Skip to Navigation
University of Pittsburgh
Print This Page Print this pages

March 19, 1998

University Senate session opens dialogue on problems, concerns

Pitt faculty and stu- dents are jointly re- sponsible for making sure the latter get the educations they deserve and, increasingly, work long hours at outside jobs to pay for, panelists at yesterday's University Senate meeting agreed.

For faculty members, this can mean scheduling meetings with students around the students' work hours, not just when it's convenient for faculty, some panelists suggested.

Others emphasized that instructors must clearly tell students what's expected of them in a course, to the point of distributing highly detailed syllabuses and incorporating advising sessions into the classroom routine, to ensure students understand course material and make progress on assignments.

Panelists generally agreed that students must hold faculty accountable for high-quality teaching. They should complain to professors (and, if necessary, to department chairpersons and deans) when they believe they've been denied their money's worth.

Panelist Beverly Harris-Schenz, vice provost for Faculty Affairs, urged students to spread the word that, "You pay our salaries." "You wouldn't go to Kaufmann's and buy a coat that had one sleeve and think you were getting a bargain. You would complain vigorously that you had gotten damaged goods," Harris-Schenz said. But too often, students who get short-changed in the classroom grumble among themselves yet never voice dissatisfaction to their instructors or to their instructors' bosses, she said.

This prompted audience member Jennifer Karch, an undergraduate business and communications major, to point out: "But when you walk into Kaufmann's, you don't get a coat with one sleeve…You expect Armani, you buy Armani and you get Armani." Karch said she chose to attend Pitt because of its reputation as an outstanding university. Students here should expect excellent teaching; they shouldn't be held responsible for seeing to it that professors do their jobs, she protested.

As a full-time student with a part-time job, a sorority member and a Student Government Board (SGB) representative, Karch said she is too busy to write letters, request special meetings with faculty and administrators and otherwise spend time monitoring her instructors' teaching performances. (Karch added that she's been blessed with some "amazing" instructors at Pitt and that she loves the University.) The sparsely attended Senate meeting, held in the William Pitt Union Ballroom, was entitled "Student-Faculty Relations: Problems and Possibilities." In addition to Harris-Schenz, panelists included SGB President Alyson Wallach and political science associate professor Jonathan Harris (who focused their remarks on undergraduate education); Margaret Stevenson, vice president of the Graduate and Professional Student Association, and chemistry professor Peter E. Siska (discussing graduate education); and medical student Dan Bensimhon and Nathan Hershey, a health services administration professor (discussing professional education). History professor Van Beck Hall moderated the meeting.

Topics covered during the two-hour session included: Students' job demands and faculty office hours Because of escalating tuition and socioeconomic changes, increasing numbers of students must work part- or full-time jobs to attend Pitt, Wallach and Harris said.

"Students simply have to plan, in many instances, their academic schedules around their work week rather than their work week around their academic schedules," noted Harris, a 30-year veteran of the Pitt faculty. He said this represents an extraordinary change since his college days.

In the most recent survey of Pitt seniors, conducted by the Office of Institutional Research, 80 percent of respondents said they held at least part-time jobs, Harris reported.

"I really think this University has got to think very seriously about the level of financial support it provides to its students," he said, citing students' outside work demands as the "one, basic problem" underlying most others between students and faculty here.

One of those problems is the increasing inability of faculty and students to coordinate their schedules outside the classroom, according to Harris and Wallach.

Wallach called on instructors to be more flexible in scheduling office hours, taking into consideration the needs of students with outside jobs, including College of General Studies students who take daytime classes.

Harris concurred. He recalled wondering why students weren't coming to see him during the office hours he'd scheduled immediately after an 11 a.m. class. Finally, he said, a student told him in effect: Look, you idiot, that's when I start work. Like many other students, this one worked a noon shift at an off-campus job.

Student advising Karen Zamperini, an undergraduate theatre arts and politics/philosophy major, complained of ill-informed College of Arts and Sciences (CAS) advisers who don't even know enough to refer students to other people in the University who can answer their questions.

Departmental advisers tend to be even worse, with little training and too many students assigned to them, Zamperini said. She suggested that department advising jobs usually go to "unlucky," often unenthusiastic faculty.

Moderator Hall concurred that in his own department, history, faculty serving as advisers haven't been very effective. Recently, he said, the situation improved when the department hired a professional adviser for its students.

"Over the years, CAS has done a better job than my department" in advising history students, Hall added.

Frederick Koloc, director of the CAS Advising Center, vigorously defended his staff.

The center's 35 advisers are highly trained and motivated, and "care desperately" about the academic success of students they serve, Koloc said. Of the 1,400 respondents to a center survey, 97 percent said they were satisfied, very satisfied or extremely satisfied with the center's advising.

Nonetheless, Koloc said, "If students have a complaint, I want to know." He invited SGB representatives to meet with him next week to discuss how center services could be improved.

SGB President Wallach recommended that advisers clearly tell students, during their first meeting, what the students' responsibilities will be in future sessions. Often, students come to advising sessions unprepared and waste their own time as well as that of their advisers, she said.

Biology professor Rosemary Boone, who coordinates her department's Introduction to Biology lab, recommended expanding CAS Freshman Studies from a 1-credit to a 2-credit course to give instructors more time to inform freshmen of advising and faculty mentoring services.

Boone said a downside of hiring more non-tenure stream faculty in CAS is that the resulting turnover of faculty makes it harder for undergraduates to cultivate faculty mentors. Such relationships can be vital to biology students who rely on recommendations from their undergraduate instructors to gain admittance to Pitt's pharmacy school, she said.

According to Harris, the best way for instructors to ensure that their students get effective advising is to build it into course curricula. "And the way to do that is to schedule conferences with students based on the evaluation of their work in that class," he said. "That is, part of the class requirement is that students must come and meet with you to discuss their paper or the exercise or their experiments." Initiating one-on-one meetings early in the term improves student morale dramatically, Harris said.

Student evaluations of teaching Wallach said Pitt undergrads want to know why instructors who consistently get poor marks on student evaluations never seem to pay a price.

"This is an area where we as students are going to start being much more demanding," she vowed. "We want to know how, who and why. Who is looking at these [negative evaluations] and why are they not being taken seriously?" SGB also plans to renew its push for publication of student evaluations of teaching, to help students choose courses and instructors, Wallach said. In the meantime, she noted, SGB and the Office of Student Affairs are collaborating on a project to create a Faculty Honor Roll. The project, set to begin next fall, will list outstanding Pitt instructors.

Hall pointed out that Pitt's current teaching evaluation system was instituted after students began circulating their own reviews of faculty members' teaching.

He recommended that if evaluations are to be published, forms should be altered to focus more on course-related information (such as the workload students can expect in the course) rather than on classroom performances of individual instructors.

Hall added, "If you teach certain types of courses, you're going to get lower evaluations." Instructors of large section courses tend to get more negative reviews, he said, than those who have greater opportunities to interact individually with students in small seminars.

Stevenson, a Ph.D. student in chemistry, said graduate student evaluations of teaching remain "a great idea, in theory." But in reality, they're impractical because grad students are highly reluctant to criticize faculty with whom they collaborate on research projects, and who sometimes can make or break students' careers. Stevenson added, however, that Vice Provost for Graduate Studies Elizabeth Baranger is studying possible evaluation mechanisms for graduate teaching.

Non-native-English-speaking instructors For years, Wallach said, Pitt undergrads have complained to the administration about foreign-born teaching assistants and other instructors whose English is so bad that not only can't students understand them, the instructors themselves can't comprehend students' questions. Yet the problem continues, she said.

Harris pointed out that before such instructors are permitted to teach at Pitt, they must pass an oral examination run by the University's English Language Institute. Harris said he has sat in on a number of these exams, during which instructors are asked to talk about themselves and deliver a lecture on a subject chosen by their departments.

Harris said he wasn't minimizing students' criticisms, only pointing out that Pitt already has a system aimed at eliminating the problem of incomprehensible foreign-born TAs. "What we do have is a system that apparently is not working as well as it should be," he said.

Course scheduling Increasingly, instructors are scheduling exams during the last week of a term — which is why SGB has proposing adding another reading day for students that week, Wallach said.

Harris-Schenz noted that faculty are forbidden to schedule finals during the last week of a term, although there's nothing to stop them from holding the last regular exam for a course during that week. Chemistry professor Siska said Pitt should ban all tests during the last week of classes. Instructors must give students breathing space and time to "clear the decks" intellectually before finals week, Siska argued.

Political science student Kelly Meyers, who plays on the Pitt women's volleyball team, said student-athletes' practice schedules usually are blocked out for them throughout their undergraduate careers, which limits the times they can schedule classes. "A lot of classes are offered at the same time each semester. Because of my playing schedule, I don't get to take certain classes or certain professors," Meyers said. She called on faculty to vary scheduling of their courses.

Hall commented that faculty tend to schedule classes "at times that are convenient to faculty," particularly on Tuesdays and Thursdays between 9:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m.

Medical school concerns Bensimhon, who recently completed his medical studies here, said Pitt medical students have grown to distrust the school's administration because of recent actions such as the dismissal of Senior Associate Dean Sheldon Adler by interim Dean George Michalopoulos.

Students resented having to hear of the "summary removal" of the school's chief curriculum administrator through the news media, Bensimhon said. He said students are pleased with the appointment of Charles "Chip" Reynolds to succeed Adler, but displeased that they weren't consulted about the choice.

Establishment of the University of Pittsburgh Physicians (UPP) practice plan could jeopardize the quality of Pitt medical education by emphasizing faculty clinical and research work at the expense of teaching, Bensimhon said.

Pathology professor Bruce Rabin said, "There is confusion over what is our work" as medical faculty. "Unfortunately, at this time it appears as if the educational aspects…are no longer our work. Rather, our work is clinical, and our work is doing research." The faculty's responsibility to advise students of limited career opportunities Hershey of the Graduate School of Public Health argued that faculty should tell students if jobs are scarce for graduates of their units. Harris-Schenz agreed. "I support wholeheartedly the statement that, in a department or discipline where employment is very hard to come by, it is a moral obligation that students be made aware of those difficulties so they can make an informed choice," she said. "I'm not suggesting that people not be admitted to programs, but I think it's very important for students to know what they're up against." — Bruce Steele

Leave a Reply