Grading the professors

Kelly Tyko

You’re sitting in your Introduction to Astronomy class taking notes so feverishly that you don’t have time to cross your Ts.

You later meet someone in a different section of the same-level astronomy course and admire the doodles in her notebook and the big red A’s on her scantrons.

Where did you go wrong? How come she has it easy, while all you have is writer’s cramp and a “C” average?

“Oh, I knew not to take astronomy with Professor X,” the girl remarks.

Real cases may not be this severe, or sometimes they can be worse.

Brandey Parker says she always does her homework before choosing which professor and classes she’ll take. Parker, who’s the Student Government governor of the Boca Raton campus, says she’ll ask around and consider others’ opinions before getting locked into a semester of boredom or exhaustion.

“If a professor has a 60 percent failure rate, I have a right to know that,” says Parker. “I’m looking for teachers who are effective in teaching.”

And thanks to a new service that Student Government is considering getting, the information on FAU professors soon might be a keystroke away.

Student Body President Pablo Paez is pushing the initiative, which is a website done by a national company that gives students background information on professors.

“I think students deserve to have more sources of information about professors and classes,” Paez says. “More than what’s provided at this point. I think we deserve more from a customer’s perspective.”

That’s the reason the Pick-A-Professor website was created. Cofounders Jon Cunningham and Chris Chilek came up with the idea of Pick-A-Professor when they were seniors at Texas A&M.

“We definitely recognize the need for students to have more information, and putting it online makes it really convenient for everyone to get a hold of. Basically we want students to have as much information as possible when registering for class,” Cunningham told the UP.

Currently, 43 schools are using the Pick-A-Professor service. FAU’s Student Government will decide if they will join the service and pay $2,000 a year at the University-Wide Council meeting on Friday, Oct. 11.

“Students need to know who’s teaching them and how the class is going to be laid out. The only way to do that is by having that information with other students who have been in that situation before,” Paez says.

And all the professors that the UP talked to agree that Pick-A-Professor can help in some areas. (For more of what they had to say, see below).

Professor David Lee thinks the program is a good idea. He says, “I favor this technique of evaluation. When I began teaching in 1967 at the University of California at Davis, the students had such a book. It seemed most useful to the students in helping them decide courses to take and professors to seek out or avoid.”

Currently, Lee says, FAU relies “on SPOT (Student Perception of Teaching) summary statistics, and sometimes the written comments are introduced. Additionally, we have peer review, which is other profs sitting in on a few classes and information (is) given to the chair, both good and bad, about a particular professor.”

Lee thinks the new system has the potential to cause problems – not for students, but for faculty.

“The problem facing the United Faculty of Florida and the administration, is how, if at all, this Pick-A-Professor would impact on professors in terms of promotion, tenure, or annual raises,” Lee says.

And some students believe the website can cause problems for students.

Grad student Jennifer Sherman thinks that “providing grade distribution is detrimental, because it can potentially scare students away from an excellent class.”

Senate Speaker Nick Kalman agrees: “The only reservation I would have is that every student’s experience with the professor varies and I would hate for a student to be misled and not take a class because of something that they read.”

But the Boca Raton senior also thinks the program should be implemented.

“It’s a good service and cost efficient. It’s always good for students to have an opportunity to review how others think of professors,” Kalman says.

It also gives professors a chance to see how students think of them.

“In the SPOT evaluations, you’re not given enough time to reflect on the class or enough space to make your comments,” Paez says. “What Pick-A-Prof does, is it gives students the opportunity to state their case and have enough time to think about the class and come up with a review of the class and the professor.

But grading and evaluating professors doesn’t always have to be negative.

Parker says, “I know I have some professors that I loved and I would want to promote them. What people really need are the facts.”

To check out how Pick-A-Professor works at other universities, check out www.pickaprofessor.com

What the professors think …

David Lee, Ph. D., geography professor, also chair elect of Boca Raton Faculty Senate

“Frankly, I don’t think that it would have much of an impact. Perhaps one or two weaker professors would be discovered by this process, but overall, I think that we’re all doing a good job in the classroom.

“I support most student-oriented programs that can have an impact on making the education experience more useful and meaningful. I doubt that there are any serious downsides to this, and perhaps it could stimulate some professors to redesign their courses.”

Fred Hoffman, Ph.D., mathematics professor, chair of University Faculty Council

“It could be better than SPOT, could be worse, as far as an information source. I personally like the idea of something coming from the students better than something forced on us all from outside.

“The value to students and faculty depends on the quality of the instrument. As I said, I tend to favor an instrument coming from students over one coming from the state, if there has to be “popularity contest” used by students to help them choose classes.”

George Sparks, Ph.D., music professor, FAU’s director of bands, also past chair of Boca Raton Faculty Senate

“The basic concept of providing students with information regarding their future professor is a good one. … To care about grade distribution, etc. is not a very valid way to find a person of value in one’s field.

“Also, this is a side thought. I learned as much, if not more, from professors that I did not like, as opposed to the ones that I did like.

“You can often pinpoint the behaviors that you do not wish to exhibit in your life from the profs that don’t appeal to you. Also, those opinions change as you get more mature yourself, and as you gain the advantage of distance from those profs. Some that you did not like or think valid, become much better with time and distance.

“Looks like the germ of a good idea, but not brass ring. I still think that website visits, campus visits, and looking into programs to see if they look as if they meet your needs is the best way to pick a university professor.”

Mark Jackson, Ph.D., science professor

“I always encourage students to ask questions of fellow students and faculty before taking courses. If the FAU SPOT material is inadequate, I would encourage such third-party evaluation tools. Students must take their future into their own hands; if they expect FAU faculty, advisors or administrators to care, they will suffer.

“SPOT is already in place to help with this type of evaluation. Good professors do not have to worry about being “hammered”; they are open to honest feedback from students.

“Most professors are careful with appearing to placate the students to get good SPOT scores. The lousy faculty will not care either way; they have allowed apathy to dominate their work; as long as the FAU administration does not bother them, they plod along, waiting for retirement. Unfortunately, students are too often victims of the attitude: ‘its just FAU, so who really cares.’

“Students should demand more from themselves and their faculty. Unfortunately, in the current climate, there is little incentive for faculty to really try and help with this. We receive little moral support in our work from the administration and trustees. We are viewed as the enemy if we request that issues of quality be given weight over cronyism and corruption.

“This drives many faculty to do what sensible students do: Find Another University.”