January 07, 2007

Ivy League Professors Undermining Education?

Should professors be good teachers? In Universities and colleges across the United States research always takes precedence over teaching so much that a well published professor does not really care about his performance as a teacher and simply concentrates on producing cutting edge research. Understandably so because cutting edge research brings in money and fame both to the academician and to his university, but at a cost. At the cost of permanently thwarting and stunting bright and fertile minds poised on the brink of academic and scientific breakthroughs.

A freshman in a college of some decent standing is but waiting for that slight prod, a nudge in the right direction, a word of encouragement from a renowned entity, to set off into a world of discovery and exploration, that if brought to fruition could impact humanity for centuries. Alas, that is not happening in many of our prestigious colleges and universities. Ivy League Universities for instance have Field Medalists and Nobel Laureates teaching undergraduate classes. These individuals are star attractions for a student wanting to study at that university; who wouldn't want a Toni Morrison, or an Andrew Wiles, or an Orhan Pamuk as a teacher! However, this euphoria is short lived; the starry-eyed student walks into his first lecture class to find another fifty students, like him, all agog to be taught by the eminent personality. That is but the first disappointment, and also the least painful. By the time this student is into the second lecture he figures out that the professor is really not interested in teaching, and is in the room going through the motions of presenting information, and would do the same if there were fifty empty chairs facing him instead of the fifty focused faces that eagerly await the words that are yet to come out of his mouth. Nonchalantly and with the ease of a maestro, he presents his piece as he sees fit and presumes you understand it because, after all, you did make the cut to get into an Ivy League, then you opted to be in his class, and finally there is always the option of switching to another class, another major, another university, or then dropping out for the semester.

The Professor of course is oblivious of the struggling students' predicament as also to the 'i + 1' teaching model. He does not care that the students coming out of high school come with a limited data base of knowledge ( i ), and as a good teacher he has to present his content using the ' i + 1' strategy so that the students start with what is familiar to them (the 'i') and then build upon it as they go along. They have some firm ground to stand on before they venture into the next/higher level of knowledge. In complete disregard of the needs of his students and in spite of his own displeasure, the 'star' professor proceeds to lecture the class, wincing at any interruptions. He has his Ph.D students conduct tutorial sessions apparently to offer help in doing the complex assignments he gives at the end of each lecture, but more likely to appease his own conscience that berates him for his neglect of duty as a teacher. Of course, he finally hands out the much dreaded exam at the end of the course for the few students, who out of sheer resilience, did not drop out of his course despite his apathy.

These killing 'Ivy' fields are sounding the death knell for academic excellence. What is the above but a slow and sure thwarting of a brilliant young mind unkindly reproached, obviously and repeatedly ignored by those in position of power. It is an intimidation and a consequent subduing of young scholarly minds by those deemed intellectually superior because of their publications and awards. In places such as Princeton and Harvard this is a common scenario, but one that is seldom talked about and almost never written about. It's a disgrace that renowned places of learning such as these are guilty of stunting and amputating minds for no other reason but that these minds are mere learners in an environment charged with academic brilliance and home to Nobel Laureates and Field Medalists who, unfortunately, believe that the benefits of research outweigh the benefits of educating the human mind.


nandi23 said...

on that topic , cutting edge research...too many time I've been given screwed up lectures and professors aren't available during office hours cause they are busy in lab

sharique said...

Thats the case everywhere. With success and honour comes pride. This pride is a major hindrance for the those men/women of honour to produce their best to a novice audiences. Contempt might also be a factor.

No doubt research is important but to generate researchers you need people with a strong base. Lack of this quality education at under grad level is a severe blow to the expectations of young minds. In fact this has been a major reason for my not-so-good grades throughout my graduation.

But there is another thing to it. Men/women who have achieved such laurels tend to ignore the basics and this reflects in their teaching. They tend to skip lot of things and this makes it tough for the students to understand.

Sanjay said...

Is this based on a study, your experience or anecdotal evidence?
Speaking as far as the sciences go, I can say that getting research money is almost like a full time job and for a lot of non tenured faculty their only means to keep their jobs.
You may have a point though although I am sure not every professor is like how you describe is it?

Isha' said...

I have been fortunate enough to see some professors who are extremely keen and clean in teaching. Some of them were fantastic.

I have seen poeple to whom Id refers to as well.

Perhaps we have to bug the ones that are within our reach! :)

starry nights said...

This is so true that"
A freshman in a college of some decent standing is but waiting for that slight prod, a nudge in the right direction, a word of encouragement from a renowned entity, to set off into a world of discovery and exploration" sometimes thats all it takes to send that student in the right direction.

Id it is said...

Here I speak from experience, and you are right there are a few luminaries who are different.

As for the Sciences; there's a very interesting anecdote cited in this new book "Fermat's Enigma' where two Science/Math Profs float a new Graduate class so that they can find time to discuss a research problem; needless to say all of the enrolled students gradually drop out since the content discussed is so far and beyond them. This leaves the two professors with a classroom to themselves, now free to discuss their research on assigned class time!

However, my question is should these Professors teach, given the impact they have! Should, in fact, there be a distinction between those who do pure research and those who teach. The next issue would be the renumeration; would it be the same for both categories?

Sanjay said...

I think they should still teach and not sure about compensation. Research is a lot harder than teaching me thinks.

Anonymous said...

i dont know these days i am getting a lot of opportunities to speak about value choices. This is one example. What you said is correct and arguable. It can be mooted because as of now "a nudge in the right direction" is not a well defined statement. An eminent entity need not necessarily channel a person to hit the required output merit (read excellence) Finally, we need to understand which requires more weightage, research or education, i.e "educating" .
I am out of the system and i am not sure how well i understand this. But should professors be good teachers cant be answered. It can be dismissed instead as individual preference or value choices.

Id it is said...

'harder' as in requires more mental agility and academic erudition...?
Not meaning to undermine research but if knowledge were to remain within the realm of a single smart brain without being disseminated what value would it have?

"An eminent entity need not necessarily channel a person to hit the required output merit (read excellence)" you're right that it need not always be that way but if a John Nash or a Charles Fefferman were to say to you that you ought to consider pure Math as a major, who wouldn't put his heart and soul into doing just that!
Lash, why are we so disinclined to make value choices these days? Is it because we don't want to commit or is it because we don't know how to commit? Ultimately it is up to the academician to decide whether he wants to teach or otherwise but since education is such an important factor in determining the quality of an individual's life wouldn't one want to have a say in how that education is disseminated to us. Wouldn't we want a policy to ensure that those responsible for educating us are seriously interested in sharing and explaining what they've mastered?

eshuneutics said...

A fascinating post and I agree entirely with you. It has always puzzled me that to do "basic" education work you need a teaching qualification. Yet, to be a lecturer--at a high level of education--you can operate with no teaching degree at all. Over the years, I have met many lecturers: the majority cannot teach. Surely, if your job is to pass on quality education you have to be able to relate: not a truth that holds in the higher eschelons of academia at all. One of the great problems with education is the imagined split between research and educationm so as the pure is raised above the getting-your-hands dirty practical bit. The best teachers are those who research and the best researchers are those that teach--because they gain from their students. Anyone who doubts the validity of wht you write--even an iota--ought to read Teaching to Transgress by Bell Hooks, which holds no illusions about the spiritual gap bewteen academia and students and the poor educations that results. Ivy has become poison ivy--academia is tainted with money and prestige rather than blessed with pure intentions.

pRicky said...

See what i have understood is the fact that most students doing research if on a scolarship need to contribute to the department and the phd students around me are all quite excellent in providing that. they lack the grey hair but there age is no limit to their brilliance.
now my friends in the uni doing phd are quite petrified facing the class but into our second term they have gotten over their stage fear and they do quite well...

_Jonathan_ said...

I think there Must be a distinction between those who do pure research and those who teach. I know a lot of teachers who teach in a very good way, and don't do research. I think there's not problem between both activities, but I prefer "every bee in its own hive".

eshuneutics said...

Every bee in its own elitist hive: and a lot of academics droning on.

Id it is said...

If "every bee in its own hive" becomes the norm the students stand to lose. Research and teaching are not oxymorons; they can become a dynamic duo and raise student performance sky high.
I think Eshu's "The best teachers are those who research and the best researchers are those that teach" model would serve student interest the most.

...in that scenario("Every bee in its own elitist hive: and a lot of academics droning on".) who gets the honey?? hehe

EXSENO said...

They should of course be good teachers as well. But if they can't do both then they shouldn't be teaching.
Leave teaching to someone who wants to do it. It's a shame.
The best theacher in the world is not the one who is the most itelligent. It's the one who cares the most about his students.

Teri said...

This is an interesting and thought-provoking post.

Ajay said...

How very very true. Youve captured the right perspective. However, when these minds involve students in research, they may be imparting much more that they cud ever do in a lecture. So why not adopt a strategy of forming coherts or groups to be guided in practical research by the professors. This way both the student and the professor benefit. The work gets done. the student gets a hands on experience and can relate to the topic under consideration with ease.

Ajay said...

besides i believe that the profs relate real life situations in class, making it all the more interesting and proactive?
besides it is upto the student to prove his worth, and no person will resist or hinder ideas. what say ?

Id it is said...

I completely agree with what you say, but these 'coherts' never get created because the 'star professors' are not inclined toward teaching; they see that as a chore and do the bare minimum since in US Universities that's a requirement. All professors are expected to teach a certain number of hours.

Red said...

I wish more people in Univ administration agreed with you. The main reason I want to be in academia is because I love teaching, sadly to get anywhere I am going to spend my time writing inane articles quibling over footnotes.