by Jacob M. Abel
Our university is in the process of redefining itself and, to its credit, rededicating itself to the improvement of undergraduate teaching and learning. The statement of institutional goals, Agenda for Excellence (1), and the preliminary report of the 21st Century Project (2) tell us of the aspirations of the administration and of a familiar and wonderful group of faculty ,whom I have come to think of as the " usual suspects." You know who they are: Peter and Ingrid and Bob L. and Bob G. and Ann and others. They are the self-exploited committed, who are and have been the constant, indefatigable core of every effort to improve undergraduate education that has been mounted for nearly 25 years.
The new documents contain passages that have the warm familiar ring of a standard prayer found in any liturgy. They ask for all of the unarguable goods: heal the sick, feed the hungry, clothe the poor and it can be offered idealistically without wondering whether the deity being addressed is really listening. Much of what has been enunciated of late is indistinguishable from the "prayers" that followed the 1971 Conference on Undergraduate Education (3) or the 1985 Investing in Penn's Future (4) and many similar reports of committees and councils, boards and conferences, workshops and retreats that shared the same objective. What we must ask ourselves now is: "Why, if we have proclaimed the same noble goal for more than a quarter of a century, are we still aspiring to accomplish some of the same, seemingly feasible objectives, from essentially the same starting points?"
I learned the answer from an excellent teacher and I'll let you in on it.
When I was young and in my prime, I used to frequent the Ringe squash courts where I played clumsily and lost gracefully to an interdisciplinary array of opponents from all over the academic map. I was always impressed by a prominent list of commandments that Coach Al Molloy had posted there, a lesson in block letters. One commandment was: "Never change a winning strategy" and another was "Always change a losing strategy." Simple but so wise! The coach's advice answers the question posed above. We have been pursuing a losing strategy, evidence our continuing failure to attain our goals. And unless we change it, this year's prayers will go unanswered as did their predecessors.
In this space I can suggest two elements of the failed strategy that must be changed.
The changed strategy must embed, irrevocably, a policy of rewarding teaching excellence with salary increments. The raise pool, every year, must contain a portion designated for this purpose. Moreover, there is good reason to suggest that this part of the reward system be administered centrally or that, at least, the deans be held strictly accountable for the implementation of the policy.
The new design will not work unless there is a congruence of values and expectations between the faculty and its students. Whether a student comes to Penn for certification or an education depends on how well those values and expectations are communicated during the admissions process. The voice of the faculty needs to be heard in that discussion.
1 Almanac November 21/28, 1995
2 Almanac May 25, 1995
3 Almanac April 11, 1972
4 Almanac January 17, 1985
5 Almanac November 14, 1995
The Talk About Teaching series was developed by the Lindback Society and the College of Arts and Sciences.
Dr. Abel is a professor of mechanical engineering and applied mechanics who won the Lindback Award for Distinguished Teaching in 1975.