Students Taking Charge (For once)

It’s the time of semester where students get to take out sixteen weeks of frustration and pent up rage: it is time for teacher evaluations. Unfortunately, for many students, this feels like a fruitless exercise. They listened to complaints of previous students and yet the teacher remains uninterested, unyielding and deaf to the demands for change. It is an exhausting cycle that leaves students feeling powerless. The conclusion that can be drawn from this exercise is twofold: 1) MSU is a business and will operate as such and 2) teachers have a lot more in common with students than the campus population would like to admit.

MSU, while being a public university, gets much of its funding from research grants. When new teachers start at MSU, they start on one of two main tracks: tenure track or non-tenure track. Tenure track is a multi-year commitment. Professors have to fulfill a number of requirements. This encompasses effectiveness in teaching, research and service. After fulfilling these requirements for a few years, the professor is reviewed by a board that looks into grants received, peer reviews and yes, student teacher evaluations. It is only then that they are accepted on as tenured faculty. This brings increased job stability and a bigger paycheck. Non-tenure track professors operate on one year contracts and their paychecks would indicate that they are less valuable to the university. This is not true for the students. Because the school can only afford to pay professors a certain amount of money, most tenured professors make a majority of their money from their research grants. This makes research the priority and teaching gets pushed to the back burner.

This can be incredibly frustrating for students who would argue “Hey, I’m paying your salary. The least you could do is your job.” Well, the paycheck provided by student tuition doesn’t have as much value to the school or to the professors as research grants do. A lot of tenured professors focus on their research, even if that means their classes suffer.

Non-tenure track professors are often working their job because they enjoy the teaching aspect of it. This inherently puts them ahead of professors who are teaching out of obligation. And students notice the difference. Because MSU has no set policy for teaching requirements, there is no standardized quality control for the professors. Too often, the fallacious assumption is “You have a PhD, therefore you can teach”.

Two students of equal academic standing could take the same class taught by two different professors and come out with drastically different grades. For anyone applying to grad school, “My general chemistry teacher sucked” isn’t going to explain away the C on the transcript. While it isn’t fair that class grades will suffer because MSU is more interested in research than quality control, it is the logical course of action. Research brings in more money and more recognition than the students and that is where MSU will be investing its money.

However, this isn’t an institutional problem but a human one. Those who want to succeed in an academic setting will work for it and others will let school fall to the wayside in pursuit of things deemed more important. This is shown in student and the same is true of teachers. Those who care about improving their student teacher evaluations will examine the comments, decide what is feasible, and implement change. Those who consider it a lost cause or who have more important things on their minds will brush off the comments and move on. No number of seminars will change that mentality. It takes a sweeter carrot and a bigger stick.

MSU needs to hinge more on student evaluations like, maybe, the job. The jobs of research professors are linked to the grant money they bring in. Students should be equally important. Bad reviews lead to decreased paycheck, mandatory instructional seminars, and more intensive peer supervision. Some would argue that students are too fickle and wouldn’t be accurate judges depending on the difficulty of the classes.

Steve Holmgren is a perfect example to the contrary. He consistently gets great reviews, was the recipient of multiple teaching awards and teaches organic chemistry, one of the most notoriously difficult classes. Students are smart enough to distinguish between a hard working teacher and an apathetic one.

MSU has many amazing resources for students and faculty alike. The Center for Faculty Excellence is the teacher equivalent of the Allen Yarnell Center for Student Success, both services that are underutilized. Students can only judge their teachers at the same standard they hold themselves and vice versa. The faculty have essentially a professor book club where they discuss books about education and how to integrate that knowledge into the classroom. Research has shown that student success is increased by getting involved with something within their discipline within the first year.
Professors should have the same mentality of becoming more involved and connected to the school and their classes. MSU is purportedly dedicated to putting good professors in the classroom. If you don’t agree with that, call them out on it. Structure opportunities to have constructive conversations with difficult professors. Talk to department heads about concerns. Most importantly, take time to fill out student teacher evaluations. You have the potential to change the course of your professor’s career.