Many students are surely familiar with the agony of sitting in a classroom with a professor who is highly knowledgeable in their field of study, but is incapable of translating their industry jargon into language their students can grasp.
Professors have gained a wealth of expertise, often through decades of work in their specific fields to get to where they are in their careers, but they should understand that students aren’t equipped with the same career-specific vocabulary when they step into the classroom. I’m not arguing for a less rigorous curriculum or for administrative oversight in the classroom. Students should understand that they get from college what they put in, and faculty should have broad freedom to teach how they like. What I am arguing is that GW can make structural changes to its employment policy and to the class information provided by the registration process that will create greater harmony between professors and students in the classroom.
The quality of teaching at GW partially depends on the University’s tenure policy which forces professors to weigh their time spent teaching against that which they devote to research. As the Faculty Code makes clear, among the considerations for tenure include a commitment to the University’s standing as a “preeminent research university.” While GW states that excellence in teaching and service are “prerequisites” for tenure, it quickly clarifies that “they are not in themselves sufficient” unless a faculty member’s “scholarly accomplishments are considered excellent” when compared to their colleagues at other institutions.
The administrative motives behind this are fairly clear. Much of GW’s funding and prestige comes from investments in faculty who produce an abundance of research. But this justification alone, aimed at only one aspect of GW’s competitiveness, is narrow-minded and short-sighted. The primary social good of GW is not to churn out publications. It is to raise a generation of resilient, critical and caring adults who will become future leaders in their fields of work. This goal is deeply tied to the quality of teaching and precedes the good of research advancement for two reasons. First, because the impact of its success or failure on the culture of civil society is felt much sooner and more acutely. Second, perhaps more purely, because the quality of teaching determines the quality of research through its shaping of the students who are to become future researchers.
The classroom experience is foundational to the health of academia. If GW’s tenure boards understood this, perhaps they would raise the importance of excellence in teaching to be at least on par with scholarly production – and, in doing so, encourage professors to distinguish themselves pedagogically. Another step, perhaps more easily taken, would be to increase the number and prestige of teaching awards. In 2021, GW’s three major awards for teaching, the Amsterdam, Bender and Trachtenberg prizes, offered $500, $1,000 and $1,500 respectively to a combined total of ten professors. In sum, if we want people to bet on better teaching, I suggest we sweeten the pot.
The path to better teaching also involves students. In part, this means giving students the tools to match their learning styles to professors’ teaching styles. Many of my peers would agree that no matter the class, a professor’s teaching style can make or break that hour of your day and even entirely change your opinion on a field of study for better or worse. When students are registering for classes, third-party resources like Rate My Professor, are inconveniently decentralized and biased from small sample sizes of student reviews. GW can address this by asking professors to provide general information about their teaching style for a particular course and then embedding that information into the course option as it appears on the schedule of classes.
That said, a degree of mystery surrounding how a class will be taught should be preserved. We must not have a university where professors, to preserve their enrollments, are forced to monitor their reputations and restructure their classes to appease a tyrannical majority of students. And we must have a university where students may benefit from the true spirit of a liberal arts education: growth, via removal from their comfort zone.
Students can also do their part in encouraging administrators to prioritize teaching as a standard for faculty excellence. The main obstacle to focusing on teaching skill as a cause for promotion is that it’s naturally harder to measure than scholarly production. Much of the data on teaching comes from students. If students want their professors to teach better, they should fill out their course evaluations and do them well – concretely praising the excellent teachers and constructively critiquing the rest. Professors, for their part, can designate class time for filling out evaluations, offer extra credit for it and, above all, actually read them. It’s also useful for professors to create opportunities for anonymous feedback during a class so that students may have a say in their current classroom experience.
There is a big caveat here. When evaluating teaching effectiveness administrators must not rely on a single kind of assessment. Studies have shown that student evaluations in particular are rife with bias. Students tend to rate professors higher when a class is easy and grading is lenient, which in turn pushes professors away from rigor and toward grade inflation. Alarming patterns in student ratings also emerge along criteria irrelevant to teaching, such as the professor’s race, gender or physical attractiveness. If administrators wish to elevate teaching as a cause for promotion, they must seek a holistic process of assessing teaching ability. The sharpness of student ratings can be rounded out by considering teaching awards, peer reviews of course materials, peer classroom observation and student exit interviews. Measuring learning outcomes may also help, but this may only be easy to accomplish in STEM fields where students’ coursework more continuously moves from one level to the next. Overall, the more robust and reliable this data is, the more justification tenure boards will have to reward professors for their pedagogy, which brings us full circle.
Underlying all these economic arguments is an ideal that speaks to the heart. One of the most joyful experiences for a professor should be channelling their knowledge into a story grand enough to shatter a student’s world and build it anew. And as a student, I can say there is nothing more worthy of a true education than such an experience.
William Bosco, a junior majoring in philosophy and political science, is an opinions writer.