Non-tenured in the classroom: Faculty explore job pressures

You may have heard the joke: it’s the last week of classes, and you see someone walking across campus holding a box of donuts. Who is it? A non-tenured professor on the way to administer course evaluation surveys.
Though unfair, the humor holds due to the recognition that tenure-track faculty at the College face a unique set of constraints in the classroom. In furthering the “Culture of a Williams Classroom” discussion sparked by a Claiming Williams forum, the Record this week examined several facets of the working environment for untenured professors at the College.

Surveys and students

According to professors, chief among classroom pressures are Student Course Surveys (SCS), issued to students in every course at the end of each semester. These surveys are one of the feedback mechanisms for the teaching criterion of tenure decisions. Other channels include student interviews, class visits and assessments from department chairs. The Committee on Appointments and Promotions (CAP) also evaluates tenure-track assistant professors on research and service to the College when they go up for tenure at the end of their first six years with the College.

“Near the end of the semester, some other junior faculty joke about playing strategy games, like giving back a midterm on a certain day so students aren’t upset on SCS day,” said Jeannie Albrecht, assistant professor of computer science. “My personal take on SCS is that I try my hardest not to think about them, but rather to make students happy and teach to the best of my ability without compromising anything.” Albrecht added that she values blue sheets, on which students write comments for the viewing of each particular professor, far more than the less personal SCS.

Guidelines for untenured faculty, issued by the CAP, state that there is no “formula for weighting effectiveness in different categories.” While affirming the importance SCS scores, the guidelines note that “scores are part of a bigger picture” and “evaluation of non-tenured faculty is largely based on the judgment of their tenured colleagues who are in the best position by far to assess professional growth and promise.”

Although there is consensus that the SCS affects both tenure decisions and classroom interactions, non-tenured faculty members interviewed did not agree on the degree of impact on either. “The consequence of this ‘customer satisfaction survey’ is that it changes the way we teach and inclines us to be less critical in a classroom environment,” said Jason Josephson, assistant professor of religion. “In a way, we have to teach towards the bottom – which isn’t a low bottom because Williams students are strong, but I’d rather pitch high and let it go over some people’s heads.”

Josephson noted that cultural trends both at the College and nationwide inform the in-class experience. “Students here work hard but aren’t as public in that criticism as they could be,” he said. “And many faculty members also hold back their criticisms. They are worried about not alienating certain students, which means they are not being as critical as they could be.”

He also mentioned the pressure to keep final grades above the C range, out of the awareness that “students react very negatively to the sense that they’re being harshly graded.” According to Josephson, The Chronicle of Higher Education reported in 2007 on the documented causal relationship between giving better grades and getting higher student evaluation scores. He added that SCS mattered far more to him that the professor review portal Factrack, as the former had direct consequence on tenure and, unlike Factrack, can be accessed by professors.

Faculty members offered differing views on how students treat SCS. “I think students realize that these surveys really matter a lot and those who realize care about the outcome,” Albrecht said.

Assistant Professor of Statistics Bernhard Klingenberg disagreed. “The fact is that students don’t know how SCS are used, and they just want to leave because it’s the last day of class,” he said. “I don’t think they’re aware of the consequences.”

Michael Rolleigh, assistant professor of economics, emphasized the high stakes of the SCS. “You must demonstrate high SCS scores to receive tenure,” he said. “A very small number of irritated students have the potential to greatly lower your SCS scores. I believe that many untenured professors self-censor to avoid very low scores from students.”

Others, including Eiko Maruko Siniawer, assistant professor of history who was awarded tenure at the beginning of 2009, contend that self-censorship is not universal. “I do not think that I have ever, now or as an untenured professor, self-censored in class out of concern for my SCS scores,” she said.

Siniawer noted that tenure-track faculty face the pressure of “a constant evaluative gaze” which might be more acute given the lack of anonymity at the College. Although she no longer falls under such scrutiny, she “continue[s] to feel the kind of pressure that I have always put on myself – to produce quality scholarship, to mentor students and to create meaningful classroom experiences.” For example, she still asks her students for comments on an informal mid-semester blue sheet.

The format of the SCS itself, which asks students to rate professors along a seven-point scale (very poor, poor, fair, good, very good, excellent and truly exceptional), has also drawn some ire. To Albrecht, some of the SCS questions – including the main summary questions on “overall quality of instruction” and “overall educational and intellectual value” – were vague.

Josephson echoed the frustration with the methodology: “A quantitative representation of qualitative data of this sort is necessarily meaningless, from a basic social science point of view,” he said. “Reading every fraction of a point with rich analytical scrutiny creates excessive and unnecessary pressures.”

While SCS analysis is far from perfect, Klingenberg noted that analysis has improved significantly since the College moved to a new SCS form four or five years ago. “It is very useful to get feedback if you want to improve your classes, and you learn a lot about yourself too,” he said. “The SCS is a very important part in evaluating assistant professors. However, I’m not so intimidated by it because, as much as I love my job, I can find opportunities in statistics elsewhere.”

Support

In contrast to the ambivalence surrounding SCS, tenure-track faculty were uniformly enthusiastic about the support that the College offers. “I find the support structures for untenured faculty more than adequate,” Rolleigh said, adding that he has mentors both in formal and informal contexts here. “The senior faculty at Williams is sincerely interested in facilitating the success of junior faculty.”

Siniawer concurred. “At Williams, there is a widespread sentiment here that your department wants you to succeed – they want you to get tenure and will give you help when you need it,” she said. “At other institutions, there is more of a sink or swim mentality – let’s throw her into the position and see how she does.” She expressed appreciation for the internal support in the history and Asian studies departments with which she works.

Despite noting the added pressure having “so many big teaching stars in the math department who all seem to get 7 [truly exceptionals] on course surveys,” Klingenberg spoke highly of the opportunity to learn from these “veteran teachers.” Neither Klingenberg nor the others interviewed observed any differences between the way their opinions and those of seasoned faculty were received.

Josephson also commended the support system at the College. “There are many wonderful things about the Williams culture of teaching, like some great workshops at PET.” PET, or the Project for Effective Teaching, was established in 1995 to serve new faculty at the College. In addition to maintaining a body of instructional resources, it incorporates mentoring and other programming for newly appointed professors. Nevertheless, Josephson noted that “although the workshops bring up a lot of good issues, they’re pushing against things like the flawed SCS scoring.”

For Albrecht, her colleagues in the computer science department – whether senior faculty who offer constructive feedback or fellow junior faculty who share camaraderie – are a crucial source of help amidst the tenure-track experience. “It’s stressful and I wish it wasn’t, but it wouldn’t be Williams otherwise,” she said. “My biggest goal is simply to make sure that the tenure decision won’t be a surprise either way – that I’m informed enough throughout my pre-tenure years to know what to expect and to have done everything in my power to make my case as strong as possible. I don’t want to go through the appeal process.”