Tuesday, July 06, 2010


Recently I was reading some online discussions about student opinions re. recent cuts in instructional staff owing to budget woes at various major research universities in the US. I read complaints from students who were upset at the loss of beloved (mostly non-tenure track) instructors, and who were angry that their universities did not give these instructors tenure so that these good teachers could stay instead of the loser professors who were tenured. An oft-repeated opinion was that universities should consult students about hiring, firing, and tenure decisions, and that the lack of consultation of students indicates that universities treat students "like children" by not involving them in personnel decisions.

This relates to yesterday's post in that it involves student perception of the goals and structure of a research university and the work done by professors at such universities.

Most of us teach, do research, and participate in professional and institutional service, but undergraduates have little idea about these other aspects, and don't have the information or expertise to evaluate faculty in these other respects. You would think that undergraduates at a research university would be well aware that their professors spend a lot of time doing research, but some don't seem to give this much thought.

I fully support the inclusion of students in some aspects of the hiring and promotion of faculty who teach and advise students. Students should be encouraged to attend interview talks and to participate in discussion opportunities with candidates, and to give their views on candidates for tenure and promotion (but see here and here for what this involves and why it can be complicated).

Student opinion should be one piece of information considered along with all the other factors in hiring and promotion/tenure decisions. If a candidate is rude or patronizing to students, or if a tenure-track faculty member has a consistent record of poor teaching (as demonstrated by a variety of evaluation methods), this is important information.

For students, however, to criticize a university for not bestowing tenure on their favorite teacher (whether tenure-track or not) shows a lack of understanding of all the elements involved in personnel decisions. I am not going to get into the complicated general issue of the large numbers of non-tenure track instructors at universities, or the economic factors and implications of this situation. Nor am I implying that universities always make the best and most fair personnel decisions, whether or not in an economic crisis. Clearly they do not.

Nevertheless, I think that for students to feel "infantilized" by a university for not being consulted more in employment decisions shows a misunderstanding of what is involved in faculty jobs.

I can understand the frustration of students who, after all, are reacting to the loss of a talented teacher, but I don't feel "infantilized" when my medical clinic hires doctors without consulting me and other "customers" of the clinic, despite the fact that my health and life may be at stake in these decisions. I have to trust that the powers-that-be know what they are doing, know how to evaluate excellence in medical personnel, and will (try to) make the right decisions. So it is with other professions. Academe is not special in this respect.

Even so, I think it is good for students to speak up when a valued teacher's contract is terminated or a talented teacher is not awarded tenure. I have seen such decisions overturned, including in tenure cases, owing to the actions of a group of articulate and well-organized students. The important thing in these cases is that the students convincingly explained and documented the major positive impact that these instructors had on them, rather than just going on the internet to trash their university administrators because an instructor who is "a really cool guy" lost his job.

Is there a way to avoid misunderstandings like this in personnel decisions at universities so that students don't feel so angry when an apparently inexplicable decision is made regarding the employment status of an excellent teacher? Probably not, but those of us at universities could do a better job of explaining our jobs to students, and students who are critical of university personnel decisions could make an effort to find out more about what is involved in the jobs of various species of professor.

If a university seems to have made a truly unfair and bad decision about the hiring/firing/continuation of a beloved teacher, even in an economic crisis, I hope concerned students will speak up in a clear and convincing way and gather as many like-minded people (students, faculty) as possible to do the same; these efforts might have an effect.


Comrade PhysioProf said...

Are you fucking kidding me? Undergraduate students in a university are the same as passengers on a train. Sit down and shut the fuck up, and we'll tell you when you get to your motherfucking stop.

a physicist said...

When I was an undergrad at a large school, two beloved assistant profs in my department were denied tenure. They were awesome teachers (I was fortunate to have them both). I'm not sure why our campus was different in this respect, but we the undergrads understood that this was a research-related decision. We were upset but the message I learned, as an undergraduate, was that research was more important to our school than teaching. As I grew older this realization became more nuanced: both research and teaching are important, but before one gets tenure, doing an adequate job teaching is probably fine. After one gets tenure, one can aim for stellar teaching.

Another way to put this: teaching well can take up as much time as you have to give. There's always more you can do to improve your teaching. It is important not to let teaching consume all of your time as an assistant professor.

None of this is to cast aspersions on the research skills of my two former profs who were denied tenure; one of them, I heard, had a very significant paper published shortly after he was denied tenure, and that paper might have made his case had it come out earlier. (This is what I heard through the grapevine.) I really don't know the details of their particular tenure cases, other than that their teaching was top-notch.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

When I get frustrated and think "they don't understand that my job is not all about teaching," I try to take a step back and realize that, for them, that's the ONLY important thing, and with good reason. The closest thing to a solution that I've found is to take advantage of highly-structured research classes to do some research and writing of my own, step by step, right along with them, and to share my own findings and frustrations as we go along. Students rarely collaborate in humanities research, but I can cultivate a sense of shared endeavor.

Anonymous said...

I dunno. UGs pay a lot of money for a service and it's not that easy to switch to another place if they feel they are getting screwed.

Thus, it makes perfect sense for them to try whatever recourse they have to keep their favorite teachers employed.

Also, I think it's perfectly reasonable to give excellent teachers who don't do much/any research the same job security as other faculty (eg tenure). I'm a huge FSP fan, but I have sensed a tone of entitlement when this topic has come up.

EliRabett said...

Taking the other side, why don't you educate the students about what how your university works and what faculty do? For example, bring other faculty into your introductory course for short, (15 minute) lectures about their research when you are at an appropriate part of the course.

Anonymous said...

A couple of things on the doctor analogy. First, doctors are hired and fired for the same qualifications you desire in them. You are looking for a good doctor and so is the hospital. A university is looking for good researchers, but students are paying for good teachers. It would be nice if you could explain that you are a researcher too, but why would they care? A great researcher doesn't benefit them much. Second, if the hospital fires your favorite doctor, with whom you have developed a relationship, you can vote with your feet and your cash. I supposed students can too, but it's a lot harder. This is why I always recommend that students considering a large university go to a community college first and transfer when a large university with expert professors actually has benefits to offer.

chemdoc said...

While I agree with some of what you said, I am not in complete agreement.

Students (and often their parents) pay substantial tuition to attend most Research I universities - and they attend primarily for an education. Yet terrible teaching is often forgiven when a professor brings in large grants. In these cases the students have every right to complain.

Students, in fact, do have one way to be involved in the selection of who recieves tenure - they can choose to attend a different university. (Voting with their feet and their wallets.)

I do not generally see students as "consumers" because I tend to see them as the product and their future employer as the consumer, but if they pay tutition, they do deserve solid teaching.

Anonymous said...

As the previous poster so directly stated, undergraduates are essentially customers. If a university develops a reputation retaining "uncaring" faculty, it may lose potential customers to competitor institutions.

The marketing mix that a university chooses is supposedly the best balance of undergraduate, research and other goals. All of which are not necessarily the priority of undergrads or their families.

My personal belief is that cohorts that are already highly motivated and experienced are less in need of a "teacher" are able to function highly with a facilitator. Conversely, lower level courses are in greater need of qualified instruction to maximize the learning experience. It is the role of administration to identify faculty that is best suited each role.

Clarissa said...

When I was in my first grad school, my department hired a new tenure track person. Students hated her and started leaving the department in droves. She kept getting horrible evaluations (this is a very very ignorant person I'm talking about) but the department didn't care. The students wrote petitions explaining that she couldn't teach them anything. Eventually, she got tenure. Now she is the Chair, and our department that used to be very respected and even admired has become the joke of our academic field.

The point of the story is that while I agree with you about students not being capable of making an informed hiring decision, at some point the university has to start caring about their complaints and protests. If for years students keep pointing out that somebody is a horrible educator, it cannot be a good sign.

Anonymous said...

I do think students should have some input in promotion/firing of professors who teach them. Yes, teaching is not the only job of a university professor, but it is still one of his/her job responsibilities -- even if you and many of the people who comment here don't seem to think very much of its importance. If a professor is doing exceptionally well in that aspect of their work, it should be acknowledged and taken into account in promotion/firing decisions. Likewise if he is failing miserably at that aspect of his job. This is especially true for the job of teaching/mentoring graduate students. Too often a professor's accomplishments as a teacher and/or mentor are given little or no weight in tenure/promotion/firing/hiring decisions, because the people who are best able to shed light on those parts of the professorial job -- i.e. the students -- are not even asked to do so. In my opinion, this is a big mistake.

The Lesser Half said...

three thoughts:

1. The underlying problem is that students at R1 universities dont understand how R1's work, and perhaps more effort should be made to make sure they do?

2. The student viewpoint is focused on a fraction of the duties of faculty members, but it is a unique and near-expert opinion on that one aspect. So perhaps having students involved is not a bad idea.

3. In the end, even though I am one of those lost and lamented "favorite" temp teachers, I agree with CPP. I dont want anyone's future decided by hung-over 18 year olds who have only gotten 8 hours of sleep in the past week.

phelind said...

I did my undergrad at a small, private university. I was asked by the faculty in my department to sit on a student advisory committee for the college. Two students from each department met maybe once a semester for lunch with the deans and I really felt like the administration was listening to us. It would be easy to implement the same thing at any university, large/small, public/private, research/teaching.

Anonymous said...

And no one ever complains about lousy train service or demands improvements in that service.

Alex said...

Some schools have full-time lecturers who spend most of their time teaching undergrads rather than doing research, and these people can get tenure. (They call it something else, but it amounts to the same thing.) Seems perfectly reasonable to me to have different tracks for people doing different things that are of significant value to the school.

On student input into layoffs, I actually sympathize with them. Bad teachers often get tenure over the objections of students, and then good teachers get laid off because they weren't on the tenure track but were doing excellent work for the students, and the students are paying tuition all the while. Too often, the actual quality of teaching doesn't get factored into tenure and promotion decisions. If you want to argue that student evaluations aren't the best way to measure the quality of teaching, so be it, but then some other measure of teaching quality, some good measure, needs to get real weight.

My school claims to focus on undergraduate education rather than research, but what it really means is that research isn't a significant factor in most tenure decisions, and on teaching we have to put a lot of stuff into our file but it isn't clear how meaningful it really is. I see mediocre teachers with tenure, and I don't blame students for being upset.

a physicist said...

Regarding anon 8:55's point, that a great researcher doesn't benefit students very much: One argument I hear often is that you want good researchers in the classroom, that good research helps enrich the teaching. There is an interesting paper that calls this into question:

"Does faculty research improve undergraduate teaching?" by M. J. Prince et al., Journal of Engineering Education 96, 283 (2007). I can't seem to link to the article directly without a library subscription to the journal, but this link might work to find the article for those of you with a library subscription.

On the other hand, a great researcher benefits graduate students who work with them (assuming that the great research is also a decent mentor which of course is not necessarily the case).

Stephanie said...

Dude, going to a university is really expensive and those students are going to spend decades paying off their student loans for the classes they take. If you actually sit down and calculate the cost per lecture, it is very very expensive. Others commentors have raised good points about how UG's are NOT customers, and I believe FSP has mentioned this in her previous posts.

Course, many UG's skip classes all the time and don't do homework so probably don't care about getting their money's worth, but probably because they aren't paying for it. I was and boy did that make me not miss my classes.

Maybe for some students, having a UG dept with great research is important, but for most, they just want to have good teachers. This is understandable for how much they pay. So you telling them that they should just deal with crappy teaching because those crappy teachers are great researchers is not going to help them understand. People teaching should be good at teaching and be there because they want to, not because it is a requirement for their cushy academic job.

IMO, what really needs to happen is that universities need to have tenured teaching jobs and tenured research jobs as well as the standard teaching/research. Then only have people teach who want to teach. I think this will make a huge difference and probably also help with recruiting more people into science. There are other changes that I think would help with the quality of university teaching, like, for example, actually learning how to teach at some point rather than just diving into it, but if at least you want to be in the classroom, that has to help.

a physicist said...

... and to support Stephanie's point, here's an interesting article that is posted on the web by the author: Felder, Richard, "The Myth of the Superhuman Professor."
J. Engr. Education, 82(2), 105-110 (1994).

I think there are people who are both great researchers and teachers, but not nearly enough to fill all of the top-tier schools who claim that that's the only kind of people they will hire.

Dr. Lisa said...

The non-tenure track lecturers that often are the first to be laid off in a budget crisis are also those who teach the large departmental service courses - intro chemistry, general physics, etc... Undergraduates hear the talk that the tenured profs do not like to teach the large service courses, and so when these lecturers are fired, the newer students have likely lost the only people they've had contact with in the department. And, these are the same people who wanted to teach them when the profs who are left behind did not.

Note: I'm not saying this is true of ALL faculty. But the students do hear the rumblings of how Professor X only wants to teach the 10-person section of his/her specialty, whereas Lecturer A teaches 200-people every semester.

Anonymous said...

What I'd like to know is how much good teaching really impacts the future success of students. I certainly remember some of my favorite professors and classes in college. I also remember that when I used that material in actual jobs later on, I learned a lot more from direct application to real problems than I ever did from the class itself.

So how much difference does a "great" teacher actually make compared to a merely "good" one? And is that difference as big as the difference that a "great" researcher makes compared to a "good" one?

(Note: I suspect great high school teachers can have a huge impact on the future of their students. I'm much more skeptical about great college instructors.)

Janus Professor said...

CPP - you are toooo funny! I'm driving the crazy train w/Black Sabbath here.

yolio said...

I don't think that they are so much confused about the purpose of universities as they fundamentally disagree with the mission statement. They think that universities should be teaching institutions.

I have to say, I tend to agree that overall the modern university is doing a worse and worse job of combining its missions to do research and to educate the next generation. And it is clearly the students who are getting the short end of the stick.

Alex said...

There's all this talk of educating students on how an R1 works. What will we tell them?

"You will spend a lot of money on tuition. The classes that you'll get in return will be taught by people who have certainly demonstrated a deep knowledge of their field, but may or may not have exhibited any interest in or capability for teaching about it. Some of them certainly will, but not all, and we won't base personnel decisions on their teaching. Oh, we'll pretend to, and if there's a truly outrageous situation in the classroom we might (or might not) deny tenure based on it, but otherwise we will base the decision entirely on research."

Yeah, I'm sure the students will be very understanding.

Look, there are good arguments for making research a substantial part of the tenure decision. Expertise and engagement with the field matter a lot for maintaining a cutting-edge curriculum. Research accomplishments are absolutely crucial for offering a graduate program (and graduate students are students just as much as undergrads). And faculty can and should involve undergrads in their research. However, while all of these things are good arguments for making research a major component of a tenure decision, these are not valid reasons to make teaching a minimal/non-existent part of the decision.

A while back in these comments I asked FSP if teaching mattered for tenure at her school. She said that a bad teacher would probably not get tenure at her school, and I take her at her word. However, let me offer some scenarios and ask questions of everyone who thinks students "just need to understand how an R1 works":

Suppose that assistant professor #1 is doing research that is of excellent quality, but maybe not of the same quantity as most people who get tenure in the department. This person is also an excellent teacher (as demonstrated by whatever method you deem meaningful for measuring teaching quality).

Assistant professor #2 is doing research that is definitely at the level you'd expect for tenure (i.e. not a marginal case) but is typical of a good department rather than exceptional by the standards of the department. This person is also a mediocre classroom teacher.

1) Should Professor #1 get tenure at an R1?
2) Will Professor #1 get tenure at an R1?
3) Should Professor #2 get tenure at an R1?
4) Will Professor #2 get tenure at an R1?

Me, I would say that Professor #1 should get tenure, but I am too cynical to be confident that he or she will get tenure. I don't think that Professor #2 should get tenure, but I am quite confident that Professor #2 will get tenure.

Alex said...

I love all these comments on how students just need to understand how an R1 works. I'll agree that there are important reasons why research must be a major component of the tenure decision (in brief, sustained expertise is necessary for a cutting-edge curriculum, graduate programs are impossible without active research, and opportunities for research involvement are great for undergrads) but it seems that teaching is more of a check-box at research universities--as long as it isn't really bad (and sometimes even if it is), the decision is based on research.

I once asked FSP if teaching matters for tenure in her department. She replied that a bad teacher would be unlikely to get tenure in her department, and I take her at her word. However, let's push this farther with 2 scenarios (and this is for everyone, I'm not just trying to put FSP on the spot).

Professor #1 is doing research that is of high quality, but the quantity is a bit lower than what you usually find in the department. Professor #1 is also a truly excellent and hard-working teacher, as demonstrated by whatever metrics you consider valid evidence of teaching prowess.

Professor #2 has a research program that is typical of the department (not a marginal case, but not an outstanding case either). Professor #1 is mediocre in the classroom and while none of the complaints are too serious, there isn't much to praise either.

Which of these people should get tenure? Which of these people will get tenure?

If you want to mix it up a bit, Professor #1 also includes a lot of undergrads in the research group, and these students make meaningful results that have resulted in co-authorship on peer-reviewed papers. Professor #2 rarely involves undergrads in the research.

Do these facts change any of your answers?

engineering girl said...

Another nuance is that there's a difference between being a good introductory science teacher, and being a good teacher at organizing a graduate level course that could impact where a graduate student's thesis is going. I had one professor who was absolutely brilliant but could not explain introductory concepts to college sophomores to save his life. His graduate level courses where the audience was graduate students specialized in the field was amazing though, and to have the guy as a thesis advisor would have been a privilege. He's brilliant and a nice guy, hands down.

Research ability is probably somewhat correlated with ability to teach specialized graduate level courses, but not so much introductory courses. One could argue that the graduate level teaching is more "important" in that it directly impacts those who are beginning their academic careers. A bad graduate experience could break someone's academic career. However, I don't think anyone will be scarred for life because their professor didn't explain the periodic table very well.

That being said, undergraduates are paying tuition, and they are paying tuition to learn. Personally, I didn't mind a brilliant researcher who didn't have the best communication skills, if he/she showed reasonable effort in teaching, concern for students, and just generally had respect for his/her teaching responsibility.

Doctor Pion said...

You do realize that the university goes to great lengths to be sure its students don't know who is teaching them, right? They don't send Comrade PhisoProf to talk to them at orientation! No one would dare tell freshmen that lecturer or post doc or grad student is teaching them because undergrad education is not the primary mission of a research university.

This dilemma is the reason you really should use that teachable moment in your class (previous blog entry) to explain that research makes up the majority of your assignment of duties and was decisive in your being hired in the first place. (You might even tell them its significance.) Be sure to explain to them that you take your teaching seriously and appreciate that they assumed it was a teaching award, but the university like yours puts more importance on research than they could ever guess. (If you know the ratio of research grants to tuition, you might mention that as well. I looked at that back in July 2008 and some major R1 universities were pushing 50% research even when their hospitals were excluded from the calculation.) I'm sure that most undergrads think research is a minor enterprise if they even know it exists at all, not one that dwarfs football. And most probably think research has no value, particularly if they watch political talk TV.

Anonymous said...

I am all in favor with the idea of undergraduate input into tenure decisions. At least, I would be if I thought they could even recognize good teaching. Most students seem to want to feel like they learned a lot, but without actually having to do any work. Oh, yeah, and an A. They definitely expect that. But a challenging course where you have to read something? Or think? Or solve problems that you can't answer with wikipedia? Please.

Of course, there are exceptions. But those exceptional students are drowned out by the voice of mediocrity.

We have two very popular lecturers in my department. One is 20 years out of date, the other has only the shakiest grasp of the fundamentals of his field. They are both very nice people, but worthy of tenure?

Alex said...

engineering girl-

I agree that if somebody is a great researcher and graduate-level classroom teacher, and if the department has enough people and classes to go around so that this brilliant graduate-level instructor can just do that, then it might make sense to give tenure. Especially if they are offset by some people who are great at teaching freshman classes but aren't as good at teaching grad classes.

However, I disagree with you on this:

"One could argue that the graduate level teaching is more "important" in that it directly impacts those who are beginning their academic careers. A bad graduate experience could break someone's academic career. However, I don't think anyone will be scarred for life because their professor didn't explain the periodic table very well."

Although classes are an important part of grad school, they are far from the most important part, and grad students are supposed to be in a stage of their career where they can start learning a lot of things on their own. However, a bad freshman instructor could easily cause somebody to change majors and leave science altogether. Moreover, freshman are nowhere near as independent as grad students, and are far more in need of good instructors.

Also, to Dr. Pion, you write:
"(If you know the ratio of research grants to tuition, you might mention that as well. I looked at that back in July 2008 and some major R1 universities were pushing 50% research even when their hospitals were excluded from the calculation.)"

This is true of natural sciences, engineering, health care fields, and some social sciences. It's probably slightly less true of math. And it certainly isn't true of humanities and some social sciences. Despite that, there are plenty of lousy teachers who got tenure in math and humanities departments because they published brilliant articles.

Anonymous said...

Teaching should be the only thing that college teachers do. Research universities do not make good colleges. I would never attend one.

Helen Huntingdon said...

I just can't muster up much sympathy for students who don't do the minimal investigation to understand the difference between a teaching-only institution and and R1 university before choosing schools, especially given how widely-touted class size is as a measure of teaching quality.

I went to a community college for the first half of my bachelor's. I did some checking and found out they carefully matched the first two years of the STEM curriculum of the nearby R1 university and worked closely with them to make sure all courses in that area would transfer seamlessly and fulfill the same prerequisites. Plus a CC is teaching-only, and this one had a third the class size, a third the tuition, and free parking on top of it.

A lot of my CC classmates chose smaller schools for the latter half of their degrees for similar reasons. I chose the R1 because I wanted access to research opportunities not available elsewhere.

Helen Huntingdon said...

I just found out a teaching-only instructor in my department just had a change of title. I suspect this was at least partly a move to protect him from budget cuts, since the students universally regard him as the best instructor in the department.

Probably only partly though -- he's still not tenure-track and has no interest in it, but he does a huge service component along with teaching, so he's far from an adjunct. I'm not sure what exactly his new title means, but it probably is intended to recognize that.

Helen Huntingdon said...

My personal belief is that cohorts that are already highly motivated and experienced are less in need of a "teacher" are able to function highly with a facilitator.

That makes sense. A big part of the benefit of my two years in a CC was the group of classmates I went through with. I fell in with a group of ex-military types and we did a lot of hauling each other through the rough spots. All of us did this at some point, but fortunately not all at once.

gasstationwithoutpumps said...

"At least, I would be if I thought they could even recognize good teaching."

In our school of engineering, two non-tenured instructors consistently get voted the best teachers by the graduating seniors. They also have some of the highest rates of failing students and a reputation for not putting up with nonsense from students. They also know their material well and are very, very dedicated to teaching it. The engineering students appreciate that, at least by the time they are seniors.

Madscientistgirl said...

Let me throw another couple considerations in.

1. Other forms of mentoring than just teaching are also important. I think one of the goals of faculty at a research university is to demonstrate to students what someone in their profession does. Faculty who are excellent teachers are great for introductory classes and for non-majors, but when I wanted to work in a lab, I wanted faculty around who could actually show me (or manage a lab with students and post docs who could show me) how to do lab work. I wanted more than book learning. Some of my favorite/best/most effective mentors were/are terrible classroom teachers. (I still wouldn't want to take a class with them.) There are great faculty to work for in a lab who are lousy teachers AND there are excellent teachers who are terrible to work for in a lab. I had excellent teachers whom I would never have trusted to figure out which classes I needed to take to graduate on time, or which research internship I should take, how to prepare for the GRE, etc. Also, my least favorite undergraduate teacher was an excellent mentor and research supervisor to one of my good friends. These things can be very individual and one has to be sure a vocal minority doesn't lead to an unfair evaluation.

2. Grad students are students too. Many of the derisive comments directed at bad teachers refer to undergraduate teachers. It's more important at the graduate level that faculty be able to do research.

3. Many teachers improve, particularly after their first couple semesters teaching a class entirely on their own. I've heard my favorite teacher in grad school - a teacher who made quantum field theory not just manageable but fun - was terrible his first semester. So student complaints that someone is a terrible teacher should be looked at in context.

4. Students are not always in the best position to evaluate what's best for them. They are there to learn for a reason - because they don't know everything already. Yes, their input matters - but their opinions are not always informed. Sometimes a teacher is experimenting with a new method and that method fails - this is valuable and globally helps us improve teaching, but stinks for the students who are the guinea pigs. But also, students like what is familiar but what is familiar doesn't always work. Students used to lectures often complain about more interactive teaching - but five years after they took the class, they remember more. Immediately after they take the class, they won't know or appreciate that.

5. Students may not know what a teacher was doing for them due to department politics. I've gone to bat for students (as a TA) and argued with the professor over a grade I thought was unfair or argued that a lab needed significant improvements - but I don't tell the students when I'm arguing with a professor on their behalf. A professor can be required to teach a class with a poorly designed (but department-mandated) curriculum. These mitigating factors are likely known to the faculty, but probably should remain unknown to undergraduates.

muddled grad student said...

If a prof is a bad undergraduate teacher it not only means that he/she has poor communication skills, they are also are unable to impart their knowledge on their students. Wouldn't it then follow that they going to do as poorly in presenting their research work and supervising and guiding their grad students/post docs etc? Either that or they are actually good in these things but don't care about their teaching that they don't prepare at all. There should be some weight given to the teaching aspect, as if research is all these profs care about then why can't they work in research institutes? If undergraduates are denied good lecturers who get them excited about their fields then even the very academically minded of them wouldn't go on to do research.

Anonymous said...

I have to agree that students are not always best able to judge what is good for them, especially in evaluations directly after a course.

I recently receiving student evaluations for a course I team-taught with a senior professor. He is (in my opinion) an excellent teacher whose teaching I remember well from when I was a student (long ago). He is one of those people who can explain difficult concepts and really make people think. His lecture slides (free to download from the course web site) contain a lot of diagrams, images and small amounts of text, but not a lot (of text) and no full sentences.

I on the other hand was new the course and not fully comfortable with the material, so I stuck closely to the textbook and had rather boring slides with lots of text, and said little that wasn't already written down. I also included a summary at the end that listed what the student "should" learn from the lecture (i.e. what was on the exam).

I was greatly surprised then when a fully 3/4 of the student rated my teaching higher than my co-teacher's. They liked that I followed the textbook and included most things on the slides (so they didn't need to write anything down, or listen to me, or even show up for the class really). They also liked that I told them exactly what they needed to know for the exam. They preferred the simple list of things to memorize over the "learning" they were required to do with the othe professor.

This was an intermediate-level undergraduate course (mandatory for majors). It is my feeling that after some years, the students will remember more of what they learned from my co-teacher (which required more effort from them), and will regard him as a better teacher than they do now, at least if they are still interested in the general subject area. I do believe undergraduates are capable of judging good teachers, but not necessarily all of them and often not without some time to reflect, and also to see what they really retain after time has passed.

Colleen said...

I would imagine undergrads think this way because they pay the university, therefore you, to teach them. Because of this, they don't really care about anything else you do, as long as you teach well.

I would also agree that sharing how the university actually works would be beneficial. I remember many students complaining about this or that improvement project they wanted done, not realizing that this building needed 1/4 million, while this one would get a lot more done, with a lot more student usage, for $100,000. They just don't know these things, and how can they if no one tells them?

In addition, it is incredibly difficult for students to "vote with their feet", because that usually involves moving, financial aid packages, parents, and paperwork, not just shopping elsewhere. And yes, students are somewhat of an expert on teaching ability.

Even if you are a primary research university, you are still a university, and that involves education.

Colleen said...

Also, not many of us are really drunks or partiers. Personally, I did not drink or party in undergrad, and I usually got plenty of sleep.

Please keep your ad hominem arguments to yourself.

Bagelsan said...

Undergraduate students in a university are the same as passengers on a train. Sit down and shut the fuck up, and we'll tell you when you get to your motherfucking stop.

Ideally these particular passengers, once they reach that stop, should be well on their way to knowing how to operate a train though, right? Some of these undergrads are going to be faculty and researchers and administrators themselves. Telling adult humans (and yes, even undergrads are adult humans!) to "sit down and shut the fuck up" is going to result in some very poorly trained and educated people...

...which I'm sure profs will then bitch about some more ("why can't students take responsibility and think for themselves!?")

Madscientistgirl said...

Maybe let me put it this way - you're paying for a 1995 Buick park avenue with 240,000 miles on it. You're getting a 2003 Toyota Corolla with 80,000 miles on it. You're expecting a brand new BMW.

Anonymous said...

Madscientistgirl, I love the analogy!

GamesWithWords said...

The nice thing about the American education system, is that if you want to go to a school where professors are hired and fired based on their teaching ability, you can. Not everyone has to go to a research university if they don't want to.