Varun Joshi: Top faculty have a responsibility to pass on skills

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It is that time of year again – course evaluations.

It’s course evaluation season – the time of year when we’re encouraged to step back and examine how our professors have done.

For some students, it’s an opportunity to give meaningful feedback on how a professor could improve his or her course for the future. Others will torch faculty who have made class a living hell for 14 weeks, and some reviewers will likely turn to RateMyProfessor.com.

Though few students are aware, the University makes a point to award some of the campus’ best teachers by handing out the Oscar and Shoshana Trachtenberg Prize for Teaching Excellence. Students nominate candidates for the prize, departments endorse them and a $1,000 honorarium is awarded to the winner.

GW defines “teaching excellence” as “the accurate and effective communication to undergraduate students of important cultural, historical or scientific material, as well as current scholarship and scholarly debates in the fields involved.” In other words, it means a professor is good at teaching young minds the most important facts and trends.

The University should use this award to showcase not only superlative teaching styles, but also methods that work. The winners have a duty to share their talents with professors who might be the subject of student criticism.

At a University that proudly claims to have distinguished faculty who are leading scholars in their fields, it’s curious that not all professors seem to have the same teaching ability. Great minds don’t always make great instructors.

It’s no secret that becoming a good teacher takes time – and good mentorship should play a key role in building skill sets. That’s an idea this spring’s recipient of the Trachtenberg award, and each of the future winners, should latch onto.

Anupama Phene, associate professor of international business and Trachtenberg award winner, said GW could organize a workshop “where faculty who are in their formative teaching years interact with University teaching award winners” and learn the best teaching practices.

Phene’s approach in the classroom fuses theory with practical examples, bringing her own research into the course. Like other professors, she also keeps students engaged with class discussions and games.

Winning the award “is in itself a motivator for improving teaching,” Phene told me. But now the University should find ways to transfer award winners’ enthusiasm to the larger faculty community.

A mentoring initiative, though smaller and not limited to Trachtenberg winners, has seen success in the School of Medicine and Health Sciences. It creates networks to meet the needs of junior faculty members who are struggling to adopt usable teaching philosophies or find the right balance at work.

This initiative, however, isn’t mandated by the University and exists only as an informal set-up within the medical school.

A system like this shouldn’t be limited to one school. The list of Trachtenberg winners encompasses a wide variety of fields, ranging from linguistics to biology to social science and religion.

GW could organize workshops that pair prize winners from each department with new faculty entering the same department. Hands-on guidance and mentorship of young faculty is invaluable, and the University has already done the legwork of singling out the best professors to share those skills.

Such a measure would not only help budding professors flourish, but it would spread tried-and-true teaching strategies among faculty. The benefits would reach not only young professors – who would more confidently kick off each new semester – but also students.

Varun Joshi, a sophomore double-majoring in economics and math, is a Hatchet opinions writer.

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