This time last year, I was walking into the first lecture of a mandatory, mechanical engineering class. The instructor had written the necessary first-day information on the board, and while the class number matched the course I was enrolled in, his name didn’t match the instructor’s name on CIS. He must have seen the group of confused students huddled in the doorway, and added “Replacement Instructor” to the board.
Once the class had officially started, this replacement instructor introduced himself and told us that our original professor had received an opportunity to further his research in another state and would be remote for this semester. The department chair was excited for this researcher, but aware of how a remote instructor may struggle to meet the needs of a junior-level engineering course, and so a new professor was assigned.
For that, I am grateful. The mechanical engineering department chose to prioritize student success. If my original professor had not been excused that semester, he would have been balancing high-level research and a remote class of over 100 students. It’s easy to see how this instructor may have become overwhelmed with all of his responsibilities and it would be a shame if this class became one of the few University of Utah courses led by an unresponsive or chronically absent instructor. This issue, while statistically small, remains a concern. According to the U’s former interim associate vice president for faculty Harriet Hopf, it may happen to a couple of classes a semester, a comparitively small percentage to the “thousands” offered on campus.
Hopf urges students to remember that “instructors are people” and asks students to “feel some empathy” for instructors who are struggling to balance their students with other professional and personal responsibilities. She also mentioned the university often does not know that a professor is not fulfilling their teaching obligations until students report it. Obviously, the U’s leadership needs to be reminded that students have invested their tuition and time in their education. Expecting an instructor to be present and professional is not a high bar for higher education.
If I had struggled during this mechanical engineering course during my junior year because of substandard communication and teaching, I likely would have been forced to enroll in an additional semester as well as jeopardized my scholarships and the status of my major in the program. Deciding to withdraw from this course — a recommendation made by Lori McDonald, vice president for student affairs, to students enrolled in classes with unreliable professors — would still have forced me to enroll in an additional semester at the U, as this course was a requirement for my program. If the U truly believes students should be proactive in reporting instructors failing to attend classes or to reply to emails, it should provide additional scaffolding to help students know how to report and mandate how departments across campus address student feedback.
Hopf believes an informal document listing resources for department officials could be an option for departments dealing with student complaints about an absentee professor. “Having a resource that says, ‘Hey, this is what you could do’ would be helpful,” Hopfsaid. A similar document for students that could be provided with every class syllabus would also be a powerful tool for addressing this issue. Students would then have information about what constitutes an absent or unresponsive professor and who to contact within the instructor’s department. Students would know how to alert department officials as soon as there is a problem with an instructor neglecting their class.
Every semester, U students are asked to provide feedback on their instructors and TAs. While every department and the instructor is given the anonymous results of these evaluations from the Center for Teaching and Learning Excellence, there is no university-mandated requirement for instructors or departments to review this feedback. Gratefully, some departments do review evaluation results and require professors to meet with department officials to talk about what was successful in the course and what needs to be changed for the next semester. If the U mandated that departments follow up with instructors based on student feedback — especially when the reports indicate that professors are ill-prepared, undependable or unreachable — instructors who have neglected their students could be more easily identified and this issue could be addressed prior to the next semester’s class.
The U Student Code reads, “The mission of the University of Utah is to educate the individual … Students have a right to support and assistance from the University in maintaining a climate conducive to thinking and learning.” While very few U students will ever have to deal with an absent or unresponsive professor, those who do should not be left without resources. If this issue remains unaddressed, the university will continue to deprive students of their school-guaranteed rights. I urge university leaders to do more than offer sympathy to students who are struggling with a professor who regularly misses class and does not respond to emails.