Perhaps one of the most critical arguments of Swarthmore’s liberal arts equation is its professors. As a small private college, the low student-to-professor ratio holistically colors students’ academic experiences and development. Thanks to this ratio, Swarthmore can offer students a collegiate journey that is shaped through close interaction with dedicated full-time professors — not graduate teaching assistants. These well-trained faculty members offer valuable instruction, serve as close mentors to students, provide voices of reason and support, write recommendation letters, and simply get to know their students on an individual level. To that end, students thankfully have a vital role in the hiring process of the college’s faculty … or so we are led to believe.
During the hiring process, student input and feedback should be held paramount. We, The Phoenix, believe that the commitment students make when being chosen to participate in the hiring process should be reflected in the hiring decision of the academic department. It is an honor for students to be selected by a department to attend professor candidate talks, which typically consist of an hour-length research presentation followed by a fifteen-minute Q&A session. Students are usually also invited to an hour-length informal conversation between the candidate and students only, which aims to facilitate the most authentic dialogue between a prospective faculty member and the students they would be teaching if hired.
The first component of fully valuing student feedback is to include a diverse set of students in the hiring. In order to obtain holistic student feedback, selected students should be of all class years and levels of involvement in the department. Moreover, focusing on including a variety of different demographics would expand potential audience connections to the material and also likely stimulate different questions and conversations. It would also be advantageous to invite students without direct connection to the department to the candidate talks in order to see how students interested in taking one or only a few classes in the department engage with the professor. This showcases how the professor interacts with those of different skill sets and passions.
The participation of invited students invariably spans days and often weeks as multiple candidates visit the college to make their impressions. Student attendance at the events is not mandatory, yet students are highly encouraged to be present at as many candidate visits as possible to inform a thorough evaluation of all candidates. This two-hour-per-candidate responsibility for students is taxing, but dedicated students will take time out of their busy schedules to support the departments and professors that they know will have a positive impact on their future and the futures of their peers.
Second, in order to properly rate each candidate, it would be useful to have each department share the criteria they used to select candidates, which would in turn allow students to base their feedback on those specific criteria. Creating a system like this would not only allow for greater transparency in the thinking of the department, but also set up a logical framework for following the hiring process in its entirety.
Lastly, once the hiring decision has finally been made, The Phoenix encourages more transparency about why the decision was made. In the status quo, students are graciously thanked for their input, yet no other information is provided until an announcement is made regarding the final hiring decision — often, just the name of the selected candidate. Sometimes this communication is shocking, as candidates that students did not recommend or provide overly positive feedback for are hired. A possible method of increasing clarity in this system would be requiring the department to release a list of reasons as to why they hired the person they ultimately choose, citing specific, anonymous student feedback. As it currently stands, students feel powerless and in the dark after their feedback submission. It is unknown if their responses are truly considered, and how their input is factored into the hiring judgment.
In the end, students are the community that will be most significantly affected by new professor hires. Whether that effect is positive or negative is up to the hiring committee. By this stream of logic, student feedback and interactions with professor candidates is the most important aspect of the hiring process as it pertains to the student experience at Swarthmore, and should be treated as such.