Who Teaches the Best Undergraduate Course in North Carolina?

At times, the Pope Center for Higher Education Policy can cast a harsh light on college courses in North Carolina universities, revealing them to be politicized and intellectually cramped. But we are equally committed to spotlighting top-quality courses that reflect open-mindedness, academic rigor, and a tradition of excellence.

To support that commitment, we have just started two efforts to identify outstanding courses – and to inform students, parents, and others about them. During 2008, the Pope Center will conduct the Spirit of Inquiry Contest, a quest to find the best undergraduate course in North Carolina (and two runner-ups). Simultaneously, at UNC-Chapel Hill over the next few months, the Pope Center will administer a survey of students that will identify the best general education classes.

Because tenure and academic promotions depend primarily on research and publication, teaching is sometimes a poor stepchild – even at small liberal arts colleges but especially at large universities. “To specialize in teaching is looked upon as a second-class occupation,” says one faculty member at Penn State, “even though our contributions to the mission of the department are every bit as important as those of our tenured colleagues.”

The Spirit of Inquiry award will honor those North Carolina faculty (whether primarily researchers or teachers or both) who inspire class discussion, drive their students to greater achievements, and imbue them with a love of knowledge.

Its name comes from what we perceive to be one of the greatest needs in college today – freedom of inquiry. As past Clarion Call columns have indicated, course after course focuses on such issues as social engineering, anti-capitalism, and feminist literary theory without entertaining alternate viewpoints or interpretations. But we are confident that many professors in North Carolina are teaching – and teaching exceptionally well – courses that emphasize freedom of speech, action, and conscience and that expand students’ intellectual horizons.

The Pope Center’s Spirit of Inquiry Contest, which started with seed money from the Broyhill Family Foundation, seeks to find and publicize such courses and reward the faculty members who teach them. The top award will be $1000, to be used for books, travel, and other education- or research-related expenses. The winners will be honored at a banquet next fall.

Although anyone can propose a course, we hope that students will be the main source of nominations. Students who have attended the nominated courses will have an important role in describing their nature, content, and impact.

According to contest director Jenna Robinson, “Students should find the course material and the faculty member’s delivery to be interesting and engaging. The course should be academically rigorous. The faculty member should be responsive to student needs and questions.”

A student who nominates the winning course will receive $250 worth of textbooks for the next semester, and the students who nominate the second and third place winners will receive $100 worth of textbooks. Any undergrad or graduate student can nominate a course.

Entries can be in any discipline. For example, the winning courses could explore various themes in Shakespeare, the government’s role in agriculture, the relationship of individual freedom and music, or ways to address global warming — as long as inquiry is encouraged.

Contest winners will be determined by five judges, among them Anne Neal, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA), and George Leef, the Pope Center’s vice president for research.

Meanwhile, at UNC-Chapel Hill, an additional effort by the Pope Center will address a perennial problem on campus – selecting from the hundreds (2000 at present) elective courses that meet “general education” requirements. Such courses, taken by freshmen and sophomores, range from introductory economics or mathematics to classes on popular culture, music, and movies.

Echoing the criteria of the statewide contest, this more focused survey aims at finding classes where students can be sure that they will not be barraged by narrow political viewpoints. This General Education Course Survey, supported by the Searle Freedom Trust, will help counter the intrusion of politics into education that has been found all too often at UNC-Chapel Hill.

Current UNC-Chapel Hill students and recent graduates can take the survey, which is loosely based on the questionnaire conducted by ACTA and published in its paper “How Many Ward Churchills?”(scroll down page) Questions on the survey also address academic rigor, the professor’s availability during office hours, and whether the course materials are interesting.

The Pope Center will use the survey to evaluate the courses and publish a recommended course list for incoming freshmen and sophomores. We aim to include the best courses in each required category – from Physical and Life Sciences to English Composition and Rhetoric.

More information about the UNC-CH General Education Course Survey and the Spirit of Inquiry Contest can be found here. We look forward to discovering excellence on North Carolina’s campuses.

Jane S. Shaw is executive vice president of the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.