I teach at a teaching university. Research is not a priority. I'm new to the university and am teaching full-time. I believe I've developed a rapport with the current cohort of senior students.

During one our classes, the discussion moved to the teaching of other faculty. This is a group of seniors who are likely to graduate at the end of the semester.

The students made several very concerning things about other faculty:

  • They download labs from other universities and these labs cannot be run on the equipment we have. When asked about it, they state ... I'm retiring soon, let's just do it..
  • They publicly abuse individual students for stupidity.
  • They make assessment available through the content management system without mentioning its existence to the students during class.

Apart from end-of-semester student feedback, there doesn't seem to be any way to address such poor teaching (or even investigate whether the student views are correct).

What do other places do? Is it at a department level? Dean level? Is it a separate organization?

I can't do anything directly for the current cohort of students, but it would be good to try to move towards clear mechanisms for improving faculty teaching.

  • 1
    > They make assessment available through the content management system without mentioning its existence to the students during class. --- Don't your CMS inform students automatically about new content? Nov 8 '19 at 22:02
  • 1
    The new thing in this situation is that you just arrived to hear about it. Likely, the answer is that the situation has not been handled effectively for a while. Nov 8 '19 at 22:13
  • @DmitrySavostyanov Yes, it does. However issuing it after knock-off time on a Friday, and making it due before class on a Monday is a little ... unconventional. Especially if the students aren't expecting it, as it wasn't mentioned in class.
    – Acton Bell
    Nov 9 '19 at 0:57
  • "What do other places do?" -- In many cases, sadly, nothing.
    – user115896
    Nov 9 '19 at 14:00
  • 3
    You have to be really careful when getting feedback from students, and avoiding it turning into a gripe session. There's two sides to the story in every one of those complaints and a little detail the student omitted (because it made the story more impressive) might defuse the whole things. For example they might have been given the assessment verbally and in writing far in advance, and the students forgot all the prior warnings they got. I have had this exact problem with students in fact. Nov 9 '19 at 21:21

There are several mechanisms we have that in theroy should deal with this sort of thing:

All academics must have their teaching observed by another member of staff at least once a year, but ideally once a module. All academics must observe someone else teaching once a year. When this happens a form must be filled in that says what the observed could improve and what the observer learnt that they will implement in their own teaching.

We have a pretty good staff-student committee where concerns by students can and are raised. We also have student representatives on our departmental teaching committee (see this answer).

How effective these are is varied. Student surveys make up a big part of who a department is ranked in national rankings, which determines how many students we can recruit. Management in the UK can exert quite a lot of pressure on offenders because there is no such thing as tenure in the UK (although all workers are protected from sacking to a greater extent than in the US).

But this can be ineffective if: A staff member is important to the department/university for another reason (e.g. very high research income), or the staff member is just so over worked and stressed, that they give up the will to do well irrespective of the consequences - this is increasingly common as enrollments fall and management tries to force more work out of fewer people with less resources. If a staff member were protected by the fact you are leaving soon anyway (it takes up to a year to get rid of someone), I'd say there is not much to be done.

  • Could you provide more detail about the observation by other staff? I don't think it would work in my university -- it would lead to big unanimosy between profs and profs writing "everything is fine* when there are glaring problems, especially if there is a big power difference between the observer and the teacher.
    – user115896
    Nov 9 '19 at 22:43
  • Or is this common in your country? If so, I would ask a new question about that.
    – user115896
    Nov 9 '19 at 23:01
  • Its common, but indeed, you will get profs saying everything is fine, when it isn't. Although the observer is supposed to identify at least one thing the observed could change. Nov 10 '19 at 1:23

Some universities hold "Faculty Development" seminars and even full day workshops. Sometimes these are required, especially of new faculty. It is harder to influence bad actors among the tenured faculty as long as their actions aren't egregious.

But even tenured faculty can be influenced by a dean who makes attendance at a workshop part of the required goals of an offending faculty member. Ignoring such "encouragement" can result in negative consequences to pay and perks.

Some universities have faculty members visit the classrooms of other faculty and make recommendations to them or to the head.

And some just depend on student complaints to higher ups and try to keep the uproar within bounds. Deans, especially, tend to be unhappy when the students are storming the gates. University presidents tend to be unhappy when things overflow into the news.

And, at some universities, teaching by top researchers is bad and the administration looks the other way. Sad, but true. And seniors may, at some places, be expected to just put up with it for the chance to work with a top researcher who is a terrible teacher.

On the other hand, some universities try to avoid the problem by having faculty who are primarily teachers not researchers. These folks seem to self-police and support the development of one another. Duke, Stanford, and Carnegie-Mellon are among top universities who do this. But it is primarily for lower level, not senior level, courses for the most part.

And in general, the long probationary period prior to tenure should, in principle, weed out most of the bad actors.

But some university departments also hold annual or semi-annual all-hands meetings where the entire faculty is expected to attend. Mostly these are for top-down communication of initiatives and such. But, if a faculty member is secure enough they can raise an issue. "Some of our students don't seem to be happy..." Not a place to blame others, but just to raise the issue of keeping students satisfied with their treatment. If you are new at this place, I'd suggest you don't do this, but perhaps you can find an ally with more seniority who would be willing to. The goal of raising the issue would be to generate a faculty-development project. Even good faculty can benefit from seeing new pedagogical ideas they might not have considered.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.