September 27, 2019

BETTEZ | Fill Out Your Course Evaluations

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On the first day of a higher level engineering class I took last semester, the professor, who taught the introductory course, mentioned he read our course evaluations from the previous semester. But after addressing that we had universally complained that his labs were tedious, time consuming and not conducive at all to learning and that we wanted fewer of them, he laughed and said that was too bad, because this class had even more of the same. The TAs for his previous class were never in their office hours because they would walk in at the beginning, see that no one was there and walk out. Another one of my major classes was 75 minutes long and included nothing except the professor droning on at the front of the room while writing on a piece of paper projected on the wall. All of these classes functioned on the old framework of lectures, weekly problem sets and labs. With an approximate $30,000 engineering education price tag per semester for taking about 20 credits, I spent a total of $24,000 on required classes taught by these two professors. I learned little in any of them.

I teach math classes for engineering freshmen navigating their brutal introductory classes. Now in my fourth semester in the job, the messages I hear in the trainings are pretty familiar: how to fulfill the basic administrative duties of the job, how to create an inclusive environment, how to teach effectively. But this time around, it struck me that it seems like more training goes into teaching me how to teach — a student making near-minimum wage teaching a supplementary class — than the engineering professors who actually instruct the course. And that’s absolutely ridiculous.

Education research lately has focused on active learning techniques to increase comprehension. This encompasses anything from engaging students with the material with I-Clicker questions during lecture to class discussions. The world of higher education is starting to catch onto these active learning methods, but the engineering college is slow on implementation. My engineering classes almost all  follow the old, tired pattern of monotoned lectures accompanied by a weekly problem set and lab with periodic exams.

The track to become an engineering professor involves years of grueling classes and research, writing papers and dissertations, but shockingly little education on how to teach effectively. This creates a staff of accomplished and intelligent researchers who can write scientific papers favorably representing the University, but fails to ensure a well-developed education for the students who they should primarily be responsible for. The students of the College of Engineering deserve an education fitting of a world renowned University, which shouldn’t come second to the professors research. To do this, the College of Engineering needs to work to hold its professors more accountable to their students.

But that’s not to say no one’s trying. There’s a growing movement spearheaded by Kathy Dimiduk hidden away in the corner of Rhodes Hall, where she is the director of  a small, little-known operation called the James McCormick Family Teaching Excellence Institute. Yeah, I also had no idea it existed. In her decade at Cornell, she’s done the absolute best she can to wrangle the engineering faculty into being better teachers pretty much any way she can. If you’ve ever noticed the higher teaching quality of the newer hires, you can thank her. All incoming engineering faculty have to go through a two-day teaching seminar run by her.

Unfortunately, Dimiduk doesn’t get the same jurisdiction over senior professors. She’s actually reads  every single mid-semester feedback survey we submit, which made me feel awful about what a dismal job I’ve done in the last two years filling those out. The only way she can get ahold of our senior professors who are teaching classes the same way they’ve taught them for 40 years is by making them meet her about issues in those surveys when they get low reviews. When I met with her, her main request was that I get the word out to fill out the mid-semester surveys coming out in a few weeks, and fill them out well. Come on guys, do it for Kathy. She’s really trying and it’s the least we can do for her and our tuition dollars. These give her leverage to convince the professors to change their ways and actually be engaging and help us retain information past the final.

Despite her best efforts, it seems like the higher levels of the engineering school just don’t care enough about improving the quality of engineering education. Her “department” is just her, two postdocs who devote about 10 percent of their time to the institute and an assistant. Only because of low ratings will senior faculty be held accountable — otherwise, administrators think they don’t need any supplementary training. As long as they’re churning out enough research papers or have tenure, they’re content to allow the professors to keep doing whatever they want — an unfortunate complacency for its students who are burying themselves in debt to get a “world-class” education.

Michaela Bettez is a junior in the College of Engineering. She can be reached at mlb434@cornell.edu. Bet on It runs every other Friday this semester.