No Free Lunch: The Teaching Conundrum

Opinion by Zack Hoberg
Jan. 31, 2011, 12:27 a.m.

It sounds great on the campus tour. The enthusiastic tour guide tells you how amazing it is to have classes taught by real professors, researchers exploring the cutting edge of their field. Sounds like a great idea. And it isn’t until a couple years later that you realize how risky this is.

There are just so many things that can, and will, go wrong. Does your professor care at all about the class? If you were doing groundbreaking research on the topology of moduli spaces, how interested would you be in teaching basic linear algebra? The same applies for physics, economics, computer science or any introductory engineering class.

Second, there’s personality. Some people, brilliance aside, have personalities that are simply incompatible with lecture-format teaching. This commonly presents itself as the absent-minded professor. They start off explaining how to take the partial derivative of a function, leading into a topography example, but get derailed talking about the construction of terraces in mountainous agrarian societies, which quickly gives way to a discussion about prehistoric art and the types of dyes used and the potential modern application of ancient building technologies in third world villages. This is all good and well for the academic process — go ahead, publish a paper about the application of math on issues of rural development, people will eat that up, after all, it’s interdisciplinary — and fine for the students at the time, because tangents are almost invariably more interesting than the math. It stops being fine, however, weeks later when you have to maximize a multivariable function on the final and realize that the lecture when that was supposed to be covered was instead spent talking about Peruvian dye.

Finally, perhaps the most pervasive: the language problem. Everybody has experienced this at least once. Your professor is almost certainly brilliant, and hell, let’s give him the benefit of the doubt, good at teaching introductory classes. In another language. In English, however, he speaks with such a heavy accent that your only hope of deciphering the lecture is one of the headphones they use at the U.N. General Assembly. Better hope that the lecture notes are really good and posted online. But on the bright side, this does help you justify sleeping in, or through, class (as if you need any extra help with that one). This affliction is certainly not restricted to professors either — the TA population suffers from it just as acutely, and better yet, they’re your designated saviors from incomprehensible professors.

All of these are obviously problems only in the extreme. Most professors are passionate about what they teach, occasional musings and eccentric tangents can keep you engaged and many accents just make the speaker sound more interesting or (in the case of the Queen’s English) more intelligent. The extremes are, however, relatively common on the Stanford campus. This is the price we pay for having such a renowned faculty — sacrificing some quality of the undergraduate student experience. Although that is an oversimplification, it is probably less of one than most of the administration would like to admit.

So how do we transform Stanford into a great place for introductory teaching? The Program in Writing and Rhetoric department has actually realized this problem and addressed it quite effectively. PWR teachers tend not to be normal tenure track professors, but instead specialized teachers, and exceptional ones. Most people like and appreciate their PWR professors, even if they do hate the class itself. This strategy could easily be applied to other introductory classes. You simply don’t need to be an expert in fractal geometry to teach Math 51 or a Nobel Prize winner to teach the Physics 40 series. Instead, for these introductory courses, let’s hire great teachers who are assessed on their ability to educate students rather than publish papers.

This would be difficult. For one, it’s expensive, and it would probably take somebody cutting a big check to make it happen. Second, there’s the Faculty Senate, which would need a little convincing before they agreed to hire a secondary teaching staff that could step on professors’ toes. Neither is insurmountable, but we’re not exactly holding our breath. In the meantime, find the office hours schedule, organize a study group and bring the lecture notes to class if you can. A Russian-English dictionary might not be a bad idea either.

Dave and Zack are considering starting a PWR course on the rhetoric of introductory teaching. Send them your thoughts at [email protected] and [email protected].

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