Monday, November 29, 2010

Blog LX (60): The Student Vote

Teaching is important. It is a major professional activity that graduate school does a poor job of preparing the promising scholar for once they graduate. There are plenty of journal articles, web sites, and blogs that share teaching tips and techniques. How though do you incorporate teaching into career? I do not know that that particular topic gets discussed much. So here goes.

1) Does teaching matter? The short answer to that question—as I mentioned in Blog LVII—is: yes. There is a longer more complex answer to that question, though. The importance of teaching will be a function of where you teach. It will be of little importance at a research university, while it will be crucial at a community college. In most cases, though, your advancement in the profession or at an individual institution will be based on matters other than teaching—publications and service. Teaching will still matter, but more in indirect matters.

2) Students get a vote. Education is a collaborative activity, but it is no democracy. Some faculty believe that the mission of teaching is to educate and being a popular teacher often gets in the way of that objective. Put another way, pushing students to develop their analytical and thinking skills is not the same thing as being entertaining. There is truth in that observation. There are direct correlations between grades and evaluations. Students getting high grades are far more likely to give instructors good comments, while those that are getting bad grades are going to use teaching evaluations as a form of payback. In addition, seniors are more inclined to make more positive comments than freshmen.

The natural tendency among many professors is to basically disregard student evaluations as nothing more than popularity contests. There are sound reasons to take that view, but what if you took the evaluations at face value? To some degree students are consumers and they do get to vote with their feet in the form of their enrollments. They want to learn and often eager to obtain the knowledge that the professor has to offer. It is wrong to ignore that enthusiasm. There will be students that will discover dating while in college or will be more committed to their fraternity or sorority, or will be cruising because your class is not as important as two other biology classes that are required for admission into medical school, but that should not obscure the fact that many students come to class with enthusiasm. A friend of mine was teaching at San Diego State as an adjunct, and took that attitude. He read the evaluations carefully, took them at face value, and responded to them accordingly. The result was his evaluations went up dramatically. They were so good that he was offered a new contract. He also had no problem in drawing students to his sections. That is crucial for a part-time instructor. It is also an important consideration for a new professor on the tenure track and even senior faculty. Students will avoid professors that fail to teach material they find meaningful. The result is that some faculty will find that they have difficulty in drawing students. They might not get to teach the classes they want (upper division courses in their areas of specialization) or will have to teach classes they do not want to teach (like U.S. history surveys). Faculty that have a reputation as a good teacher will often have classes that draw dozens and dozens of students. Classes that are cash cows for departments can be very important in a number of ways. They help fund graduate programs and give you influence within your department. It is also easier to get grad students admitted in your areas of specialization, if there is a documented need for students that can serve as teaching assistants for courses in those subjects. The professor that can draw in students should also—depending on the funding formula—significant influence within the department.

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