On Our Devotion to Teaching

From the March 2012 Alumni Review

Here’s a quiz.

If, walking down a corridor, you pass two Williams faculty members in conversation, they’re mostly likely to be discussing:
A.     Their most recent grant proposals
B.     The U.S. presidential race
C.     The state of parking on campus
D.     Teaching

Believe me, the answer at some places would be C. At many it’d be A. But at Williams, to my happy surprise, the answer has turned out to be D. The question that Williams faculty most ask on seeing each other is: “How are your courses going?” It’s a question I appreciate being asked myself, since even when my teaching isn’t going as well as I’d like, the chance to think about it out loud with a colleague is always welcome.

This almost totally absorbing focus on teaching in our faculty culture is one of the college’s greatest assets and helps explain why, when I visit alumni, they almost always ask after their favorite faculty member or two or half-dozen.

As Dean of the Faculty Peter Murphy puts it, “To join the Williams faculty is to enter a constant conversation about teaching,” and our faculty have developed a variety of structures to shape and inform that conversation.

Most visible are the Student Course Survey and open-ended student comments known as “blue sheets” that are filled in by virtually every student at the end of each course. The survey provides quantifiable feedback that every faculty member can compare with department, division and college-wide norms. And students typically write extensively on their blue sheets, offering general impressions about the course and responding to specific questions the faculty member has held up for scrutiny.

The most intense evaluation of teaching takes place as part of the tenure review process. To supplement the survey and blue sheets, Williams departments and programs each semester typically have senior faculty visit the classes of each junior colleague and interview students from those courses.

The ethos engendered by the tenure process affects all faculty, even those well past their own decision.

They and their junior colleagues also can take advantage of the Program in Effective Teaching, which the faculty developed to help feed its members’ desire to continually improve what they do. The program provides many avenues outside the formal review process for faculty to learn from each other and from outside sources.

You can get a sense of what the program has to offer by visiting http://pet.williams.edu/, where you can see, among other things, short videos of faculty sharing how they’ve learned to handle certain classroom challenges.

The most important element of the college’s culture of teaching, however, comes from our students, who are extremely smart and have very high expectations of faculty. Not only do students passionately fill in their course surveys and blue sheets, but they welcome being interviewed by senior faculty and will often walk into your office to share spontaneously how they think your class is going. This is why when we appoint faculty, students spend time with every candidate.

No matter how long you’ve been teaching, nothing is more satisfying than walking back from class feeling that things clicked for those remarkable students, and nothing is more deflating than knowing that they didn’t.

Those two faculty you passed in the corridor? It might surprise you to learn that how they’re feeling is directly related to how they thought their last class went.

Visit http://pet.williams.edu/ to view short videos of faculty sharing how they’ve learned to handle certain classroom challenges.