VOLUME 30, NUMBER 30 THURSDAY, April 29, 1999

Teaching standards-and policies-need to be addressed

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To the Editor:

I am retiring from my university teaching position this summer, after 36 years as a faculty member, 33 at this university. One of my major reasons for doing so has been my increasing disappointment, especially in the past decade or so, with the quality of my teaching experience in undergraduate courses.

In the last couple of years, I have spoken with many faculty colleagues, and almost all of them report the same experience: students typically are disengaged from the course material, don't participate in class discussion, are absent far too often, wander in and out of class throughout the scheduled period, fail to complete the assigned reading on time, if at all, and as a result of all this, get mediocre grades or, alternatively, in this age of grade inflation, get higher grades than they deserve. Of course, there are many exceptions to this gloomy report; nonetheless, in the aggregate, undergraduates are not as good, not as serious and don't work as hard as they once did.

Until recently, I entertained the uneasy thought that perhaps my own experience and that of other senior colleagues was misleading-perhaps we had simply lost touch with the younger generation or were simply not such good teachers as we once were. Not that I really believed this, of course-I am just as enthusiastic and presumably no less learned about my subject matter as I have ever been. Still, the possibility couldn't be dismissed.

However, during this past semester I audited a course in English literature, taught by a junior assistant professor, a recent Ph.D. out of Berkeley. The young professor is a terrific teacher: he has a first-rate intellect and analytical mind, is highly articulate, has great enthusiasm for his subject, and has a pleasant and engaging personality.

The problem was that the students, in the aggregate, were, to put it straight, a pretty unimpressive bunch. Indeed, some of what went on in class was downright appalling, especially considering that this was an upper-division course, primarily for majors:

1. Attendance was generally low.
2. Students felt free to wander into class long after the 9:30 a.m. starting time-some as late as 10:30! I am not talking about a few students: in every class the majority of the students were late. For example, in a class last week, I observed that at 9:35 a.m., there were nine students in class (out of 40); by the time the class ended, there were about 30.
3. It was clear that many, perhaps most, of the students were not completing the assigned reading in time, if at all. The problem was not excessive reading assignments. The class was assigned only four novels for the entire semester.
4. Only a handful of the students participated in class discussion with any regularity.
5. From what I understand, the overall quality of written assignments was mediocre.

I have several suggestions on what can be done about this problem. To begin with, mandatory student evaluations of faculty should be discontinued. In my experience in the tenure-review process, "teaching evaluation" and "student evaluation" tend to be treated as though they were synonymous. To be sure, everyone gives lip service to the idea that we must go beyond student evaluations, and everyone is aware of the pitfalls in the student-evaluation system; nonetheless, because student evaluations are typically the only "hard data" available, in practice they are given far greater weight than they should.

Because of this, junior faculty are particularly vulnerable to student resentment and perhaps retaliation if they try to maintain standards. There are surely some benefits from student evaluation, especially in providing instructors feedback that may be useful, and for this reason they should continue, but only on a strictly voluntary basis, and divorced from the tenure-review process.

Beyond that, there should be university or, at least, departmental policies put into effect to deal with a number of problems that seem to be endemic:

1. Attendance should be taken in every class.
2. Students must be required to be on time; late arrivals should not be allowed to sign the attendance sheet, which should be passed around at the beginning of class.
3. After three absences, grade penalties should begin.
4. Papers and assignments must be completed on time, with rare exceptions; no late papers or exams should be accepted.
5. Students who persist in disregarding these rules should be asked to resign from the class within the first eight weeks.

Of course, individual faculty should have the right to modify the rules when it seems appropriate to do so. Nonetheless, with overall university-or department-wide policies in effect and clearly promulgated to all undergraduate classes, faculty, particularly junior faculty, would be relieved of burdens which are both unfair and destructive of the faculty's need to uphold minimal academic standards.

-Jerome Slater, Professor, Department of Political Science

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