Faculty members at MIT are broadly perceived to be selected and granted tenure primarily for their research abilities without adequate consideration for how well they convey ideas in an instructive and coherent manner in the classroom or beyond the classroom through mentoring. Students believe there is a need to further improve the process of knowledge exchange in the classroom and develop improved metrics for evaluating the communication skills and educational techniques of professors. Given that not all students learn in the same fashion, professors must explore teaching styles that adapt to their students’ needs. Departments must do a better job of evaluating professors via objective methods that take student input into account. These evaluations must, in turn, be used to improve the student educational experience.
Currently there is no established, rigorous system that provides undergraduate students with a comprehensive program for curricula development. Instead, students often use academic advisors as rubber stamps for program selections that have been achieved without professional guidance. This creates an interaction between a student and faculty member that will never reach its full potential. In order to solve this problem, the Institute needs to provide incentives and training for good mentoring and must encourage faculty to consider the individual needs of their advisees.
The Residence Based Advising (RBA) program is an effort to improve academic advising for freshman by incorporating a student’s residential community into the process. Through this program, incoming freshmen who live in specific residence halls (Next House and McCormick) are placed into advising seminars taught by academic professors and other members of the MIT community. These seminars provide students with weekly direct interaction with their academic advisor, along with the opportunity to discuss issues in a comfortable setting with the other students in the advising group. The program also formally incorporates upperclassmen who live in the residence halls. These Residence Associate Advisors (RAAs) not only act as mentors but also enrich the community within the dormitory by planning regular events. They provide an invaluable asset to incoming freshmen seeking advice and also act as conduits to various resources such as the Academic Resource Center and MIT Medical.
The RBA system has a positive impact in strengthening the support network provided to new students, and its expansion would be a great supplement for more freshmen to enhance their initial experiences with the Institute. Limited resources, however, may make such an expansion impractical or undesirable if enough professors cannot be found to actively participate. It is also important to recognize that an RBA style of advising does not appeal to all freshmen. Besides the time commitment of the seminar, some freshmen believe that general interaction with upperclassmen in the dorms already provides a support structure which would not be greatly advanced by a formal RAA. Many dorm residents also believe that the RBA program is detrimental to dorm culture, because it requires students to pre-select a dorm that has the program and remain in it, thus preventing students from participating in the “dorm rush” system. It is important for the Institute to continue to inform freshmen of the commitments required by the RBA program and allow them to choose which residence style best fits their needs. MIT should further explore Residence Based Advising, but keep a watchful eye on potential unintended consequences of the program, particularly to its impact on the character of each residence culture.
Faculty retention directly affects student education and life at MIT. The student experience is adversely affected when the Institute loses well respected professors to competing universities, as recent visible cases exemplify. The students who are mentored, and the graduate students who have to disrupt their lives, suffer from the vacuum that is left by a professor’s departure. MIT must identify methods of retaining excellence at the faculty level.
Many arguments are made concerning the need to increase faculty diversity. From the student perspective, one relevant argument that is often overlooked is that a truly diverse faculty would do much to dispel the perception that engineering, mathematics, and the sciences are white male fields of study. Underrepresented minorities and women, for example, rarely if ever have engineering and science professors that are from their race or gender, respectively. The student body on a whole would be able to identify with and better relate to a faculty that is more a reflection of itself. Of course, the most important thing is that the faculty deeply cares about student life and learning.