As of this writing, I find myself in the lull between semesters. Grades have been submitted, courses closed out, and my students have all gone to their respective homes until Spring Semester 2014 comes calling in a week. In the life of faculty, there’s lots of catching up to do: on projects that were pushed back, on thank you notes for guest speakers, and (most importantly, to me) sleep. On the day after grades are due, the university releases our Student Evaluations of Instruction, or as we lovingly call them here, SEIs. The SEIs are supposed to give us (and our department chairs) a better idea of where we are in our teaching and courses via the generic 5-point scale we see everywhere (1 equals bad, 5 equals excellent). There is also space for students to leave comments anonymously.
In all reality, the five point scale has very little use to me in the management of my classes. The real part worth diving into is the space for student comments. Students have shared many things in this section…suggestions for exam changes, requests for less work, and even their favorite joke from the semester. One of the more opinionated comments I received this past semester from my Introduction to Aviation class was from a student who self-identified as an Aviation major about the negative light placed on the airline industry by several guest speakers in the class.
The Introduction to Aviation class at OSU is what I like to refer to as our program’s “gateway,” in that it is a prerequisite for further classes, and has also been a very successful “gateway drug” to the aviation field for previously unaware students. Depending on the semester, 50%-60% of the students in the class are not aviation majors. They sign up as freshmen, exploring the opportunity for a major or a minor or as seniors looking for elective credit that is a bit different than a normal class. The class is my baby, and I do my best to recognize that this could be a make-or-break introduction to the aviation world.
There are segments of the course devoted to history, aerodynamics, pilots licensure, airports and the airlines. The best part of the class (and of being in a program in a major aviation city) is the fact that the university and myself as the teacher have access to a cadre of fantastic aviation professionals from around the US that will take time out of their day to share their experience and wisdom with a class of beginning aviation students. These students bring expectations about the various professions that visit to the table, especially when the professional pilots visit. As part of their visit, I encourage everyone, and especially the regional airline pilots to be as truthful and realistic as possible about their careers, in light of the bad press regional airlines have received (and continue to receive) over the past four years. None of the stories told so far in class have been particularly awful, but each pilot does an excellent job of sharing the struggles of living lives on reserve and with (all considering) very little pay alongside the awesome benefits of a life in the cockpit.
I consider this exposure to the industry for my students to be of utmost importance in helping them set standards and goals for the future. As aviation supporters and professionals, we do our prospective future professionals a disservice by painting the aviation field as excessively rosy or excessively gray. In dealing with our student pilots, we should be sharing our experiences and encouraging the next generation to start building their professional network now. The student mentioned at the outset of the article had a particularly rosy view of the industry as a whole. Unfortunately, as it is for every career, there are downsides that one must be made aware of. Perhaps if we are more forthcoming about the challenges we face, our success rate in things like pilot starts will improve.