Thursday, January 18, 2007

Ask the Administrator: Documenting Good Teaching

A new correspondent writes:

I am a 4th year grad student in (science discipline) and a 2nd year grad student in (complicated related discipline) at a major research school (for these fields at least). Though I'm a big fan of doing research, I am also (*gasp*) a big fan of teaching. And teaching well. Despite the fact that my department divvies out TA-ships with priority toward those who have less experience (don't even ask), I have managed to get two years of TA funding (6 appointments). This good fortune is largely due to two professors being very adamant that I was the only qualified candidate, which should outweigh the priority toward less experience.

A group of students, profs and alumni--I suspect led by the two aforementioned profs--have nominated me for a university-wide teaching award. I have advanced to the candidacy stage, and am now faced with some vague guidelines. You know the drill: 1) the department chair was contacted, but she has no idea what I teach, so she 2) contacted my chair, who has no idea what I teach, so he 3) has sent me the following criteria. I must turn in a CV, list of courses taught, and materials that "demonstrate my teaching excellence totaling no more than 20 pages from the last 2 years." In addition, there will be 2 faculty, 2 student, and 1 department chair recommendation letter.

So my question is basically, how do I demonstrate my teaching excellence? I have positive student evaluations, both the scantron-type, and some written comments. Is it appropriate to present the numerical totals and then present selected comments, rather than just photocopy the comment sheets (which strikes me as a waste of space)? Do student evaluations really demonstrate teaching excellence or do they just demonstrate that I was well-liked? I have two courses for which I was the primary instructor, from which I can provide the syllabi. However, for those courses for which I was a TA, what do I show? As a TA, one must follow the teaching philosophies of the instructor, as well as his/her content plan. So being a good TA isn't necessarily the same as being a good teacher. Are there other sorts of materials that could potentially "demonstrate teaching excellence?" Sadly, our university does not have a peer-review system, so I have no peer evaluations. Is it appropriate for me to write something about my teaching philosophy and/or teaching experiences?

Mostly, I'm trying to understand the perspective of an evaluator looking at my information packet. If you were granting such an award (or hiring a teacher) what would you look for? Specifics are much appreciated.

To further complicate matters, I'm trying to walk a fine line between putting everything I have toward winning the award/being a good teacher, and being a graduate student at a research university. I was told in December by my subdiscipline head that "teaching has no value" and that I'm "wasting my time worrying about teaching." I'm inclined to ignore this and be the best I can be at teaching (in addition to my research, blah, blah, blah) but as I have no power in the department, I worry that this might be stupid in the long term. This award application (even if I don't win) will be a very public declaration of my teaching. Perhaps my I'm paranoid after years of grad school, and this is all irrelevant.

There's a lot here.

First off, I'm constantly amazed that we socialize our science Ph.D.'s to avoid teaching like the plague, and then we can't figure out why science education in America sucks. Seems to me that if we really wanted better science education, we'd reward scientists who took teaching seriously. Over the long term, better science education might actually pay off in more and better scientists, thereby repaying the opportunity cost with interest. But that's me.

(Of course, that assumes plenty of teaching gigs for scientists. Round and round we go...)

Bravo to you for knowing what you want, and for rejecting the dogma that teaching is for those who can't cut it in the lab. Your future students are lucky.

That said, the heart of your question is how to prove that you're actually good at teaching. Since the teaching in question has already happened, it's too late to design a class to include, say, pre- and post-tests. You probably don't have access to student pass rates in subsequent courses, which, all else being equal, would strike me as very persuasive evidence.

Although your skepticism about student evaluations has some merit, you use the evidence you have. I'm partial to statistical totals over selected comments, only because almost anybody can find a positive comment here or there. If you have departmental or course norms against which to compare your totals, all the better. Even better than that: if you have departmental and/or course grade distributions, and your own. If you have strong student evaluations and you can show that you didn't get them by grading easily, that, too, would strike me as persuasive.

Depending on which office the request came from, you might be able to gain access to applications from previous years, just to see what they've included.

I'll second your distinction between being a good TA and being a good teacher. I vividly recall interviewing a job candidate at Proprietary U whose answer to almost every question about teaching started with “My Big Name Advisor would...” After several of those, I actually cut her off and reminded her we weren't interviewing her advisor. She did a double-take, but then started giving much more interesting answers. In my TA experience, much of my job involved either decoding the words of the Great Man for the students, or covering material that the Great Man didn't bother covering because he was too busy spinning anecdotes about his travels. It's hard to be the ringmaster when you're also cleaning up after the elephant.

The fact that you pretty much have to invent an answer to this out of whole cloth gives some indication as to how important it is to your department. That said, I'm a firm believer in “to thine own self, be true.” If you're a dedicated and talented teacher, be a dedicated and talented teacher. Your department is not the sum of the known universe. There are departments out there – not enough, but they exist – that actually appreciate good teaching. Some of them even appreciate it enough to try to develop intelligent ways to encourage and measure it. If you market yourself as what you really are, the odds of finding a good fit – even if it involves looking in places you might not think of at first – are better.

Talented and underappreciated readers – any ideas out there?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at ccdean (at) myway (dot) com.