Teaching excellence is much more than 'sage on stage' vs. 'guide on the side'

March 05, 2013

By Michael Goul, Chairman, Department of Information Systems

This past month was chock-full of deadlines for nominating IS professors for W. P. Carey School teaching awards. At the same time, the processes associated with annual performance evaluations kicked off, with an elected department-level team pouring over curricula vita and detailed teaching evaluations -- complete with a three-year’s worth of student comments.

A rubric helps to define the process for evaluating research performance, but evaluating teaching is more mystifying. Yet somehow, everyone remembers who their best teacher was – that one individual who said something or taught some lesson that changed their life. Should our alum’s seasoned reflections be the best basis for assessing teaching excellence? Let’s hear from you, IS department alums! You can use the comment section below. This year’s awards will go to the best undergraduate teacher, the best MSIM and MBA teachers and the best doctoral educator. What are your seasoned reflections? What has mattered most to your career?

Platitudes like shifting from ‘sage on stage’ (standing at the lectern delivering soliloquies) to ‘guide on the side’ (nudging students to discover things for themselves) become our water cooler discussion themes this time of year – with colleagues sharing best practices. But there’s much more that goes into teaching excellence than what can be gleaned from the data at hand - even though our teaching evaluation scheme is one of the best around.

Trying to ascertain who was best at transferring the most significant new IS research into meaningful pedagogy and content for the course they are assigned to teach is one tough challenge. But when asked which teacher impacted them most in life, most smile as classroom images and especially poignant words of wisdom come to mind. Maybe you’ll recall a certain assignment that debunked a whole mindset – something that opened your eyes to that ultimate personal career path. How is it that teaching excellence is so easy to personally assess but so difficult to collectively judge?

There are many factors that go into ascertaining teaching excellence. Did the professor take on an especially difficult course? Can one evaluate teaching in graduate courses the same as undergraduate courses? Is the course being taught for the first time? Did the professor tackle a course that has been ‘teaching evaluation challenged’ and turn it around? Was an above and beyond the call of duty effort put into updating a course to address broader curriculum changes? Was there extra special regional or national recognition given to a student team’s performance in a course taught by a particular professor? Is the best teacher the one who can take a poor student and somehow make them achieve?

There are loads of quotes from famous people about teaching excellence. Dan Rather, famous news reporter, said, "The dream begins with a teacher who believes in you, who tugs and pushes and leads you to the next plateau, sometimes poking you with a sharp stick called truth." Peter Drucker, management guru, said, “Teaching is the only major occupation of man for which we have not yet developed tools that make an average person capable of competence and performance. In teaching we rely on the 'naturals,' the ones who somehow know how to teach.” Albert Einstein said, “It is the supreme art of the teacher to awaken joy in creative expression and knowledge.”

Overall, striving for teaching and research excellence is an important part of the job of a faculty member. And committee decision-making is the de facto form of group-think that will ultimately lead to the announcements this spring of this year’s teaching award winners. Those winners will be the outliers – the best of the best.

But there is even something more to all of this: our annual teaching award process reinforces and nurtures a culture of teaching excellence. And that’s important. The school’s new Dean, Amy Hillman, is a renowned researcher and multi-award winning teacher. All of this is part of what our school’s benefactor, Wm. Polk Carey, brought us based on the culture of the company he founded – W. P. Carey Inc. Our school was named after him ten years ago. His company’s culture is a model for both business and academe:

“W. P. Carey’s success depends on the energy and creativity our employees bring to work every day. Initially, candidates are drawn to the challenging and innovative nature of the business but remain long-term team members as a result of the firm’s commitment to their growth and development. At W. P. Carey, we pride ourselves on working together… The key to these objectives lies with our employees.”