Institute debates teaching
By Katherine Shim
Over 1000 students and faculty crowded into Kresge Auditorium on Wednesday afternoon to participate in an Institute colloquium entitled "Teaching Within a Research University." The event marked the conclusion of the "MIT: Shaping the Future series," -- a set of lectures and colloquia held in celebration of the inauguration of President Charles M. Vest last spring.
"The discussion we are about to embark on this afternoon . . . is not limited to MIT -- rather, it is part of a national debate about what is and is not being accomplished in the realm of teaching in our research universities," Vest said in his introductory remarks.
[bb] The colloquium focused on a Challenge Resolution, which said: "MIT faculty are both teachers and researchers. At their best these two roles are mutually reinforcing. . . . In practice, however, they sometimes fall out of balance or even into conflict. . . . MIT should find specific ways to make teaching and research more closely complementary in the professional lives of all faculty members."
Excerpts from colloquium speeches, pages 10 and 11.
Panelists included Dean of the School of Science Robert J. Birgeneau, Yonald Chery G, Professor of Mechanical Engineering Woodie C. Flowers PhD '73, Vice President and Associate Provost for Research J. David Litster PhD '65, Dean of the School of Engineering Joel Moses PhD '67, Associate Professor of Urban Studies and Planning J. Mark Davidson Schuster PhD '79, Colleen M. Schwingel '92, Head of the Department of Chemistry Robert J. Silbey, Professor of Literature Irene Tayler and Assistant Professor of Nuclear Engineering Jacquelyn C. Yanch.
Vest opened the colloquium with an introductory speech, and was followed by Former Governor of Massachusetts Michael S. Dukakis, who served as interlocutor. Provost Mark S. Wrighton gave the concluding remarks.
The colloquium was dedicated to former Dean for Undergraduate Education Margaret L. A. MacVicar '65, who died of cancer last Monday.
Panelists initially discussed the notion of an unbalanced emphasis on research over teaching at the Institute, and mostly agreed that an emphasis on research did exist.
Schwingel said, "In the [MIT Faculty] Policy Handbook, you'll find that it challenges junior faculty. It says that the primary duty of a junior faculty member entering teaching is to become capable and inspiring teachers. That's supposed to be the primary focus. But I would contend that that is not really the case here. It is not actually being done, but is being given a lot of lip service."
Silbey responded by saying, "It's a bit overstated -- although there is some truth to it. Most of the faculty wants to be good teachers. No one wants to go into the classroom and fall flat on their face."
But Moses countered, saying that the notion of an emphasis on research over teaching was a "popular image of what a research university is like."
"I think that in our department, the emphasis on textbooks shows a lot of effort that is put into teaching. . . . The culture within the school of engineering is to emphasize teaching -- partly because our undergraduates get a professional education. Many get jobs after graduation, and we would hear very quickly if students weren't well educated," Moses said.
Panelists went on to discuss the importance of a good research track record in a tenure candidate's file.
Dukakis said: "A great researcher, a mediocre teacher -- probably will get tenure. A mediocre researcher, a great teacher -- doesn't get tenure. I don't understand."
Moses explained that recommendations from outside MIT, which play an integral role in the tenure process, were far easier to obtain in research than teaching. "I was on the committee that gave out educational prizes and we had quite a lot of difficulty in the way we evaluated. For tenure decisions, much is measured by the impact [of research] outside of one's own university. Unfortunately, teaching does not meet that. Textbooks do," he said.
Moses added that "The outside letters have a hard time evaluating teaching. Lately we have been putting a greater and greater emphasis on having traveling professors evaluate. But this is very recent and has only begun in the past few years."
Dukakis challenged Moses on this comment, asking if he was "making judgements internally on who ought to be recognized for good or great teaching. Which is what you do right? There are ways of evaluating good teaching. Many universities do this."
Chery noted that "Forty-one percent of faculty get tenure and 41 percent of those who get Baker teaching awards, for example, get tenure. That is not an acceptable figure. These are people who go far beyond the call of duty."
Steve Scholberg G posed the question from the audience: "Why not ask ex-students of a tenure candidate who have no vested interest in the process to write letters of review?"
in teaching unavailable
Panelists further examined the lack of an Institute-sponsored program to teach professors and graduate students how to teach, and discussed the necessity of such a program.
Schwingel said, "I think that as an institution we attract some world class researchers who are excellent in their field. . . . But MIT drops the baton in the process of integrating them into the Institute."
"There is really no outlet for a person who is entering the classroom for the first time to teach a lecture, or even as a graduate student to be a TA," she added. "There is no training process that is available to them unless it is provided by their department. MIT as a whole is not picking up the slack."
Moses presented an anecdote: "We had a situation with a faculty member who was having difficulty getting promoted to full professor and he went to his department head and said, `I am a world-class researcher. Why am I not getting promoted?'
`Your teaching is awful. Look at the student evaluations.'
`Well, I guess I should do something about it.'
`Why don't you get a tape and have it analyzed?'
The man's teaching improved greatly, and he was in fact promoted."
Schuster added, "There was a time at MIT when we had an outlet called Educational Video Resources that existed to help us become better teachers. [EVR] provided people with a staff that interpreted the videos that they saw. Now in today's Tech Talk there is an article that says we will be happy to videotape you, you have to pay for it, and we will give you the tape so you can look at it at home. It's not clear to me that that's helping the researcher to become a better teacher. It seems to me that the resources in that area are not being increased."
Litster asserted that professors do in fact like to teach. "We are here to teach. Most of our faculty could earn twice as much if they'd worked in industry. They're here because they like students. The university is a community of scholars," he said.
Dave Riley G said: "You asserted that faculty are here because they like to teach -- otherwise, they'd be somewhere else. I'm not sure that's the case. Research universities have the reputation of being the great intellectual places of being, and it's exciting for people because they have colleagues who are not interested in students, but in the other faculty."
Grant money not a factor
in research emphasis
Panelists briefly examined whether the emphasis on research stemmed in part from the fact that grant money funds a large portion of MIT operations.
Litster said: "I don't think [grant money is] driving [the emphasis on research] very much at all. I can actually give you some numbers. A student came in early this week to ask me what fraction of the MIT budget is instructional and what fraction is research. The instructional budget is $340 million and research is budgeted at $300 million."
"The fact is that grants support a lot of what happens here at MIT -- particularly for graduate students," Litster said. "If that money were to disappear, it would have a terrible impact on us. But I don't think that money's what's driving [emphasis on research]."
After the plenary session in Kresge Auditorium, each academic department held smaller discussion meetings to involve more faculty, graduate and undergraduate students in the debate. Freshmen were allowed to choose from among the various departmental sessions.
Prior to the colloquium, opinion pieces were solicited by the MIT Colloquim Committee to be used by the panelists as a catalyst for discussion.