January 28, 2019

LEE | Put Students First

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Cornell prides itself in being one of the best research universities in the world. The depth and breadth of research endeavors are true to Ezra Cornell’s founding mission of “any person … any study,” and its faculty are some of the most renowned scholars in their field. Yet, the emphasis placed on scholarly activities often come at the expense of student learning and experience. Around this time every semester, I am shocked at the number of Ivy League professors who put so little effort into their syllabi that they forget to change even the term of the course from Fall 2018 to Spring 2019.

It is no secret that the setup of a research university enables faculty members to thrive so long as they are actively involved in their research interests and advisement of graduate students under their direct supervision. Numerous professors whose student ratings are below average have received tenure because their outstanding research activities override shortfalls in teaching. I have been told by some TAs that professors often even urge their master’s or doctoral teaching assistants to set office hours at an early time in the day when most students have class so that few can actually attend them, and so they will be able to focus their efforts on their own work rather than on undergraduates.

There is no question that many, if not most, professors I have encountered make the effort to learn student names and gain pleasure in mentoring and impacting a student’s college career. While many professors are fully engaged in the University — whether that is through their research, in class or in campus governance —  others are unconcerned with the classroom learning environment, some even handing over almost all classroom-related functions to their TAs. Cornell’s vague and nontransparent criteria for tenure may offer an explanation as to why many professors simply overlook the need to be involved with the undergraduate learning process. “Significant achievements” needed to be considered for tenure imply that universities often place a disproportionate emphasis on more obvious factors such as scholarly feats while the less visible but often more meaningful ability to impact students is neglected.

However, such faculty members should realize that research and teaching are not incompatible and that engagement in one does not limit one’s capacity in the other. In fact, there is no correlation between being a skilled researcher and an impressive instructor, according to a study by the Brookings Institution. As such, professors should actively seek to debunk the myth that striving to improve the quality of teaching diminishes one’s ability to partake in significant research. Both research and teaching, which together serve as the backbone of an educational institution, should thus receive equal attention by faculty — and in assessments of faculty.

Cornell University would fail to exist without students. The University should prioritize its students by encouraging professors to become more actively involved with individuals’ learning and award their teaching abilities as much as their research. Professors who are more confident with their research skills should link teaching to research through, for instance, bringing examples from their experiments and studies into the classroom. Those who are highly involved with research can incorporate that element into their teaching by providing undergraduates a glimpse of high-level research in a classroom setting.

The University should also promote more personalized professor-student interactions outside of office hours. This is especially crucial for first-year students who struggle in the transition from high school classes that are smaller in size to 1000-level courses with hundreds of students. Yes, students should learn to seek resources on their own, but they can only do so with help from a faculty member who is willing to be an active teacher and advisor. Professors are only fully fulfilling their duty when actively engaged in the classroom as well as the learning process of their students. They ought to commit to their responsibilities as educators and mentors as much as their role as researchers.

DongYeon (Margaret) Lee is a junior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. Here, There and Everywhere appears alternate Tuesdays this semester. She can be reached at margaretlee@cornellsun.com.