SEAS cannot improve without input

Mr. Amrany’s comments in the Oct. 22 issue of The GW Hatchet on the School of Engineering and Applied Science’s problems raise a number of important questions related to teaching – how it’s done, how it’s perceived and how it’s evaluated (“SEAS’s problems go beyond money,” p. 4).

My department does not retain, nominate for promotion or recommend tenure for any professor who is a poor teacher. That someone “has written several technical papers” does not make it “OK to let her teach” if the teaching itself is unacceptable. And a part-time instructor is evaluated only on his or her performance as a teacher.

How do we know how well someone is doing in the classroom? Until two years ago, there were regular evaluations by students conducted by one or another of the student organizations every semester. For many years, this was done in class, with paper and pencil. Then SEAS moved to an electronically submitted form. But the program stopped due to a lack of student interest in running the process and collecting the data.

We also know about teaching from reports based on occasional visits to classes by department chairs and by tenure-committee members. But they provide only infrequent observations. It is the students, class after class, who have the greatest amount of data. So, if a professor is reading from the book, or unprepared or having trouble with English, it is the students who are the first to know. If the problem is present for the entire semester, or instead occurs just once and is gone, it is the students who know. But unless they tell us, we probably won’t find out. And we certainly won’t know in time to try to remedy the immediate problem.

Did Mr. Amrany approach anyone – the instructor, his adviser or the department chair – when his unhappinesses arose? The best information I have is that he did not.

Most faculty members I know are dedicated to their jobs as teachers, researchers and citizens of the University. They take their responsibilities seriously and aim to be effective in those roles. People know, however, that there is the need for continuous improvement. Often, it’s obvious what one must do to improve. Sometimes, though, a complaint or suggestion from a student is what makes the difference.

Students often are reluctant to approach professors directly. That’s where the adviser or department chair comes in. Either can present the concern to the professor without revealing the identity of the student. Usually, some constructive action results fairly quickly; if it does not, at least the concern is on the record and if a pattern emerges, there are other actions that can be taken.

Unlike Mr. Amrany, I think a strategic plan actually would be useful, but he and I do agree that “splitting up departments … is not the solution to the financial and academic future of the engineering school.” Part of what is the solution, however, is thoughtful, timely feedback from our students directly to our departments. I hope we’ll have it in the future from Mr. Amrany and his fellow students.

-The writer is chair of the department of electrical engineering and computer science.

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