Several years ago, I wrote a post for my blog that listed things department chairs could say about teaching that faculty would love to hear. Of course, to be meaningful, the comments should reflect actual policies and practices that would improve teaching and promote learning, plus make faculty happy.
A more supportive environment for teaching often involves big changes at the institutional level and new approaches that break with old traditions, which means angst for those who lead and reluctance among some who follow. However, some of what supports better teaching doesn’t involve big changes and could be accomplished without a lot of brouhaha. There’s some of both on this list.
To set the stage, let’s imagine that this department head works at an institution where budgets are tight, everyone works hard at recruitment, and there’s a commitment to retention and student success. Teaching is an important part of the institution’s mission. We also must be realistic about what academic leaders at the departmental level can do, given the constraints and responsibilities of the position on most college campuses today. Like teaching, leadership is not an easy job either.
- “We need to be having more substantive conversations about teaching and learning in our department meetings. We talk about course content, schedules, and what we’re offering next semester but rarely about our teaching and its impact on student learning. What do you think about circulating a short article, or a study with instructional implications, or even a pithy quote before some of our meetings and then spending 30 minutes talking about it? Could you recommend some topics and/or materials for discussion?
- “I’m concerned about how we are introducing new faculty to teaching in this department. Do we have them teaching the courses they should be teaching? Could we improve the way we’re mentoring them? How? What if we didn’t put student ratings from their first year of teaching in their dossier? I’m asking for recommendations and would love to hear your thoughts on the ‘ideal’ first-year teaching experience for a new faculty member.”
- “I’ve been trying to think more creatively about teaching awards. The big university-wide awards are few and far between, and I question the processes used to select the winners. Some of the best teachers in the department consistently focus on student learning, but they do so with quiet, unassuming teaching styles that are not usually recognized. Then there’s good work on big committee assignments like revising our curricula, always participating in those prospective student events, and advising above and beyond the call of duty. Shouldn’t that work be recognized in a more public way? I’d like us to devise some sort of departmental award or recognition for different kinds of work that supports teaching and learning. Please share any thoughts or ideas you have. Is a monetary award the only option?”
- “I think we’re doing too much summative and not enough formative evaluation of teaching. The research on student evaluations is clear. For midcareer faculty teaching the same courses, ratings do not vary all that much from one semester to the next (which says something about the power of summative assessments to improve instruction). I’d like to institute a semester-off policy. A tenured faculty member (one not up for promotion) will not be required to do the end-of-course ratings. In lieu of those, the faculty member will select and undertake a series of formative assessments. The person will not be expected to report results, only to document that the activities have been be completed. Would there be support in the department for a policy like this?”
- “I’m teaching a course this semester, and I’d welcome some feedback. I haven’t taught this course for a while and am trying some new approaches and different assignments. I’ve posted my syllabus on the course website and would appreciate your comments and suggestions. I was also wondering whether a couple of you who use in-class group work might be willing to come and observe when I try out some of the group activities I have planned.”
- “Teaching well is hard work, and I don’t say thank you as often as I should. Many of you have been teaching here for some time now, and you continue to work hard on behalf of the students. Good teaching demands focus, emotional energy, and extraordinary time management skills. Teaching loads are not light in this department, and classes are larger than they used to be. You have reasons to complain, and you do, but you’re still there for students, and for that I am deeply grateful. Please join me for lunch on Friday. We’re providing a nice spread in the department office between noon and 2:00 p.m. I’d like to say thank you personally and hear more about your instructional concerns, challenges, and successes.”
- “And, oh, one final thing: if you’d be willing to devote some time and energy to one or several of these areas, let’s talk. I could see you being excused from all other departmental committee responsibilities for the coming academic year in exchange for work on these projects.”
A final note to readers: What things might a faculty member say about teaching that a department chair would like to hear? Share your suggestions and I’ll be more than happy to put them together and post them in my Teaching Professor column: “For Those Who Teach.” And thanks, in advance.
Maryellen Weimer is a professor emerita of teaching and learning at Penn State Berks and is the editor of The Teaching Professor newsletter since 1987.