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Seminars Draw Few Faculty

By Andy Stark

A series of 12 seminars called "Better Teaching at MIT" ends next week after receiving disappointingly low attendance, according to Travis R. Merritt, associate dean for undergraduate academic affairs.

The goal of the seminars, said Merritt, is "to help faculty, especially young faculty, get acclimated to MIT and to develop themselves as contributors to MIT."

Merritt said that the series attempted to promote better teaching not only in classes, but in other situations such as Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program projects and labs as well.

Merritt and Margaret S. Enders, associate dean for undergraduate academic affairs, wrote an article in the faculty newsletter complaining about the attendance. In the article, they claimed that the seminars, designed for all MIT teachers, were attended mostly by graduate students.

Merritt and Enders are quick to admit that the faculty is very busy. "If something has to go in the day, [the seminars] are going to be it," Enders said.

"People are incredibly busy," said Professor Hale V. Bradt PhD '61, faculty academic adviser in the physics department, citing professors' concerns about research, tenure, committees, budgets, and more. "It's hard to get people to do any discretionary things unless it's going to help them the next day," he said.

Nevertheless, a significant effort was put into promoting the seminars. According to Enders, normal routes of publicity weren't working, so other venues were taken. In addition to signs posted across campus, fliers were passed out in Lobby 7 and sent to teaching assistants, the schedule was published in the Tech Talk calendar, and an ad for the Tuesday seminar was placed in The Tech.

Recently, Enders added, the organizers have tried to advertise through electronic mail as well. "Email seems to be getting to a lot of people who don't read the signs in the hall," she said.

Merritt summed it up by saying: "We have not used the Goodyear blimp yet."

Merritt and Enders titled their faculty newsletter article, "Were Any Heads, Deans, or Provosts There?" They wrote that in order for an event to be considered important, it usually must have a faculty critical mass; that is, a certain number of faculty need to come.

The message is even stronger if department heads, school deans, or provosts attend, Merritt and Enders suggested. They said that if more prestigious faculty had attended the seminars, the talks would have been more successful.

The headline was "a little bit of a dig," admitted Merritt. "When Peggy [Enders] and I wrote the piece, we were feeling frustrated about the not-too-great attendance."

The low attendance at the seminars was "not a disaster," said Merritt. "The people who came derived a lot of benefit."

Professor Paul L. Penfield Jr. ScD '60, head of the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, said he was unable to attend any of the seminars because of a busy schedule full of meetings. He did say, however, that many members in his department attended.

"We need to repackage the fall [seminar] series and put it on a different schedule," Merritt said. Other series in the past have been better attended, especially those during Independent Activities Period. Last IAP, about 700 people attended the 14 talks offered, Enders said.

Enders and Merritt said the seminars may be rescheduled to the start of the term. Presently there is a 2-day orientation workshop for all new faculty members and teaching assistants at the beginning of the term, which may include the seminars in the future, Merritt said.

Penfield said that the beginning of the term involves some "madness," in that professors are preparing for class and meeting students. "It's hard to conclude that these seminars would be better attended [at the beginning of the term]; I don't know," he said.

"It's always hard to know when to squeeze more things in," Bradt said.

The seminars comprise only one part of the Teaching and Faculty Development Program of the Undergraduate Academic Affairs Office. Another program is the MIT Classroom Videotaping Program, in which participating faculty are videotaped during a class. The professor can then watch the tape at home or discuss it with a professional consultant.

The videotape is in no way used by the departments in evaluating the teacher or in tenure decisions. "What we didn't want was a program that would smack of `big brother is watching you,' " Penfield said. He said that he doesn't even know which teachers in his department have been videotaped.

According to Bradt, the physics department has a videotaping policy. "Junior faculty have to be videotaped as well as senior faculty who haven't taught in five years," he said. At the start of the policy, not many people volunteered, Bradt said, but "then we made the point of delicately asking those people."

Bradt noted that every instructor videotaped by the physics department this term has volunteered to discuss the tape with the consultant.

Bradt himself was videotaped several years ago. "It just straightened me out in four or five different ways, in ways that I or students couldn't have articulated," he said.

"The faculty members that I know who have participated [in the videotaping program] have first of all been shocked, and second, they have improved [their teaching]," Penfield said.

"It works. Faculty really do get a lot out of a tape that they talk about with someone not in a threatening position," Enders said.

The UAAO is also trying to improve english as a second language programs for the faculty, according to Enders. Additionally, a resource liaison program puts new faculty in contact with a member of the UAAO staff so that they will have someone to ask questions.

"We'd like to get faculty in general and TAs to talk to each other about teaching and to visit each other's classes," Merritt said. These efforts may encourage faculty to devote some of their energy from research toward better teaching, he said.

Penfield said that in his department all junior faculty are assigned a "teaching buddy," a senior member of the faculty. The two participants should attend each other's recitations and talk frankly about what works and what doesn't, he said.

Student evaluations of teachers are being highly noted, even for tenure considerations, according to Bradt. "The young faculty are caring more about their teaching now," he said, testifying to the success of the efforts for better teaching.