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Justin Peligri: Place more weight in teaching incentives

Media Credit: Hatchet File Photo
Justin Peligri

In academia, professors’ biggest financial rewards typically come from hefty research grants.

But now, professors around the country can win half a million dollars for being strong instructors in the classroom.

The San Francisco-based Minerva Project plans to give out $500,000 each year – the equivalent of “the Nobel Prize of teaching,” its founder Ben Nelson told the New York Times in an article Monday.

It’s the first award of its kind in higher education. It should change the game of how universities incentivize professors – and force GW to determine how it can make quality instruction a larger part of faculty culture here.

Teachers are essential to progress, and motivating them – even if it isn’t in the form of a $500,000 check – is a good way to ensure that the best and brightest choose this profession over others.

The Minerva Project is unusual in academia, in which awards typically focus less on the classroom and more on the laboratory. Producing new knowledge – penned in journal articles and rewarded with tenure and federal dollars – is the expectation of most in higher education. GW is no exception.

But unless the money comes out of a donor’s pocket, GW administrators are unlikely to unveil a similar prize any time soon.

Between 2008 and 2010, the University’s internal research funding increased threefold from $11.1 million to $34.4, according to a Hatchet article published Sept. 20. That’s enough to award nearly four dozen Minerva teaching prizes.

The University certainly hasn’t given out nearly as much for good teaching. GW should look to fight the trend across academia of favoring research over good teaching when allocating money.

From a financial standpoint, though, it makes sense to focus on research. The University receives federal money from these investments, boosting GW’s prestige and its bottom line.

Assigning importance to research in and of itself isn’t a problem for students. A renewed focus on research means attracting more top faculty. It means more undergraduates will have an opportunity to work with professors in their subject of interest outside of the classroom.

But while making new academic headway is a noble pursuit, the University needs to work on creating incentives for professors to pass on that knowledge effectively.

There’s more to being a college professor than having your name appear in a few peer-reviewed journals. And at a school that likes to tout its “professors of practice,” not enough is done to ensure professors can conduct a compelling lecture that keeps students from checking their Twitter feeds during class.

The University judges whether professors deserve tenure based on teaching ability, research production and service to the institution, like committee participation.

And Michael Castleberry, a special education professor who is finishing his term as the chair of the Faculty Senate, told me the University aims to focus on all three of these areas. But professors, especially early on, are “encouraged to get a handle on the research and come up with a research plan.”

With the new Science and Engineering Hall in progress and the decision to seek out grant money in the fields that will eventually be housed there, it seems as though the University – perhaps inadvertently – places more effort on one aspect of the tenure requirements than the other two.

But if the University plans to recruit world-class students, it must be able to promise prospective attendees that they’ll have world-class instructors. One way to do this is through financial encouragement.

Granted, there are some small ways the University already looks to incentivize teaching.

Vice Provost for Teaching and Learning Stephen Ehrmann told me in an email that more faculty have been getting involved in the Teaching and Learning Collaborative, a program established in November 2011 that provides teachers with strategies for positive teaching methods. But the program is relatively young, so its impact is hard to measure.

And each year, the Bender Teaching Awards honor faculty with $1,000 for excellent teaching. Only four professors received the award this year, leaving several GW schools without recognition.

When faculty members across the disciplines are praised for their good work, not only will they excel, but they will serve as a model for their colleagues to emulate. As such, the University should look to ramp up financial rewards so that teachers will excel.

Justin Peligri, a sophomore majoring in political communication, is The Hatchet’s contributing opinions editor.

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