “And we haven’t so much turned that concept around to ask the question, Who is doing the work of teaching, and what creates conditions for that instructional work force to thrive?”
Many of those workers, particularly contingent faculty members, have little or no authority to make the changes needed to better support teaching, the authors note. Yet administrators can’t mandate professional development or changes in tenure and promotion, for example, because that’s seen as encroaching on faculty governance.
Many leaders might not even see it as their problem to fix. After all, they have not only survived, but thrived, in the existing system.
So whose problem is it?
“Higher education,” Lee says, “is one of the few industries that blame customers for not being ready for their service or product.”
If the public-opinion polling is any indication, the customers are no longer buying it.