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Undergraduate Teaching at Institute Must Be Emphasized

Column by Daniel C. Stevenson

An article in last Friday's issue of The Tech ["Seminars Draw Few Faculty," Oct. 29] reported that faculty attendance has been dismally low at seminars designed to improve their teaching. The seminar series, entitled "Better Teaching at MIT," was sponsored by the Office of the Dean for Undergraduate Academic Affairs as part of an on-going effort to improve the caliber of teaching at MIT, both in classrooms and other environments like the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program. The call for better quality education by the administration and faculty began in September of 1991 with a highly publicized colloquium, "Teaching Within a Research University," but enthusiasm and support dwindled rapidly.

Many important issues were raised at the colloquium about the relationship at MIT between research and education, but few were seriously acted upon, leaving the impression that only lip service is being paid to the concept of better teaching while the real emphasis remains on research. It is disturbing and foolish that many members of the faculty and administration have decided to relegate such a fundamental aspect of MIT as undergraduate and graduate education to a low priority.

The focus of the colloquium two years ago was 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. To enrich undergraduate and graduate education, MIT should find specific ways to make teaching and research more closely complementary in the professional lives of all faculty members." A perfect example of a specific way to improve teaching is the recent seminar series. However, if the administration isn't willing to make a commitment and show some real leadership in this area, no progress will ever be made; the lack of success of the seminars and the continued absence of any definitive, Institute-wide action to improve teaching demonstrate this. As long as teaching is consigned to a secondary role to research, MIT will never realize its potential as both an eminent research institution and an inspirational learning environment.

In the current situation where better research brings faculty advancement over better teaching, students can never be guaranteed the education they deserve. Several departments and individual professors are working to enhance their teaching, but the Institute as a whole still lacks any kind of directive to improve classroom instruction. Tenured professors have the leeway and leisure to make a large commitment to teaching, and many do. For junior faculty, however, working at MIT is still very much a "publish or perish" predicament. Untenured professors must spend a great deal of time on research, often at the expense of teaching classes. One notable example of this is Jeremy M. Wolfe PhD '81, a former associate professor in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences. Wolfe received the coveted Baker Foundation Teaching Award for excellence in undergraduate teaching in 1989 and was highly regarded by students for his informative and exciting lectures. The next year, however, he was denied tenure by the Whitaker College of Health Sciences and Technology, apparently because his research was not up to the MIT standard. In an ironic twist, Wolfe was subsequently hired by Harvard Medical School to do research, the very same work that it appears was found unsuitable here.

Wolfe's love for teaching prevailed even over MIT's rude and self-defeating treatment; he now continues to teach his popular Introduction to Psychology (9.00) course, as a visiting professor. The Baker Award, designed to promote undergraduate education, is now seen by many as the "kiss of death" -- any professor recognized for his or her excellent teaching is suspected of shirking research responsibilities and might be denied tenure, as Wolfe was. This situation is detrimental both to students and to faculty, and must be rectified.

Proponents of the current balance of research and education argue that MIT is primarily a research institution. Research brings in large amounts of money, and research programs provide unique opportunities for students. Any shift in the balance between the two, they claim, would result in a major change for the worse in the character of MIT. What opponents of placing greater emphasis on education fail to realize is that teaching and research are inextricably linked. They both combine to form a synergistic whole that provides the best possible environment for scientific learning and discovery. If the balance shifts too far to one side, the whole Institute is hurt. If students do not receive a good education and lose interest in their field, they will not go on to become productive researchers in that field. MIT's Provost Mark S. Wrighton, a respected chemistry researcher, originally intended to major in government but later switched to chemistry because, as he said, "My chemistry professor was so great and inspired me." If the scientific establishment wants to continue to produce researchers of Wrighton's caliber, we must also reward teaching that inspires young Mark Wrightons to pursue careers in science. Good researchers are not self-made; all scientists have a duty to perpetuate their discipline and to foster enthusiasm in students. MIT not only has an obligation to perform important research, but also to provide tomorrow's scientists and engineers with the best preparation they can possibly get in the form of an inspirational and extensive education.

To meet this obligation, high ranking faculty and administrators should throw their influence behind the "Better Teaching" seminars and other such programs. Professors claimed that they couldn't go to the classes because they were pressed for time. However, few professors would make the same claim about missing a meeting for a grant proposal. Obviously, if undergraduate education is to be improved, this value system must be changed. And any kind of change in the system has to start with concrete support and participation from the upper echelons of MIT. President Charles M. Vest said during the President's Convocation this year that: "Our faculty members are here in large measure because they gain enormous satisfaction and stimulation from working and learning with you [the students]." If this statement is indeed true, Vest and the rest of the administration should have no qualms about encouraging greater faculty participation in education by showing some needed leadership.

During the 1991 colloquium, former Massachusetts governor Michael S. Dukakis noticed that, "A great researcher, a mediocre teacher -- probably will get tenure. A mediocre researcher, a great teacher -- doesn't get tenure. I don't understand." I don't understand either. The twin goals of good teaching and good research can and must be achieved, and the administration owes it to the students and the faculty, and to the whole scientific community, to make good on their professed commitment to education.