Some say that those who cannot do, teach. But doesn’t that aphorism then imply that those who do, or have done, shouldn’t teach?
The university’s Temple Made campaign describes its students as “Philly made” and “shaped by the city of Philadelphia.” In fact, the political science department offers a class taught by John Street, Philadelphia’s former mayor. Street, elected by the public in 1999 and again in 2003, instructs an upper level special topics course on urban politics. Street’s breadth of knowledge, gained from years working within the political system of the nation’s fifth largest city, cannot be questioned. Nevertheless, there’s shared sentiment amongst political science majors that Street, experienced though he may be, is an ineffective teacher.
“I love John Street as a person but not as a professor,” Alex Fischer, senior honors political science major who took Street’s course in the fall of 2012, said. “The class is, for political science majors, one of those classes you take if you need an easy A. You really have to go out of your way to do poorly.”
Street declined to comment about his course, but Fischer did not hesitate to label it as unstructured. He recalled few assigned readings and lectures that were “unfocused,” mostly centering on anecdotes of Street’s stints in public office. One of the main topics of discussion, Fischer said, was the then-current presidential election between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, even though the course is supposed to focus on local politics.
Fischer also claimed that students were able to frequently get away with not completing readings and online assignments. Fischer said students simply had to certify with their signatures that they finished their assignments and they would receive a grade. Fischer said he believes that Street’s neglect of student accountability, and the ease students had at steering Street off-topic in his lectures, does a disservice to his students.
“It was very easy to get [Street] off topic, so we could bring up the Eagles and then we would just talk about defense for 20 minutes,” Fischer said. “Without that incentive from the teacher, to be held accountable for any of the information, it’s kind of hard to keep yourself accountable.”
When asked if he would ever recommend Street’s class to his friends and other political science majors, Fischer said that it depended on what they would be looking to get from it.
“If you want an easy class, I mean if that’s your goal, to get an A, I would recommend it,” Fischer said. “If you want to learn something, I definitely would not recommend it. I feel like you could read a book on urban politics and learn more.”
However, not everyone who took the course echoed Fischer’s experience.
Vivian Skumpija, another honors political science major and senior who enrolled in Street’s course in Fall 2012, seemed to have mixed emotions after considering his teaching style and format for the class.
“I liked [Street],” Skumpija said. “He was funny, and he did have some really interesting things to say. Overall, I’m glad I took the class because it counted as an upper level [honors course], and it wasn’t the hardest upper level I ever took. It’s not that I wouldn’t recommend it to somebody, but I would just say, especially for an honors student, this isn’t your typical class that you’re used to.”
Skumpija fondly reminisced on the class’s final project: a simulation of a city council where the majority of students took on the role of a particular advocacy group and lobbied other students acting as legislatures for budget allocations.
“[The simulation] was pretty cool,” Skumpija said. “It raised a lot of questions that I personally had never thought of before on homelessness, so I really liked my topic, and that’s why I had a good experience with it.”
But Skumpija said, irrespective of the budget simulation, Street’s course was unorganized, and his lecture style could be deemed “storytelling.” Like Fischer, Skumpija said that it is Street’s informal lecturing that affects students’ abilities to retain any useful information.
“I think it might just be me, but after so much storytelling, I didn’t really know when to be tuned in and when to tune out,” Skumpija said. “It’s easy to just tune out when someone is just telling stories from their past.”
Perhaps Street would be more effective as a guest lecturer rather than an adjunct professor.
Regardless of a faculty member’s credentials, be they from the realm of academia or the tenure of a position within their field of expertise, he or she should always be held accountable to deliver the high quality of education guaranteed to students by this university. Students must also avoid praising a professor for being an “easy A” on feedback forms and own up if they aren’t learning anything.
Many professors, not just Street, ignore their own syllabus and appear to be more interested in recounting their own careers or extolling their successes, values or beliefs instead of teaching. If the structure of a course and the lecture style of the professor hinder the students’ abilities to learn, it not only diminishes the value of their degrees, but the university as a whole.
E. Payne Schroeder can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.