Committee Examines Teaching on Campus

February 1, 1997

Nick Marinello

Teaching is a very, very difficult business," says Tulane President Eamon Kelly. With that in mind, Kelly has called for an ad hoc committee to explore ways to "strengthen the quality of teaching throughout the university." According to Kelly, who has acted as interim provost since last summer, there were three issues that motivated him to form the committee.

"I had been concerned that there may be an inequitable distribution of teaching responsibility within various departments," says Kelly. "I also wanted us to put into place an incentive system for good teaching, which will be an important component for both compensation and promotion. Finally, I wanted to see if there were ways we could reward good teaching and sort out ways in which we could eliminate inadequate teaching."

To that end Kelly has requested 12 members of the Faculty of Liberal Arts and Sciences (LAS) to discuss these issues and produce a document offering recommendations. "We are supposed to act as a think tank," says Molly Travis, associate professor of English and committee chair. "We are not supposed to worry about policy implementation." Nevertheless, Travis says that the committee was "a little leery" of making suggestions that might become campus-wide policy when it was composed solely of LAS faculty.

While she expects the document to outline the "parameters and purview" of teaching in LAS, Travis says that it is the intention of the committee to share the document with pertinent committees in the University Senate as well as interested groups from other schools and colleges. "Right now I view our primary audience as the new provost," says Travis. "When the provost arrives she will need this kind of feedback from faculty to inform her decisions on initiatives about evaluating and enhancing teaching. We see this as an opportunity to educate other administrators, as well."

Travis says the committee will not engage in an external or comparative analysis with other institutions. "This document is not going to be filled with statistics and hard data," says Travis. "These are all fine teachers on this committee. We will draw from our experiences and those of our colleagues." A letter sent out to all LAS faculty invited feedback that will be incorporated into the committee's suggestions, says Travis, adding, "I see my job as chair to a large extent as synthesizing a lot of information."

Much of that information will deal with the relationship of teaching and research. "It has long been held here that teaching and research were both necessary, but not sufficient alone, but not many in the faculty have ever believed that," says Travis. "It seemed, in fact, that excellent research alone was sufficient." The reason for this, suggests Travis, is that there has been no way to evaluate teaching in the past.

Subsequently, she says, "teaching hasn't been rewarded, and that is a problem." "We have a tendency in this country," says Kelly, "to look under the streetlight for the quarter we lost even though we've lost the quarter three blocks away. It is a tendency to measure what is measurable, and teaching is very hard to measure. "We know the great teachers on campus," says Kelly, "and there are a substantial number of them. We know the very, very poor teachers, and they are a small group. The harder question is how do you differentiate that large middle group and how do you evaluate individual performances and compensate them appropriately."

Although Travis acknowledges that there is currently "no adequate way of evaluating teaching," she suggests that teacher portfolios, better student evaluations, a peer review process and alumni interviews could all contribute to effective evaluations. Travis says she realizes that for many faculty members, teaching has been "a pleasurable process in part because it has been so unevaluated," providing a kind of refuge from the high level of scrutiny that research engenders.

Yet, she maintains that, "for those people doing a good job, the evaluation ought not be an uncomfortable process and it should lead to raises at the very least, as well as other sorts of rewards." In any case, Travis expects the committee's document, which is to be prepared by March, will entertain a variety of suggestions. "What Dr. Kelly wants--what the provost will want--are ideas. We will offer a series of ideas; this document should be viewed as the beginning of the process, not the ending."

Tulane University, New Orleans, LA 70118 504-865-5000