Those of us at Yale once again had an opportunity to pat ourselves on the back for superiority to the Puritans up north when Harvard last week issued a report calling for their faculty to give teaching more weight in awarding tenure. The report quoted anonymous faculty and grad students who alleged that Harvard teaching awards are considered a “kiss of death,” and, if the report’s recommendations are passed, Harvard could eventually give teaching “major and equal weight” with research in making decisions about professors’ salaries.
Yale has long prided itself on its commitment to undergraduate education, and rightly so. Following a comprehensive 2003 curricular review, the faculty decided to change distributional requirements and expand the number and diversity of small freshmen seminars. Most, if not all, Yale professors teach undergraduate classes, and talent in teaching is, according to Dean Peter Salovey, a consideration in tenure and salary decisions.
But laurels make for an unstable resting place, and Yale shouldn’t get overconfident about the quality of undergraduate teaching. Certainly, the teaching here is of high quality, particularly considering that Yale is a research university, but improvement is always possible. Rather than automatically dismissing Harvard’s report as evidence that the Cantabs are one step behind, Yale should use this opportunity to review and renew its commitment to quality teaching.
Introductory lectures required for the larger majors would be a great place for the University to start. It is a rite of passage for econ majors to survive the tedium of “Intermediate Microeconomics,” but departments should not abandon those classes which students have no choice but to take. Other departments, such as physics, have attracted more majors by making a concerted effort to liven up introductory lectures. Other science departments in particular can learn from this example and reconsider whether the professors currently teaching introductory classes are welcoming students to the discipline or driving them away with disorganized and unengaging lectures.
Professors are not the only factors in a class’ success, to be sure. Teaching fellows can make or break those giant lectures, and the News supports those who are calling for TF evaluations to be posted along with the rest of the feedback on the course selection Web site, which, we would also argue, should be available year-round, or at least during seminar preregistration period. By addressing teaching quality at the highest and lowest levels, Yale could significantly improve the undergraduate experience.
This responsibility falls not on the administration alone. Individual departments, which have the greatest familiarity with their own faculty members and graduate students, should take greater care in doling out teaching assignments. Finally, we students must take advantage of any opportunity we have to influence teaching quality, whether by using the course evaluations to suggest ways an instructor can improve or by nominating an outstanding professor for a teaching prize — a prize that at Yale, thankfully, will not be a setback to that professor’s career.