Opinion: Reforming the tenure system

Chris Hampson

Chris Hampson

By Alan Xiang

It’s ironic that boosting a university’s academic reputation often entails keeping bad teachers.

On Monday, I dropped a math course right before the drop deadline. It was supposed to be an easy course that would have fulfilled a technical elective for my major. I dropped the class because the math professor was the worst teacher I’ve ever had.

On the first day of class, the professor said (and I’m paraphrasing), “I don’t like to give tests. I don’t like to give grades. However, the University wouldn’t be happy with me if I didn’t.”

What I interpreted to be a statement emphasizing education over Darwinian competition in the classroom, unfortunately, was a reflection of his general apathy towards teaching. This became painfully clear in the following weeks. The professor didn’t like to give tests or grades, because I assume that would require interaction with students. He failed to mention on the first day of class that he probably also hated explaining the material.

During lecture, he’d write a problem on the board and then solve the problem with his back turned to the audience. Typically, he wouldn’t explain what he was doing or why he was doing it, and if students did ask for clarification, he’d explain the problem with complex and unrelated concepts.

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After the first few lectures, students realized the futility of asking questions and stopped. A friend in my class observed, “The class would be the exact same if he were teaching in a locked room all by himself.”

Before the first exam, I went to his office hours for some help. After receiving the answers to my questions, I thanked him. As I prepared to leave, he asked me what my major was. I said electrical engineering, and he rudely commented that I was in trouble if I didn’t even understand these problems.

Despite this, I stuck with the course until after the first exam. But when the class received their grades, we found that the professor was stingy with partial credit. Under his grading system, and with only four questions on the entire exam, the scores weren’t an accurate reflection of how well we knew the material.

The professor also “didn’t have time” to calculate the average, much less the standard deviation – although he noted that many of the scores were in the 60s and 70s. After this, I dropped the class.

This column isn’t meant to be a personal attack, nor was it inspired by some personal grudge. My opinion of him, as a teacher, was shared unanimously by every student in the course to whom I’ve spoken. His poor teaching also is reflected by the fact that around 70 percent of the class either skips lecture or has dropped the course.

I suspect that University administrators have read countless critical teacher evaluations about him before but continue to subject students to his classes because of his list of research publications (which he has posted on his Web site).

“Many deans admit that bad teaching almost never prevents a good researcher from being kept, but a wondrous lecturer who doesn’t publish is usually doomed,” says Anne Matthews, author of Bright College Years: Inside the American Campus Today. “Research gets you the reputation of running a hot, smart, cutting-edge school where big deals are made, and bigger discoveries, which make for great PR, which brings in more money.”

Matthews suggests making student recommendations a factor in granting tenure or letting younger faculty choose a research or a teaching track.

To be fair, good teaching ability does not preclude good research ability, and my experience with professors at the University has been predominantly positive. But when schools have reason to keep such faculty in the classrooms, the system is not in the best interests of students and clearly needs reform.

Alan Xiang is a junior in engineering. His column runs alternate Fridays. He can be reached at [email protected].