Harvard report promotes teaching

A recent Harvard University report calls for teaching and research to be treated equally in setting faculty salaries, but professors and administrators at Yale said the University’s culture already strikes an appropriate balance between the two.

According to the report, Harvard should increase support for “pedagogical creativity,” conduct frequent assessments of teaching and advising, and institute rewards for good teaching, in an effort to “bolster the civic culture surrounding the pursuit of excellence in teaching and student learning.” Yale already offers teaching awards and considers teaching in hiring decisions, and many professors said Yale does not need to follow suit with Harvard’s recommendations.

Theda Skocpol, dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, who chaired the task force that drafted the document, said the report addressed teaching and advising at all levels. The committee chose to examine these issues now because the university’s interim president Derek Bok is particularly interested in issues of teaching, she said. While Harvard already considers teaching quality as a factor in awarding tenure, Skocpol said, the importance of teaching could be increased throughout the university.

“We do want to see a culture where improving one’s teaching is considered important,” she said.

While faculty and administrators at Yale acknowledged the importance of academic scholarship among faculty at major research universities like Harvard and Yale, they said the University has always maintained a culture in which teaching is of the utmost importance and is always a factor considered when awarding both salary increases and tenure.

Yale College Dean Peter Salovey said he thinks Harvard’s report calls attention to important issues for all research universities. While he said there are many constraints that pose a “serious challenge” for the University to focus on teaching — such as specialized training in graduate school and the constant struggle for funding that accompanies research — he said the fact that all senior faculty must teach undergraduates shows that Yale has made it a priority.

“I think we are lucky at Yale in that it is very much a part of the Yale College culture to value the role of the faculty as educators along with that of scholars and researchers,” Salovey said. “It is a challenge to create and sustain that culture, but we are very concerned with doing so at Yale.”

But William Rando, director of the McDougal Graduate Teaching Center at Yale’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, said he thinks there is still more the University can do to promote excellence in teaching. Rando — who helps graduate students develop their teaching skills by introducing them to practices that will improve classroom discussion and student-teacher interaction — said he thinks a more scientific approach to evaluating teaching would improve the quality of the learning environment in every classroom. Besides a few exceptions — such as the Center for Language Study — there is no central place for faculty members to go to learn how to interpret and address their students’ evaluations, he said.

“[Harvard’s report is] bold, and I think it has the potential to change the context of the whole conversation at research universities about what we do with teaching,” Rando said. “I think that Yale, like all universities, could do more to provide support for faculty members who want to improve their teaching ability. That kind of thing has never been a big priority for universities, and maybe research universities in particular.”

Rando said Yale’s administration has commissioned the Teaching Support Committee to explore this issue, beginning with an assessment of the services currently available at Yale.

Still, History Department chair Paul Freedman said while he knows that some University professors are better teachers than others, he does not think Yale needs to change anything in terms of teaching. He said although Harvard’s stated goal to improve its teaching is a positive gesture, it reflects a politically-driven response to criticism of the university’s heavy focus on research.

“My impression is that Harvard is sort of rediscovering the wheel,” Freedman said. “[At Yale], there is already in place a stronger culture about the importance of teaching well, in particular undergraduates. No one is hired who wants a reduced teaching load, which you can do at some universities.”

Freedman said in his department, teaching quality is seriously considered when a faculty member is proposed for tenure.

But Physics Department chair Ramamurti Shankar said in the sciences, striking a balance between teaching quality and research scholarship is in some ways slightly more complicated because extraordinary research must be given more weight when it comes to awarding tenure.

“I think a good teaching record can be helpful, but it can never compensate for weakness in scholarship,” he said. “The balance is right [at Yale]. I really don’t think that at a university like Yale you can reward someone only for their pedagogical skills.”

Awards and salary increases should be used to recognize and reward good teachers, Shankar said.

Shankar said he does not think the University should respond to Harvard’s report because Harvard is “light years” behind Yale in terms of teaching and are only recently “waking up to the fact that there are students that need to be taught.”

But Skocpol said while she knows that institutions around the country are considering the issue of the importance of teaching, the report was drafted to address concerns specific to Harvard, not to influence other schools.

If Harvard’s faculty votes to adopt the report’s recommendations, they could be put in place as early as this academic year, the Harvard Crimson reported last week.

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