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Good teacher, bad teacher

Observer Viewpoint | Tuesday, September 14, 2004

“It doesn’t matter what you put on the TCE. It doesn’t matter if you say that I am a bad teacher. I have tenure.”

That is my favorite quote by a Notre Dame professor (a whiny, snobbish-sounding man I never saw directly, complaining about how it was beneath his dignity to teach freshmen, comes in second). I will refrain from mentioning names, though if you do a little bit of digging and question the right people you can narrow the field down to a handful of persons rather quickly.

Notre Dame possesses some extraordinary professors (all one needs to do is take a summer course elsewhere to appreciate this) and many extraordinary teachers in general. I cannot credit them enough, and they do not always get the respect they deserve – they form the core of the real value of Notre Dame. This article is not about the great teachers; it’s about the other kind.

Naturally extraordinary teachers are never easy to find – the NDToday rankings always tend to favor easy-of-use over real teaching ability and the freshman dream of mentoring with Robin Williams is quickly broken – but the search is made more difficult by the admixture of crud. The experiences of any one of the upperclassmen will tell just how deficient a bad professor can be. I don’t believe that any one of us graduates totally unscathed.

Students have known about this problem for a long time, and so has the administration. The latter doubtlessly has elaborate solutions involving recruitment, peer-review, high salaries and big offices to try and correct the problem. Students would be happy if the administration just published the TCE reports so that we could stop wasting our time with professor I-Never-Thought-I-Would-Be-Quoted and his colleges.

And while publishing TCEs is a nice idea and should be done as a matter of principle, I don’t believe it would go far enough toward fixing the problem to be effective. The professorial system as it stands simply has too many long-standing flaws to simply be bandaged.

We students know perfectly well how Professor INTIWBQ got a place on faculty to begin with. Although apathy cannot be completely ruled out, he probably was not an angelic lecturer of great virtue who fell from grace through the tragic temptation of academic hubris. He was a probably a damn good researcher who was brought on board because he could make the University look prestigious and bring in government grants. We all understand this, and I for one accept it. It is good for the University to have these researchers, so by all means continue hiring them. But I do have one request: If “professors” cannot teach well, do not force them teach. In fact do not even ALLOW them teach.

There must be accountability on the part of the faculty. There must be accountability to the students as well as the administration. We deserve that much; we pay an almost unthinkable amount of money and spend a tremendous amount of time in pursuit of a quality education. To force us to endure terrible professors is disrespectful of our dignity as learners. Notre Dame has no right to subject us to low-quality teachers. We deserve better, and we demand it.

I do not ask that the hiring of professors be placed in our hands, nor the firing, nor the tenure process, nor the salary, nor any other power that sanely belongs with the administration. I do ask that the power of determining who is and is not permitted to teach an undergraduate course at this University belong to the students, with University advice of course, but without the possibility of a University veto.

In short, give us a vote. Not a TCE to fill out, and subsequently have no idea if anyone reads it or not (and I honestly believe the answer is no). The TCE is a blank slip to invest our anger in, and it is little more than a false hope that insults us with its pretense. Give us the power, by vote, by council or by court perhaps, to call University faculty forward and remove them from the roster of those who may teach classes.

This is a dangerous proposition, I know. It is dangerous because there is the possibly of real change, and the necessity of real trust. It is dangerous because, to a certain extent, everything that is worthwhile is a little dangerous. But, if you, the administration, honestly trust us as much as you always claim that you do, if you really believe that our education is in our own hands, and furthermore, if you have any faith in your own professors, grant us this responsibility. We promise you, things will never be the same again.

Lance Gallop is a fifth-year senior majoring in computer science, philosophy and theology. He can be reached at lgallop@nd.edu.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.