Departments, majors collaborate on key academic decisions

When making college decisions, one factor that may have been a draw for many of us as prospective Vassar students is the college’s devotion to small class sizes, ensuring students have positive relationships with their professors and the guarantee of an education of the highest quality. Though many colleges advertise these things to entice applicants, Vassar’s commitment to these principles is not just something to print on a brochure.

In fact, many of Vassar’s major departments go further than just securing the professors with the best credentials or the most impressive educations, but give students a say in which prospective professors they would like to see get hired.

“Since its inception, Film at Vassar has always involved the students in the hiring process of tenure-track positions. We are a small department: faculty members substitute in one another’s classes or take on advisees when someone is on leave. Students often will end up interacting with all of our professors,” wrote Professor Sarah Kozloff, head of the Film department, in an emailed statement.

Film Committee Chair Laura Kinter ’13 underscored the particular importance of student participation in this process for the Film department, stating, “We spend countless hours with professors outside of class time for various activities. Students spend hours on the phone with professors for writing advice or production help. With so few professors, our input is a crucial and necessary part of students’ relationship with the film department.”

Though students are not necessarily involved in hiring adjunct or temporary professors as those need to be hired in an expeditious manner, job candidates looking to attain a position as assistant professors, those Kozloff identifies as being on a “tenure track,” undergo a process heavily reliant on student voices.

Once faculty and administration have narrowed down the applicants, the three final candidates for assistant professors visit Vassar to plead their case to students.

During these visits, prospective professors have an opportunity to talk about their own research in their field, give a sample lesson as if they were teaching a class and allow students to get to know them professionally and personally.

“We invite our majors to these events. We hope to see how the candidate engages with students in the classroom and how our majors respond to his or her teaching methods. This gives the faculty vital information about the candidate’s ‘fit’ in the department,” said Kozloff.

Physics major Lorena Lomeli ’15 believes these previews, which are standard for the Physics department as well, not only provide faculty with valuable information, but allow students to be more introspective when it comes to their individual learning needs.

“I think going to these events allows students the opportunity to think about what they want to see in a professor and what they want to get out of their education. It encourages us to be proactive in our educational choices and find out what teaching styles work best for us.”
It also really makes me feel like Vassar really cares about who they’re hiring and the quality of our education,” she said.

Though prospective professors only have a short time to make a good impression and showcase their skills, Lomeli maintained these talks can tell students a lot about a professor.

“If they’re a good professor, I think you can tell in an hour’s time if they will click with us as students, of if they can engage us in their research and allow us to get to know them as a person and a professor. If those things aren’t something they can do then, they probably  won’t do them later on either,” she said.

In addition to being aware of how well students hit it off with a prospective professor and gauging the energy in the room, faculty members seek out more concrete feedback from students.

“We ask the Film Majors Committee to submit a written report after it has interviewed all three candidates. No set formula exists as to how much this letter counts towards the final decision: often the department faculty or administration…have different perspectives, criteria, and more knowledge about the future direction of the curriculum than students. Nevertheless, we consider this report vital additional information as we make difficult choices,” said Kozloff.

Though students are familiar with the practice of evaluating their professors through course evaluations which are completed at the end of every term, Lomeli said she would rather have the chance to assess a professor sooner rather than later.

“It’s much more intimidating doing course evaluations because professors sometimes remind you that they need good scores or that they are candidates for tenure and it can be a lot of pressure for a student. I would rather have the opportunity to talk about what I don’t like in a professor right off the bat rather than when it comes to the end of the course and I have to fill out a bad course evaluation,” she said.

Aside from interviews with faculty and administration and student evaluations, potential professors have interviews with students from their respective major’s committee. This detail, noted Kozloff, presents not only a great opportunity for students to have an active role in the hiring process, but also can serve to set Vassar apart in the eyes of the job candidate.

She stated, “They have a chance to describe the department from the students’ perspective and an opportunity to ask questions about the topics that concern them the most. Of equal importance is that time with our students makes the candidate understand the position in a fresh light and often makes him or her more eager to join our ranks. Over the years we have found that our students are our best selling point should an applicant be weighing multiple offers.”

Physics major Derek Parrott ’14 stated that these steps are crucial in ensuring a professor is not only qualified, but is able to convey their knowledge effectively in an academic setting.

“There [can be] professors who are brilliant—who are fantastic researchers, who really know whatever it is they’re teaching—but who cannot teach. It’s unfortunate that this is true, and I think that sort of personality just doesn’t work very well at a school this small. I think that this sort of student-inclusive hiring process could help avoid that kind of professor,” he wrote in an emailed statement.

Hiring professors who are more than experts in their field, he went on to say, is especially important for physics students and other math and science majors.

“…Physics is such a mathematically rigorous and conceptually abstract (and often counterintuitive)science. That being said, I think it’s important for professors in all fields of study to be able to communicate—I just think that perhaps it’s more difficult to do that (especially with a range of students) in physics than in some other fields.” Other important qualities in a Physics professor, he said, include openness and a sensitivity to students’ needs.

“They need to know their audience and be able to teach in a way that doesn’t oversimplify or presuppose more background knowledge than is present. It’s important that they are easy to talk to, and they are willing to answer questions, and not make students feel uncomfortable asking them,” he said.

He went on to say, “Especially in physics, it’s important to be able to explain things in multiple ways (at least mathematically and conceptually) since not all students think similarly.” Overall, though, he said that these qualities are commonly sought after in professors of any department. “I think this sort of hiring process can definitely help optimize desirable qualities in new professors,” he stated.

Lomeli agreed, stating “No matter what department you’re in, you’re looking for a quality professor who can engage students and get you thinking, whether it’s a lecture, a lab or a discussion-based class. There are essential traits that are crucial for professors in all departments.”

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