Columbia’s faculty, often leaders in their fields, are esteemed due to the high quality of research they produce—but their teaching ability does not always meet such a high standard.
The Office of the Provost’s guidelines for tenure prioritize faculty publications and scholarly contributions over teaching ability, which directs much of the focus of faculty and departments towards research. While these guidelines lay out certain requirements for tenure, they give only recommendations, rather than requirements, for evaluating teaching ability.
“This is an institution where people have gotten into tenured faculty positions by being great scholars and hopefully okay teachers too, and in some cases even really great teachers,” Chair of the history department Seth Schwartz said.
While teaching does factor into both the tenure process and in internal departmental reviews, there are no written principles or methods for evaluating teaching within departments, which leads to ambiguity about what constitutes high-quality teaching.
Instead, departments frequently rely on student course evaluations, which are widely acknowledged by faculty to be imperfect assessments of teaching.
This lack of clear, comprehensive standards for evaluating pedagogy means that the quality of teaching does not always meet the standard of excellence that defines other aspects of the University.
“I am convinced that everyone who successfully goes through tenure is a capable teacher. I think excellent can be a tricky criteria … because I think the standard of excellence means something different anytime anyone says it. It can be hard to say that [there is excellence] in every single case,” said Chair of the Promotion and Tenure Committee and English professor Nicholas Dames.
The Promotion and Tenure Committee, the tenure review committee for the faculty of Arts and Sciences, which is comprised of Columbia College, the School of General Studies, and three graduate schools, evaluates candidates for tenure based on the Provost’s guideline.
Though these guidelines prioritize research, Provost John Coatsworth does not see this as detrimental to faculty teaching.
“The fundamental assumption of a research university is that faculty who are at the cutting edge of their disciplines have the possibility of becoming better teachers than faculty who are not,” Coatsworth said. “Of course we are looking to hire the best researchers in the world, the people who cure cancer and make new discoveries everyday, but at the same time we place a great deal of importance on teaching.”
Exceptional pedagogy can make students more enthusiastic about their classwork and motivate them to explore new career paths. Grace MacNeill, CC ’21, is considering majoring in history after taking a class with history professor Stephanie McCurry this semester.
“After sitting through one of her lectures, it was totally inspiring. It made history not so static and not like the boring class you would have had in high school,” MacNeill said. “She was ready to engage with me and was equally as excited about my excitement.”
MacNeill said that because of McCurry’s class, she plans to value a professor’s teaching ability as much as she would the content of course when registering for classes in the future.
To increase consistency in faculty teaching, The “Procedures for Documenting Teaching Excellence Committee,” a now-dissolved subcommittee composed of Arts & Sciences faculty, proposed five recommendations last June for the way that teaching is evaluated in A&S, particularly analyzing its role in the tenure process.
The subcommittee, which was chaired by biology professor Brent Stockwell, who is currently on leave, suggested that departments reconsider the way they evaluate teaching, provide a written standard for teaching, and create uniform guidelines that determine how teaching ability is weighed when hiring new faculty. It also recommended that A&S communicate its teaching values to new faculty and provide incentives for all faculty to improve their teaching, though it did not go so far as to recommend that Columbia increase the role that teaching plays in the tenure process.
Currently, student evaluations, which students fill out at the end of a course, serve as one of the the main methods departments use in assessing teaching.
However, such evaluations have been shown to be biased against women and minorities, and many faculty have expressed concerns that these evaluations are based on student’s perceptions of the course unrelated to the pure teaching ability of their professor.
Departments also lack written statements outlining their teaching objectives, making it difficult for the PTC to determine if a faculty member is a good teacher since there are no standards to measure him or her against.
Dean of Humanities Sarah Cole, another member of the subcommittee, said the recommendations serve as a reminder to department chairs of Columbia’s commitment to teaching.
“I think these [teaching statements] are not all going to be revolutionary, maybe none of them are. But I think it’s a signal that departments recognize that having some thought about what constitutes effective teaching for our faculty is just part of what we do,” Cole said.
However, some of Columbia’s peer institutions emphasize teaching more in their guiding missions. Princeton University, known for its commitment to undergraduate learning, weighs teaching just as heavily as research in its evaluation of faculty for tenure.
The recommendations are currently being examined by Dean of Arts and Sciences David Madigan, who strongly endorses the recommendations, he told Spectator. Madigan will be stepping down from his administrative role within the coming months but said conversations in A&S about the recommendations will continue into the fall.
Department chairs generally oppose the idea of creating a single written standard for teaching because the teaching obligations of faculty vary widely within departments, especially since faculty can teach lectures, seminars, courses for non-majors, or Core classes.
“It’s exceptionally difficult to produce a meaningful document like the one requested … what does good history teaching consist of? How are we going to measure people against that? Oh my god, where to begin on that,” Schwartz said.
This sentiment was echoed widely by department chairs, many of whom believe that the diversity of teaching styles makes it difficult to condense teaching into one statement. Schwartz said even if such a written standard could be produced, it would have little effect on faculty teaching.
“I’ve been here long enough to know that having written rules doesn’t change anything because no one remembers them and no one pays attention to them,” Schwartz said.
However, Dames said such a standard established by each department separately would be helpful in providing a baseline and context for the PTC when it evaluates a candidate’s teaching.
“It has been assumed that we all know good teaching when we see it and that we all mean the same thing by that, and that can’t be true,” he said.
Department chairs, especially those whose departments don’t conduct in-person observations of tenure-track faculty, also rely heavily on student evaluations when presenting the case of a faculty member for tenure to the PTC.
When student evaluations were first made public three years ago, Stockwell acknowledged the inherent bias in them and said he was investigating possible solutions to this issue.
Dames said he doesn’t consider statistics like student evaluation scores or enrollment as objective evidence of teaching ability.
“In the end I don’t think anyone would feel entirely confident placing a judgement of a candidate on something like course evaluations,” Dames said.
However, despite the misgivings of the PTC, student evaluations still play a large role in evaluating faculty teaching.
“The teaching evaluations are what we have, there are no alternatives. … In the end, a lot weighs on the 3, 4, and 5 of the teaching evaluations,” Murillo said.
Other methods, such as classroom observations of tenured or tenure-track faculty, are inconsistent across departments due to the large time requirement and the discomfort felt by faculty in judging the teaching of a colleague.
The subcommittee’s recommendations encourage departments to adopt a new template for evaluating faculty that includes other indicators of teaching quality, such as course materials, outside teaching awards, and mentoring of students, in addition to student evaluations. These indicators are currently employed inconsistently across departments.
The committee also recommended that faculty receive monetary incentives for professional development efforts, such as utilizing the resources offered by the Center for Teaching and Learning.
Columbia established the center in 2016 as an institution to improve teaching by hosting workshops for faculty and conducting research on best practices for teaching. However, according to multiple faculty, the center is used more by graduate students and junior faculty than tenured faculty.
“If you’ve been teaching the same way for 20 years, you may not want to say that I don’t know enough [teaching] to do my job. That’s very difficult to do,” Chair of the English department Alan Stewart said.
Given that becoming better teachers will not help in the advancement of their careers, faculty must be self-motivated to improve their teaching ability.
“There are no institutional incentives to spend more time thinking about teaching or have someone come teach us about new methods or new possibilities,” member of the PTC and political science professor Maria Murillo said.
Graduate students at Columbia, however, often do have compelling reasons to improve their teaching for future job prospects. For instance, Columbia’s history department, though it does not require candidates to teach a sample class, prepares its Ph.D. students to do so at other universities by requiring six semesters of being a teacher’s assistant.
Similarly, for undergraduates in Columbia College, the research emphasis of departments is balanced by the devotion to teaching in the Core Curriculum. Core teachers have the option to attend weekly lectures to learn how to best teach their course content. This comprehensive support for Core teachers was cited by many faculty as a positive example for departments overall, even though they acknowledged it as a very time and resource intensive strategy.
“If you were to going to go to the Core conference room almost any day around lunchtime, you would find these meetings going on. That is where you see that commitment to liberal arts teaching,” former Chair of Contemporary Civilization, member of the PTC, and history professor Matt Jones said.
Research and teaching do not necessarily conflict in improving the undergraduate experience. The divide remains over whether the evaluation of teaching in this balance should become more standardized.
“We really take teaching seriously, but it’s also not the case that every single individual has to be good at teaching. … Ideally we offer both,” Schwartz said. “We do not wish to devalue teaching in any way, that is what makes us who we are. The commitment to the teaching mission of the College and the University is intense and profound. My concern is just about formalizing criteria.”