Academic Quality

Academic Quality

The question of academic quality is one of our preoccupations and rightly so. But it has risen in importance in this time of continuing change in “the ecology of higher education.” Today FPU, and every institution of higher education, faces increases in economic pressure as well as scrutiny from governmental agencies, the larger public and potential students. We wonder if our response to these pressures will lessen the quality or impact of Fresno Pacific University’s academic programs. As we form a strategic plan (now almost completed), we return to this question often. So what goes into the quality of teaching and learning at a university? Let me mention a few of what I think are the most important elements.

First is an instructor’s combination of knowledge and skill in conveying that knowledge. I do not mean just passing on information. The professor must lead the student to understand a subject, its deep inter-relations, its practical meanings and even those questions we do not know how to answer. This requires deep learning, and practice in communication, teaching techniques and ways of drawing students into ever-deepening conversation. It is essentially the passing on of ways of knowing and understanding in particular disciplines through the practice of that discipline. Some have described it in very personal and relational terms, and some as teaching and learning a craft. Both seem helpful to me.

If not many of us are trained specifically in teaching, we have absorbed how teaching is done. We have been in the classroom or lab for something like 20 years by the time we have earned out degrees. And we work with each other in honing our teaching. If we have been educated well, and if we continue to develop, then we have a very powerful combination for educating students.

Second we require professors to learn deeply and continuously. This normally starts with a doctorate or “terminal degree,” but further demands that we contribute to the development of our disciplines throughout our careers. We call this scholarship. We take sabbaticals to write and develop our understanding. We seek to draw our students into this ongoing deepening of our own knowledge. When we do not do this, when we just teach a subject, quality suffers. I finished my formal training 30 years ago. If I were not continuing to work in my disciplines, my teaching would be stale and long past its “sell by” date.

But we do not want our scholarship to be isolated. In some cases there is only one person in a particular field in the university. So third, we need at least two further elements of scholarship. We need to circulate in our professional societies. We must see how others are teaching, hear where the current discussion in the discipline is developing and be part of that discussion. This involves going to conferences, presenting papers, writing and testing our thinking with our professional peers.

In addition we need vibrant campus dialog. We need to bring in speakers, host conferences and participate in seminars. We encourage student clubs to do the same. This semester alone, even with difficult finances, we hosted a Mennonite writers conference, a series honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Black History Month, a three day-philosophy discussion with two invited guests, a diversity scholar speaking about immigration and how to pursue diversity in our faculty and curriculum, and a scholar of Latin American literature. There are more that I have forgotten, I am sure.

These events, organized by our faculty, benefit the academic and student life programs and the university as a whole. We also have thoughtful dramatic productions, and professional musicians on campus. College Hour (chapel) regularly brings speakers from the region and beyond. These activities all deepen the conversation on our campuses, both among ourselves and with our students. That conversation sparks a common understanding across our disciplines, and provides experiences for discussion in and out of the classroom.

Fourth in the mix of elements that contribute to academic quality is the whole arrangement of our academic programs. This involves general education, bachelor’s major and master’s program requirements, electives, admission and graduation requirements and the number of units required for each.

This fourth element is actually the most difficult to gauge, the most imprecise. Each discipline has its own conventions. Some have lots of options, some are tightly sequenced. Many must meet the requirements of government or professional agencies. We work within a larger marketplace where limits and expectations set a norm. Professors within a single discipline often have different preferences.

In times of change, we have to change. We try not to change with trendy fashions, and watch instead for the long-term patterns, especially those that have been educationally effective—for “best practices.” We never all agree. It is always a compromise both among ourselves, and within the higher education environment. All of these requirements, patterns and conventions set the boundaries and provide a tighter or looser sequence for a students’ learning in a particular discipline and for their broader university study.

There are surely other elements that contribute to an academic environment in which students and faculty thrive and excel. We might add “mentoring,” but this is a larger topic for another time. Those I have outlined seem to me to be some of the most important. The first is essential. The quality of education is directly related to the quality of the classroom or online discussion, the depth of the material and ideas considered, the connection between professor and student and student and student, and how a student learns not just the content, but ways of knowing and understanding. Without the second and third, eventually whatever we do as professors in the classroom and with our students is impoverished. We are not an island of learning. We carry out our work in a broad intellectual and professional environment, which we must bring into the campus discussion. The fourth is necessary. When well done it aids learning, but it can be well done in a variety of ways, none of them perfect. We each have our own preferences. And the university environment is subject to all kinds of pressures and compromises from within and without. The first and fourth we are doing and will always work on; emphasis on the second and third is part of our developing academic strategic plan.

When people ask me how to tell a good university from an average one, I suggest they look at campus bulletin boards. Do the signs indicate a vibrant dialogue is being carried on? Is it a stimulating and interesting academic community? Look at the website. Does it show professors engaged in their disciplines and with their students? Are there many opportunities for learning and discussion? Are speakers and other scholars and professionals brought to campus for small and large symposia? Listen to the alumni. Do they show the habits of active, knowing engagement in their work, communities and churches? If the answers are all yes, then it is probably a good and thriving university. At FPU the answers are “YES!”

Steve Varvis

Steve Varvis