I’m a liberal white faculty member, and I have a confession: I have no idea why other liberal white faculty members claim to be so afraid of their liberal students. In the past few months, anonymous (and sometimes not) white professors have started airing these fears, or re-airing them, as they are reminiscent of old complaints. The campus culture, they claim, has grown toxic, with faculty members carefully paring their syllabi to avoid any potentially uncomfortable material. A specter, they will tell you, is haunting universities -- the specter of political correctness, or radical liberalism, or identity politics.
The latest of these accounts, published recently in Vox under the pseudonym Edward Schlosser, is particularly unconvincing. Schlosser, an ostensibly liberal professor, conflates real problems -- the shifting of higher education toward a consumer experience (explained and deflated well here by Rebecca Schuman) and the absence of job protection for contingent faculty -- with ghosts conjured by paranoia. The generality of Schlosser’s writing doesn’t pass the sniff test; for example, he claims, “Personal experience and feelings aren't just a salient touchstone of contemporary identity politics; they are the entirety of these politics.”
That sentence doesn’t stack the deck so much as it replaces it entirely. And the oddly random anecdotes of feelings-driven radical liberalism don’t add up; as in many invocations of the dangers of student liberalism, Twitter is a central go-to demon. The fundamental irony of Schlosser’s essay is that he criticizes overreliance on emotional responses that students have, but the fear he describes ultimately seems like an overreliance on an emotional response by some white faculty members. Criticism from students -- whether it’s over the reading choices, the assignments, the in-class dynamic -- isn’t new, even if it develops out of students’ political perspectives or not. Instructors have to learn to meet that criticism and engage it respectfully.
Finally, people of color are starkly underrepresented among full-time faculty members and face authority challenges in the classroom that white male faculty do not, so the growing concern about what the white professoriate can and cannot say seems laughable to me. Plus, for what it’s worth, I’m a white male instructor unprotected by the tenure track, but I don’t feel the fear Schlosser describes, and my academic friends and colleagues, both tenured and not, at a wide variety of institutions, either don’t feel this fear or don’t confess it to me.
All that said, I do think Schlosser’s concern comes from meaningful, important questions: How do faculty members teach controversial material in an open, respectful forum where students can learn? And how can white male instructors approach issues of race, gender and sexual orientation with sensitivity? I teach first-year writing, creative writing and the personal essay, so each semester I regularly teach (and encounter in student writing) controversial material. If a student has raised a complaint about my handling of that material, it hasn’t been mentioned to me. I don’t assume to know every experience that might arise in the humanities classroom; I also can’t claim I’m the exemplar of how to encounter controversial issues in the classroom. Based on my experience, though, I have suggestions below on how Schlosser and other fearful faculty can teach controversial material.
Know, and admit, the limits of your authority. All instructors try to prepare as comprehensively as possible, but we all enter the classroom with our blind spots, our little (and sometimes big) ignorance. If you help students understand both the background of knowledge you bring as well as the uncertainties and questions you ask of a subject, they likely will understand your perspective more fully and engage with the questions you want them to consider. You won’t lose authority; rather, they’ll grow to see, via your model, how they can enter into complex problems and develop their own authority. They’ll also recognize the limits of their own knowledge, and that knowledge is fluid and limited.
Know, and admit, the extent of your authority.Faculty members are overwhelmingly, disproportionately white; department chairs more so. That’s the main reason I can’t take seriously this anonymous fear of retribution from liberal students: even at colleges with less diverse student populations, students still find more diversity among their peers than on the faculty. The resistance some white faculty members feel from students is, among other things, likely resistance to discovering the university as an ostensibly open environment that is still a sometimes unwelcome one for students of color. Even if we’re trying to be welcoming, white faculty members, myself included, are part of the problem, whether we like it or not. (NB: We should not.) Acknowledging that disparity as part of the process of teaching difficult material can help students discuss that material openly.
Know your place -- or, rather, know the place you’re in. While earning my Ph.D., I taught at an urban campus in the Midwest. In one first-year writing course, a student argued that affirmative action has given unfair opportunities to African-American students. In the course of the conversation, I asked the students what percentage of the student body they thought was African-American. One student, from a rural area, guessed 50 percent; no student guessed less than 25 percent. When I told them the percentage was actually under 10, well under the demographics of the city, state and nation the university was home to, they refused to believe me. (Had they looked around the room, they would have seen a single African-American student among the 18 of them.) When I showed them the university’s website, the look of confused resistance that spread on their faces appalled me; one student continued disagreeing, saying there must be some mistake with the website -- an administrator had told him it was 25 percent.
Had I been more aware of the place I was in, I would have understood their reactions better. A colleague reminded me later that the university was bordered on two sides by predominantly African-American neighborhoods; the custodial staff and service workers on campus were also largely African-American. Many of the students came from predominantly white neighborhoods and rural areas; they’d never seen so many African-Americans, so their imaginations likely multiplied those numbers.
Wherever we are, we should remember that academe is a shorthand for extraordinarily diverse kinds of universities. That’s why many of us resist when longtime tenured faculty from elite universities describe their experience as universal, a useful reminder that advanced age and advanced degrees don’t necessarily confer wisdom. Knowing your own college or university culture more intimately will help you work more directly with your students, whether the subject matter is controversial or not.
Recognize your own emotional reactions. Fear has a way of magnifying itself. Just because you’re afraid doesn’t mean the thing you’re afraid of is real. Along those lines, I’m skeptical of those who posit a split between the intellectual and emotional. Too many of the essays about fear of liberal students (especially Schlosser’s in Vox) posit the fearful faculty as reasonable and the student body as unreasonably emotional. Not only does the fear some white faculty members describe seem like an emotional embellishment, conceiving of emotion and reason as disconnected opposites does a tremendous disservice to both. Yes, reason and logic can be dispassionate, even at times disconnected from our emotional responses, but to pretend that they must be ever thus in the humanities classroom ignores basic human experience. If you pretend as Wendy Kaminer does that the utterance of the n-word by a white person has a negligible emotional charge, you’re committing an intellectual sin.
Explore your own bias, and never treat it as solved. I’m a white man born and raised in Arkansas. I’ve spent years working to understand the legacy of racism in my home state, and I’ve come to understand that, no matter how fully I try, I’ll probably never filter from myself the last dregs of that legacy. Exploring that bias -- via Harvard University’s Implicit Bias test, for example -- and acknowledging it to students can be a useful path to helping instructors and students recognize their own biases and develop a more complex understanding of their own emotional and intellectual responses.
When we discuss race in my classes, I tell my students of my background and acknowledge that, as careful as I try to be in thinking and speaking about race, I almost surely bring biases and emotional reactions I don’t yet recognize. In my experience, that engages them with their own experience and the intellectual material we discuss. Along those lines, instructors can benefit from presenting themselves as learners. Both the best and the most frustrating students have an inherent mistrust of authority, I think. As an instructor, I do, too. My greatest pleasure in teaching is being surprised and enlightened by my students’ work, especially their productive, constructive challenges to authority. And when they realize they’ve taught the instructor something, the students gain a useful confidence and foundation for the development of more complex ideas.
Teach difficult, controversial texts, paying particular attention to intellectual and cultural diversity. The avoidance of difficult material that Schlosser describes would be enormously counterproductive, of course, and faculty need to reconsider their syllabi in light of ongoing change. For example, I had long been proud to have a diverse list of poets and fiction writers in my creative-writing class. But when I reconsidered the syllabus last summer, I discovered that the poetry readings were less diverse and less focused on issues of race and gender than I had thought. So I adjusted the readings, adding in poems like June Jordan’s “Poem About My Rights” and short stories like Percival Everett’s “The Appropriation of Cultures,” excellent writing that drew the students’ attention to complex issues. Just as we discussed sound and sonnet structure in Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “God’s Grandeur,” and image and figure in Marianne Moore’s “Poetry,” we discussed line breaks, anaphora, tone and race in Jordan’s poem.
As sometimes happens, I encountered student fatigue with discussions of race (in this case in a discussion of Jordan’s poem), only to discover what I think is often the source of that fatigue: many students see the beginning and end point of such discussions as “racism is bad.” When reluctant students saw how the issues were more complicated and required more inquiry, they became more engaged and moved to more compelling insights about the poem and about race.
Make clear the potential discomforts and challenges of the course material. To many, that might sound like a trigger warning, but it actually isn’t. On the first day of my classes, I mention that our reading (and possibly their writing, in creative-writing and personal-essay courses) will make us think in complicated, sometimes uncomfortable ways, about sexuality, race, gender and age, among other subjects. That isn’t a trigger warning; it’s simple politeness. Each class approaches its subject matter differently, and guiding students to your pedagogical approach helps them build the class dynamic more constructively. Trigger warnings, on the other hand, explicitly inform students about subject material that might trigger memories of trauma for those who’ve suffered that trauma. Though I don’t include trigger warnings, it’s frustrating that so many critics of trigger warnings conflate discomfort and trauma, ultimately misrepresenting the idea and design of trigger warnings.
If a student accuses you of hurting her/his feelings in a meaningful way, assume you’re in the wrong before you assume you’re in the right. This runs counter to the idea of “innocent until proven guilty,” but it’s a useful guide to self-awareness. (Bear in mind that I’m not arguing that departments should assume their faculty are in the wrong.) In academic and nonacademic contexts, I’ve seen plenty of people react immediately with a sharp defensiveness to all kinds of accusations, only to calcify that defense over time. (Full disclosure: I’ve been that person before and likely will be again.) Moving past the initial defensiveness, or converting the initial impulse into self-inquiry, can be useful in helping instructors consider their biases and emotional responses. Even if you and your colleagues decide you weren’t in the wrong, avoiding the defensive impulse will make you a more perceptive teacher.
What I’ve written above isn’t a comprehensive guide for scared white faculty; I’ve based it on my experience, so it’s necessarily limited. I’m trying to keep myself malleable in the hope of becoming a better teacher. Students will change over time; decrying the loss of some golden age while warning of some encroaching PC liberalism screaming across the sky does the students no good.
Charles Green teaches writing at Cornell University. He hopes that his bosses at the Politically Correct Policepersons Union will accept this essay in lieu of dues this month.
When Rowland Hussey Macy opened his namesake store in 1858, understanding consumer behavior was largely a matter of guessing. Retailers had little data to assess what customers wanted or how variables like store hours, assortment or pricing might impact sales. Decision making was slow: managers relied on manual sales tallies, compiled weekly or annually. Dozens of stores failed, including several of Macy’s original stores.
Predictive analytics, in the early days of retail, were rudimentary. Forward-thinking retailers combined transactional data with other types of information -- the weather, for example -- to understand the drivers of consumer behavior. In the 1970s, everything changed. Digital cash registers took hold, allowing companies to capture data and spot trends more quickly. They began A/B testing, piloting ideas in a test vs. control model, at the store level to understand the impact of strategy in near real time.
In the early days of AOL, where I worked in the 1990s and early 2000s, we were quick to recognize the risk to brick-and-mortar stores, as online retailers gathered unprecedented data on consumer behavior. Companies like Amazon could track a customer’s movements on their site using click-stream data to understand which products a customer was considering, or how long they spent comparing products before purchasing. Their brick-and-mortar counterparts, meanwhile, were stuck in the 1800s.
Unexpected innovations, however, have a funny way of leveling the playing field. Today, broadband ubiquity and the proliferation of mobile devices are enabling brick-and-mortar stores to track cell phone signals or use video surveillance to understand the way consumers navigate a store, or how much time they spend in a particular aisle. Sophisticated multichannel retailers now merge online behavior with in-person information to piece together a more holistic picture of their consumers, generating powerful data that drive changes in layout, staffing, assortment and pricing. A recent study found that 36 percent of in-store retail purchases -- worth a whopping $1.1 trillion -- are now influenced by the use of digital devices. Retailers who leverage online research to drive brick-and-mortar sales are gaining a competitive advantage.
The use of big data and predictive analytics in higher education is nascent. So-called disrupters often claim that the lecture hasn’t changed in 150 years, and that only online learning can drive transformative, game-changing outcomes for students. Of course, these claims ring hollow among today’s tech-savvy professors.
Since my transition into higher education, I have been struck by the parallel journey retailers and educators face. Both have been proclaimed obsolete at various points, but the reality is that the lecture, like the retail experience, has and will continue to evolve to meet the new demands of 21st-century users.
Like brick-and-mortar stores, lectures were once a black box -- but smart faculty members are beginning to harness the presence of mobile devices to capture unprecedented levels of data in traditional classrooms. And smart institutions are combining real-time engagement data with historic information to spot challenges early and change the academic trajectory for students.
Historical sources of student data (FAFSA, GPA, SAT, etc.) have predictive validity, but they are a bit like the year-over-year data retailers used: limited in depth and timeliness. The heart of a higher education institution is its professors -- and its classes. In addition to professors being experts in their fields, providing unique learning opportunities to their students, studies have shown that when professors have positive relationships with students, it leads to greater student success.
Some of the most interesting early data are coming from the big, first-year lecture courses. While most students experience these as a rite of passage, they also hold great potential as models of how behavioral data can improve engagement and completion rates for students. Faculty are no longer powerless in the face of larger classes and limited insight into their students' learning behavior. They can track how well students are engaging in traditional lecture classes and intervene with students who aren’t engaged in the behaviors (note taking, asking questions and attendance) that correlate with success.
Historically, professors have relied on piecemeal solutions to gather insights on student behavior. So-called student-response systems and learning management software, like digital cash registers in the ’70s, provide useful data -- but they don’t provide the sort of real-time analytics that can inform an instructor’s practice or to identify students in need of additional support and coaching.
A more recent brand of solutions -- in full disclosure, including ours at Echo360 -- are designed to work in conjunction with great teaching, while providing instructors with the tools to track and measure student engagement: Are students taking notes? Are they asking questions? These tools give administrators and instructors insight into how students are interacting and participating both in class, as well as with content or readings before and after class. No more waiting for summative tests to demonstrate that a student misunderstood a concept weeks or months earlier.
The analogy between retail and education has its limitations. The mission and objectives in education are more nuanced, and frankly, more important. However, education, like every sector, has what we call a moment of truth.
For retailers, that moment of truth is centered around the purchase decision. Sophisticated marketers and retailers have used behavioral data to become incredibly skilled at understanding and shaping that purchase decision to achieve extraordinary results.
It’s time to use those learnings for a higher calling. The explosion of digital devices in the classroom allows us to understand the learning process wherever it is happening on campus, and to support education’s vital moment of truth -- a transaction of knowledge between professors and students.
Frederick Singer is CEO and founder of Echo360, which provides active learning and lecture capture services to more than 650 higher ed clients in 30 countries.
With the release of his new book, In Defense of a Liberal Education, journalist Fareed Zakaria became the latest commentator to join the robust debate over whether the purpose of college is to promote professional advancement or personal growth. The debate typically contrasts the self-betterment offered by the liberal arts -- usually meaning the humanities and social sciences -- against the workforce merits of applied disciplines, such as engineering. One side argues that universities ought to nurture educated, complete human beings, while the other calls for marketplace utility. The conversation has long tottered over this line, and there it remains stalled.
But perhaps it’s time finally to advance past the stale juxtaposition of the humanities versus the applied disciplines. After all, is it really the case that one is soft and the other exacting? In many ways, they’re equally complex. And while each proffers distinct rewards, the two sides have much to gain from each other if we move past these entrenchments.
A Common Complexity
Naturally, the study of an applied discipline like engineering is a steep academic challenge. The study of any complex system is difficult. To build a good airplane, biomaterial or computer program, one needs to understand the dizzying intricacies of that object’s composition and context. Materials, environment, the forces of physics, time and logic -- all of these factor into an engineer’s grasp of her subject, and the task of mastering this complexity spurs intellectual development.
Yet the study of human culture and behavior is similarly complex. Just as the hard sciences demand the grasp of intricate systems, so do the liberal arts. In the case of the humanities and social sciences, however, these systems are an elaborate mesh of history, art, geography, biology and economics -- the strands that make up our world’s DNA. Thus, while a civil engineer learns about materials and soil types and local ordinances, a classics student absorbs how the legacy of the Roman Empire shapes everything from the letters we write to the architecture of our buildings and how we structure our water supply systems. This deep contextual understanding weaves through daily life.
To take a concrete example, consider the act of purchasing a gallon of gasoline. An engineer might recognize how the fuel powers her car’s engine, or how oil is extracted from the earth. A liberal arts education, on the other hand, might inform this engineer of the history and meaning of OPEC, the convoluted economics of energy and the context of global warming. She might recall The Nicomachean Ethics and conclude that taking personal responsibility for her actions means she should drive less, or consider how hunger for resources drives civilizations to colonize and conquer. These are obviously not facile mental endeavors.
In terms of rigor, then, it’s certainly the case that the liberal arts can be just as demanding as the applied disciplines. Why, then, is it so commonly believed that an English degree, for example, will leave a graduate trapped in the ivory tower -- or her parents’ basement?
The reason may be that, in many cases, applied studies feature a strong laboratory or workplace experience, while liberal arts classes are often framed by the traditions of the essay and exam paper. This difference in mode, this boundary between the abstract and the real, may largely account for the conceit that a liberal arts education doesn’t equate to a tangible outcome, or a tangible paycheck. However, liberal arts programs can counter this misperception by reproducing the lessons from engineering laboratories or business school co-op programs and adding an experiential component. By practicing the experiential liberal arts, they would better prepare their students to engage in the world.
The Experiential Difference
What would this look like in practice? Experiential liberal arts would combine the rigor of traditional academics with active participation in workplaces, laboratories or volunteer opportunities -- especially ones in a global context. These real-life elements would heighten students’ motivation, promote practice and self-reflection, promote contextual understanding, and encourage self-direction. In other words, the experiential component would be a vehicle that leads to deeper learning.
For instance, an English major might complete a co-op with a national magazine, applying ideas she encountered in a Technology of Text class to the creation of content for new formats in publishing. In doing so, she would cement academic information into owned knowledge. She wouldn’t merely internalize lessons -- she would live them. Likewise, since many students learn by translating theoretical knowledge into generative action, a philosophy major could parlay a co-op at the United Nations Human Rights Council into a research project on how the global economy is changing the sort of moral choices we face -- for example, making us question the ethics of using electronics built with exploited labor.
To be sure, ensuring that liberal arts students have access to high-quality internships that reinforce their classroom learning requires meaningful engagement between universities and employers. Creating substantive partnerships takes work, but the rewards are mutual. At Northeastern University, for example, one of our undergraduate history majors recently completed a co-op with the U.S. Commercial Service in Mexico, where he applied his content knowledge and research skills -- acquired through liberal arts classes -- to compose a report analyzing plans to expand the Port of Veracruz. His employer then used the analysis to determine whether this $19 billion project should move forward as planned, or with changes.
Similarly, another undergraduate applied his learning as an English major to design the customer support system and perform financial analysis for a cloud computing start-up firm. “Doing financial analysis is surprisingly similar to doing literary analysis,” he told us. “When you read a poem or a novel, your professor tells you to look between the text and dig as deep as you can to find out everything the author is trying to say. When you’re looking at a spreadsheet of numbers, you’re doing the same thing: What are these numbers trying to tell me?”
The Rewards of Experiential Liberal Arts
Indeed, the marriage of liberal arts skills with experiential learning yields advanced survival skills for the modern era: creative, critical and analytical thinking, deft communication, and the ability to deal with complexity and ambiguity, applying knowledge in unexpected situations. We can’t engage effectively with other human beings -- or institutions, or work assignments -- without these talents. Just as importantly, the experiential liberal arts imparts an appetite for ongoing study, training students to adapt their minds to new learning situations throughout their lives. This is invaluable in an economy that demands that workers make multiple career jumps and replenish their skills on a continuing basis.
But experiential liberal arts experiences shouldn’t be for liberal arts students only. Context, communication and a capacity for self-directed lifelong learning -- everyone needs these, including students in the applied disciplines. The most brilliant computer scientist has to thrive in the human milieu or risk irrelevance. The most trailblazing biochemical engineer should learn to weigh the social and cultural context of her work. By enhancing their courses of study with relevant content from the humanities and social sciences, programs in the applied disciplines would also better prepare their graduates to engage with the world and succeed in life.
The New Literacy
In fact, what the worn-out juxtaposition of the liberal arts versus the applied disciplines overlooks is that aspects of each are essential for living a full life, both professionally and personally. We wouldn’t say that grade schoolers should choose between learning how to read or how to add and subtract, so we shouldn’t fall into equivalent false choices in higher education. Both domains have relevance, utility and beauty, and both contain critical components of a new skill set -- a new literacy -- that students need if they’re to flourish in modern life and the global economy.
For example, consider analytics, statistics and coding -- three subjects often cited as vital for students to learn today. In many ways, the robust study of each involves drawing from concepts from both the world of liberal arts and the applied sciences. For example, one might integrate concepts from art and design into a course on analytics, so students can transform sophisticated quantitative analyses into elegant, intuitive data visualizations. Likewise, one might weave lessons from history and concepts in cultural anthropology together with technical instruction in Stata or SPSS to show more deeply how statistics can be used to investigate issues and challenges across a variety of domains.
Imagine how valuable -- and relevant -- an education students would receive if colleges and universities routinely approached the curriculum with this kind of harmonization in mind. Imagine how augmenting it with experiential component would enrich it even further.
Every scientist needs to ponder the context of her work and communicate its meaning; every liberal arts student should wrangle with the revelations of big data. Both applied disciplines and the liberal arts have much to share between them. By bleeding a little into each other, these two approaches to higher education would give every graduate a powerful, marketable education for today’s economy.
So let’s move past the false dichotomy that characterizes the current debate over the liberal arts and applied disciplines. Better to draw lessons from both, and agree that the most valuable education is one that works.
Joseph E. Aoun is president of Northeastern University.
College and university faculty are expected to be excellent teachers. In public, college leaders emphasize to potential students and their parents that at their institution, teaching matters above all else. Colleges seem to unabashedly promote that the teaching done by their faculty is markedly better than at peer institutions -- or that the opportunities for close working relationships between students and faculty are unique to their campus.
Many small colleges rest their laurels on the value they place on teaching excellence. From day one faculty members know that they will primarily be evaluated for tenure and promotion based on their role as teachers. Colleges and universities have Centers for Teaching Excellence to further demonstrate that they value teaching and provide support to faculty. Promotion and tenure committees scrutinize faculty dossiers -- syllabuses, assignments, exams and ubiquitous teaching evaluations -- looking for evidence that faculty members are indeed excellent teachers. Faculty attend workshops and conferences about teaching. Most academic disciplines have professional societies committed to improving the teaching and learning process; some even publish peer-reviewed pedagogical journals where scholars report on the effectiveness of teaching methods and assessment as well as sharing innovative ideas for classroom demonstrations and assignments.
There is no shortage of lip service from various academic ranks on the value of teaching excellence. Faculty and administrators alike -- particularly at small liberal arts colleges and comprehensive universities -- make concerted efforts through programming and institutional investments with the aim of improving teaching.
But what exactly is teaching excellence? Institutional commitments, workshops, conferences and journals, all sharing the intent of improving teaching and content delivery, do not necessarily translate to a universal agreement on exactly what it is we are improving.
I suspect that, at most colleges and universities, teaching excellence is primarily defined by how a subject is taught. Notwithstanding the fact that the value and weight placed on teaching vary across institutional type, for promotion and tenure most faculty likely collate the same sorts of artifacts -- collections of materials such as students’ course evaluations, teaching philosophies, syllabuses, assignments, exams, letters detailing classroom observations and so on. These items along with a faculty member’s own narrative often are the primary metrics promotion and tenure committees use to gauge a candidate’s competency as a teacher.
But all these measures share a common focus on the delivery of a course’s content. A heavy burden is placed upon the faculty member at promotion time to document that he or she effectively communicates the information to students, that students appreciate a faculty member’s enthusiasm for the subject matter, that students enjoy how a course is structured, that the faculty member participates in professional development related to teaching and implements innovative pedagogy, and that faculty members provide evidence of growth and improvement during the pretenure years, most often targeting content delivery.
What I see as a fundamental problem in defining teaching excellence within the academy today is a flawed assumption that evaluating course materials (assignments, exams, etc.) and instructor habits (shows up on time, seems prepared for class, effectively uses technology, etc.) automatically translates into an evaluation of what students truly receive from instructors. Much emphasis is placed on what the instructor does but very little is placed on asking students what they actually learn -- very rarely are students pointedly asked about their growth and intellectual maturation over the semester, as opposed to whether they enjoyed the experience.
I find it absurd that decisions about teaching excellence in promotion and tenure cases can come down to generic questions that ask students to rate the quality of the instructor (excellent good, fair, etc.) and possibly the quality of the course. How can students decide what is excellent when no operational definition of excellence is ever given to them?
But this essay is not so much about lamenting the shortcomings of course evaluations as it is about challenging colleges and their faculty to recalibrate how they think about teaching excellence. Is there really any measurable difference between teaching at deep-pocketed prestigious colleges like those found near the top of U.S. News & World Report rankings and the many second- and third-tier colleges and universities? Sure, colleges with more resources and expendable revenue can offer students more than cash-strapped, tuition-dependent institutions. More financially stable institutions can ratchet up the quality of teaching facilities, laboratories and libraries; they can offer higher salaries and start-up packages, which could do more to recruit and retain faculty; and they can do more to provide in-house funding to both faculty and students for undergraduate research. But do these factors that seemingly advantage the wealthier and often more selective institutions really matter?
Some scholars cluster elements of excellent teaching into one of three categories: teaching, communication and attitudes toward students. Probably most would agree that being a good teacher requires having expertise in the subject matter as well as a willingness to actively involve students in the learning process. And faculty should not only effectively communicate information in the classroom but also provide consistent and timely feedback to students on assignments. Respecting students as adults and having a good rapport with them fosters an environment conducive to learning, which in turn helps students to become effective problem solvers and to take ownership over their own learning. Regardless of institutional setting, one will find faculty members who excel on these very attributes. Note that not one of these is tied to metrics of an institution’s wealth, retention rate or selectivity.
Possibly most important of the three categories is the last: faculty attitudes toward students. Being an excellent teacher means more than designing and delivering an effective lecture or being able to foster thought-provoking classroom discussions. Effective teaching extends beyond the classroom; faculty should take a sincere interest in their students and make an effort to get to know them on a personal level. Students really want to get to know their professors, too, and when they develop meaningful relationships with us, it can have a positive effect on their work ethic and increase confidence in their ability. I think students who enjoy being around their professors are more likely to go to class, are more active in class and are generally more apt to seek help from faculty outside of class.
Colleges promote these very ideals by attempting to sway parents and potential students with their student-faculty ratios, their small class sizes, their sense of community and their approachable faculty -- all of which are meant to nurture students’ intellectual growth and provide them the quintessential college experience. And these are all qualities that may foster a culture of excellent teaching, but they do not guarantee one. As faculty members, we should be interested in and concerned about the student as a whole individual. No matter the institutional type, when faculty show a sincere interest in their students both on personal and academic levels, it can have transformative results in their habits, their success in our classes, their growth as students and most importantly, their social and emotional development as young adults.
Despite the diversity of institutional missions, surely all colleges and universities purport that their students leave with the knowledge and skills needed to be active and engaged citizens who will make a difference in the places they live, work and serve. Most would agree that faculty members -- and in particular professors in their role as teachers -- exert tremendous influence on their students' maturation during the college years. Maybe discussions about what is or what is not excellent teaching need to be rethought to actually capture the impact faculty have on their students’ lives. This is not to discount the summative and formative value of teaching evaluations -- faculty must be competent teachers and while current metrics likely do little to discriminate excellent from merely good teachers, they reliably identify dismal ones.
Yet it seems that colleges continue to define teaching excellence primarily based on what students say on course evaluations. But the extent of our influence upon students goes beyond how we may inform, inspire, motivate or challenge them in a course. How we connect with particular students, the mentorship we may provide them in a variety of contexts, our role as their advisers and generally the myriad of other ways we positively affect them -- these all contribute to excellent teaching. Though documenting these activities is challenging and impossible to quantify, their exposition would nicely augment the formal metrics so common to the academy.
In short, course evaluations are so entrenched in the fabric of the modern university that their use is certain to continue. Maybe colleges and universities could encourage and enact more flexible ways to define teaching excellence, so that when collated with student evaluations and other evidence, they would provide a much richer and more exhaustive characterization of the impact faculty truly have on their students.
Alan Hughes is a professor of psychology at Berry College.