Last week, UT mathematics professor James Vick was awarded the 2012 Friar Centennial Teaching Fellowship, one of the most prestigious teaching awards on campus. This award recognizes Vick’s ability to personally care for each student and engage him or her with the subject matter.
University teaching awards distinguish and recognize the work of great professors and also encourage other professors to strive for such excellence. Teaching awards are awarded based on two major categories: professional research achievements and teaching excellence. It would seem logical that a teaching award is chosen and selected by students, yet oftentimes this is not the case.
The majority of University-wide awards are selected by a faculty committee or board. Many awards try to include student input but only through a selected student who sits on a faculty-led committee. This seems to reflect a lack of value that administrators place on the student voice.
The Friar Centennial Teaching Fellowship is the only University-wide accolade that is awarded exclusively by students. Similarly, departmental teaching awards are usually given based on student opinion. Of course, it is easier to collect the opinions of students from within a single department than to do so across the entire University. However, there has to be a way to achieve this same level of student involvement in University-wide awards.
One way to do this might be to use course evaluations as criteria for an award’s selection committee. The Regent’s Outstanding Teaching Award, a UT System-wide award, uses the past three-year period of course evaluations as a measure to judge the validity of a professor’s nomination. This is a great way to see a student perspective.
Carisa Nietsche, former president of Senate of College Councils, sat on a University-wide award selection committee. According to Nietsche, “It is important that the selections are based on more than just a professor’s popularity and personality. It is important to include pedagogy, research and teaching ability.” To prevent these awards from turning into a popularity contest, the faculty voice should still be present in order to help distinguish personality from merit.
Research is a critical aspect of teaching awards, especially for a Tier One research institution. The average student is typically unaware of the impact that the professor’s research is making in their field. Faculty have a different vantage point when determining the research achievements of a nominated professor and can therefore play a crucial role in determining teaching prizes.
Nevertheless, faculty should not neglect the opinions of students, and choosing one student to sit on the committee does not adequately gather those opinions. The process of choosing teaching awards should be more representative in this regard, possibly by including an equal number of students and faculty on awards committees. These students should represent a variety of disciplines and have a strong connection to other students.
Teaching awards encourage professors to turn their classrooms into engaging experiences for students. Allowing students more influence when awarding them will further motivate professors to focus on student academic development in addition to professional research achievements.
Dafashy is a Plan II senior.