Professors: Rankings reflect teaching commitment
By Ashley Ulrich, The Dartmouth Staff
Published on Friday, September 21, 2012
Dartmouth continues to earn top marks for its commitment to undergraduate teaching and high rankings among national universities due to the strength of its faculty development programs and emphasis on teaching, according to English professor and Dartmouth Center for the Advancement of Learning Director Thomas Luxon. Despite criticism of rankings’ influence on the college application progress, member of the faculty said that the rankings reflect the quality of the College’s undergraduate programs.
U.S. News and World Report ranked Dartmouth first, along with Princeton University, for its commitment to undergraduate teaching and 10th among national universities in its 2013 assessment, announced Sept. 12. It is the fourth year in a row that Dartmouth has been ranked first for its commitment to undergraduate teaching, and its 10th-place overall ranking marks a one-position increase from last year.
These rankings — which take into account quantitative indicators like freshman retention and graduation rates, faculty resources, SAT and ACT scores and acceptance rates, as well as qualitative assessments by peer institutions’ presidents, provosts and deans — reward Dartmouth’s attention to small classrooms, professor and student interactions and unique faculty development programs, according to Luxon.
“Faculty development here at Dartmouth is different from most other places because it is focused on programs for the full-time faculty and generally run by the faculty themselves,” Luxon said. “Many other programs have a primary focus on graduate teaching assistants.”
Dartmouth’s umbrella program for faculty development, DCAL, was established in 2004, making it the youngest of such programs in the Ivy League. It differs from similar programs at peer institutions, however, because it is run by a member of the full-time faculty and has its own endowment, according to Luxon. At many peer institutions, such programs are run by outside higher education experts and program directors must apply for annual funding.
“Our model is based on developing conversations about teaching and learning among the faculty,” Luxon said. “All the programs are also entirely voluntary — there is no requirement that faculty members develop as teachers during their career.”
Last year 259 faculty members — about half of Dartmouth’s full-time faculty — participated in DCAL programs, Luxon said. Some of the most popular programs include a monthly Teaching Science Seminar organized by chemistry professor and Dean of Graduate Studies Jon Kull ’88. Kull was also appointed in August to a special two-year DCAL fellowship position along with French and Italian professor and language program director Tania Convertini.
“In my own time at Dartmouth, I was taught in bare classrooms with a lecture-style class,” Kull said. “Now we’re getting professors to use clickers, pen-casting and Blackboard to help engage students in larger classes.”
DCAL is calling this an effort to “flip the classroom,” encouraging professors to deliver content to students ahead of class meetings through readings, lecture notes and Blackboard discussion pages, so that class time can be spent answering questions and discussing the material, according to Kull.
“This kind of teaching is already at work in smaller, discussion-based humanities classes,” Luxon said. “What we’re trying to do now is to facilitate this sort of active learning in larger classes.”
Using DCAL’s Teaching Science Seminar as a model, Dartmouth’s language departments are organizing monthly faculty development programs as well, with their first meeting scheduled for Sept. 22, Convertini said. Based on a survey she administered to the language departments, she expects that these workshops will cover issues such as designing fair assessments and rubrics as well as finding interesting ways to teach grammar in the classroom.
“There is a lot of openness from Dartmouth as an institution in general for promoting these kinds of new professional development programs for faculty,” Convertini said. “DCAL offers a space for reflection on how we interact with students in the classroom and how we can do it better.”
In addition to the work at DCAL, Dartmouth’s commitment to teaching extends all the way from hiring new faculty members to annual performance reviews and the tenure process, according to art history professor and Dean of the Faculty for the Arts and Humanities Adrian Randolph.
“The reason I think we’ve been ranked so highly is that we have some of the best research as well as a traditional focus on teaching,” Randolph said. “That hybridity is distinctive — we stand out.”
Rankings by U.S. News and World Report should be read cautiously, however, Harvard Graduate School of Education Senior Director of Higher Education Programs Joseph Zolner, who focuses on higher education in his teaching and research and was formerly an assistant dean at the College, said. Ranking colleges and universities in an ordinal list can, for example, obscure just how closely schools scored in various categories and cloud excellence in a certain subfield like research and financial aid offerings, he said.
“Different publications use different criteria and weigh categories in different ways,” Zolner said. “It’s really not an apples-to-apples criteria across rankings, and an educated consumer really needs to look at how the data is being collected.”
The targeted market for these publications is usually prospective students and their parents, according to Zolner. Colleges and universities also pay attention to the rankings, even though they may publicly downplay their importance.
“On one hand, colleges criticize rankings for trying to simplify a nuanced decision about what kind of college is right for a specific student, but on the other hand, many schools are also very sensitive to what they can do to enhance their position within these rankings,” he said.