Quality teaching needs acknowledgement, too

Continually, coverage of the University is filled with news and opinions on funding and the decisions about who gets how much money. At a large, successful institution, ensuring future prosperity makes these decisions crucial. Students complain about tuition increases and debates continue within the Minnesota Legislature about funding. Meanwhile, the University fights to retain and recruit able researchers. Unfortunately for students, the battle for top research grants often obscures the need for quality teaching, and often, the result is that many professors seem ill-suited for the double role of instructor and researcher. Furthermore, while a scientific advancement often has an explicit value measured in dollars, the contributions of notable instructors are often difficult to perceive. When doling out awards and recognition, however, the University owes it to students to praise brilliant instructors, not only talented researchers.
This University is built on research. One cannot dispute the benefits of grants or the necessity of developing innovative technology. However, competing with corporate think tanks becomes increasingly difficult as corporate salaries often tower over those offered by public institutions and universities. While funding is tight and the need for talented technologists is great, the University must do what it can to publicly award quality professorship in the classroom, not only in the laboratory.
Establishing recognized awards for outstanding teaching should be a priority. A respected and hard-earned honor can mean far more than a pay raise. Certainly, many professors at this University deserve credit for exceptional teaching. Too often, though, the remarkable rewards garnered by professors only reflect their research ability.
In fact, professors are often more influential than the classes they teach. Fascinating subject matter cannot save a poorly taught class. Likewise, lively and talented instructors can draw the inspiration out of seemingly bland material. Some professors teach calculus by reciting dry theorems. Others expound on mathematics with a contagious zeal. Identifying and praising those professors who do inspire students above and beyond the norm is an important service, especially to students.
Instituting a widely used and visible online system for rating instructors and the classes they teach would help students make course choices. Whether or not the students’ input affects the career of the professor is not important. Rather, it is the peer-review process that is meaningful. Unfortunately, this student-to-student communication is lost in the usual battery of instructor assessments at the end of the term. Certainly the professor and administration better understand the students’ opinion of the course and teaching. But the students are left with word-of-mouth gossip with which to judge potential instructors.
In these days of piling up dollars to lure top scientists, the University can still emphasize and reward quality teaching. Financial awards are only one way to express appreciation for a job well done. The University must praise deserving instructors by instituting respected awards that recognize their teaching ability, and establish a forum for students to review professors for the benefit of others.