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John Harvard's Journal

Toward Top-Tier Teaching

March-April 2007

A task force on teaching proposed in late January that members of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) enter into a “compact” to enhance teaching and student learning, and to consider them as important as excellence in scholarship. To effect this change of emphasis in an institution where research is more commonly highlighted, the nine task-force members, all tenured, appealed to their colleagues’ professional self-image as scholar-educators. They also proposed a tangible incentive: new funds for innovative classroom approaches and training junior faculty and doctoral students. The task force further appealed to the dean of FAS to weigh evaluations of teaching and research equally in awarding professors’ annual salary increases. (See “Taking Teaching Seriously,” November-December 2006, page 60; the 86-page report appears at releases/taskforce_01242007.pdf.)

President Derek Bok, who has written extensively on these subjects, said of the task force’s work, “For decades, universities have been criticized for paying too little attention to the quality of teaching. This report provides the most comprehensive effort I have ever seen to address this problem and thereby enhance the  process of learning at Harvard.”

Task force chair Theda Skocpol, dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, said she was “struck by the disconnect” between many individual faculty members’ passion for teaching and enthusiasm for making their courses more effective, and “pervasive skepticism that the institution cares about these things.” As the report notes, “Teachers labor in ‘pedagogical solitude.’” In such a culture, the faculty has failed to pursue “the idea that teaching, like research, can be continually improved in exciting ways.”

The report also documents real impediments to good teaching:

  • Responding to a survey, a teaching fellow reported, “[I]n my department, teaching is de-emphasized to an extreme.… There’s no training or guidance,” and graduate students are acquainted with “a silent understanding that you should put as little time into it as possible.”
  • A junior-faculty member said, “In my six years at Harvard, I have never been given the impression that my teaching is taken into account in promotion decisions.”
  • The task force reviewed all appointment files forwarded by FAS departments for review in the 2005-2006 academic year and found “virtually no discussion of teaching in formal case statements for new junior-faculty hires. For tenure cases the situation is better, but very uneven”—with more documentation for internal than for external candidates, and with better evidence in the humanities and social sciences than in the natural sciences. The types of evidence provided fall far short of the “systematic information” needed.

In response, Skocpol explained at a briefing on February 2, the task force sought to improve teaching through the processes that drive research (peer review and critique, continuous sharing of information); to capture examples of successful teaching and pedagogical creativity and share them; to make assessment measures better, uniform, and more readily available, from the doctoral level through the practice of senior professors; and to reinforce all those messages through salary reviews.

The task force did not prescribe specific teaching methods; there is room, Skocpol said, “for different formats, and to improve them all.” And it specifies that any proposal must not “demand more of graduate students and junior faculty, without asking for comparable efforts and accountability from senior, tenured faculty in FAS.”

Rather, it details five broad goals and 18 specific recommendations aimed at:

  • Fostering engagement in effective teaching and learning. Presidential and decanal exhortation can set the tone. Departments can make teaching a focus of meetings; faculty members can share syllabi and teaching methods; professors can observe one another’s classes and offer comments (a routine at Harvard Business School, and a prime opportunity for junior-faculty development). FAS can make significant funds available for individual and departmental experiments in teaching, training, and assessment. Skocpol said she hopes that every department will undertake some program, appropriate to its discipline, to improve the education offered to students.
  • Supporting pedagogical creativity. The existing Bok Center for Teaching and Learning could broaden its services. Today, the center focuses on basic classroom skills and remediating problems (the report describes poor performers being “towed to the garage” for a “tune-up”). Reconstituted, it could also provide practical access to current pedagogical research. As well, FAS ought to encourage innovative class lengths and formats, and appropriate ways of assessing such experiments.
  • Promoting assessment. The task force describes the faculty’s current annual teaching self-evaluations as archaic compared to those of peer institutions. Similarly, student course evaluations are inadequate to evaluate learning over time, in relation to curriculum and pedagogy.
  • Rewarding good teaching and pedagogical gains. As noted, the task force would tie annual salary adjustments in part to teaching performance and improvements. During the course of an academic career, such sums could become significant; and this practice would provide an incentive for continuing to focus on teaching, not just when a professor seeks tenure. (As matters stand, the dean sets salaries for the 450 tenured professors annually, relying on fragmentary information from each one, supplemented by some rule-of-thumb judgments by department chairs, concerning teaching, research, and contributions to institutional life.) At the time of appointment, to better inform the decisions made now, FAS should consider requiring “teaching statements” to go with tenure candidates’ “research statements,” and “demonstrations of important teaching skills,” to be attended by students and other faculty members. All junior faculty should be offered teaching orientations, with continuing follow-up; similar attention should be paid to Ph.D. students.
  • Publicizing teaching, through prizes, internal news coverage, and active outreach to other institutions to share and learn from examples of effective teaching.

As task-force member Xiao-Li Meng, professor of statistics and department chair, memorably summarized the goal, Harvard faculty members should have “a beautiful mind for research—and also have a beautiful heart for teaching.”

In the end, it will be up to faculty members themselves to determine whether, and how avidly, to embrace the recommendations. As the task force observes, “it will come down to value commitments and understandings of our fundamental institutional mission—what we really care about in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.”

This is an important moment for making that determination. As the faculty reacts to the report this spring, it will also be making decisions on the general-education part of the undergraduate curriculum (see "General Education, Finally Defined")—the final piece of the multiyear review of the College course of study, which has been largely silent on teaching and pedagogy. And FAS’s growth now focuses on the sciences and engineering—the very fields, the task force found, where the evidence in hiring is most skewed toward research prowess. The task force, Skocpol said, is “asking a lot from everyone.”