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To Teach or Not To Teach: Professors Might Try a New Approach to Classes -- Caring about Teaching

Wesley T. Chan

Since its founding, MIT has been a bastion of academic excellence where we often challenge ourselves beyond what we believe is possible. At MIT, many students find their education primarily outside the lecture hall, in the form of problem sets and hands-on projects. Students here are known for their creativity and ingenuity in solving problems. It's not surprising that students at MIT are known for designing a jukebox for their dorm from scratch or spending hours sitting in front of a computer writing software for their extracurricular work.

Such a unique academic environment where students are taught more outside the lecture hall than inside is one of MIT's defining points, but it is also one of the sore spots that MIT unfortunately has festering beneath its concrete skin. MIT often values research above teaching and thus often emphasizes research at the expense of good teaching.

The Institute boasts a faculty that is comprised of top-notch scientists, engineers, mathematicians, and economists involved in cutting-edge research that often revolutionizes their respective fields. This same faculty is often found in lecture halls, supposedly teaching students both the basics and the intricacies of their respective subjects. Nevertheless, it doesn't take much time for students to discover that professors who are the best in their field aren't necessarily the best teachers. Student complaints about boring lecturers and professors who can't relate to students are all too commonplace at MIT. We often hear stories about professors who assume that everything is so "intuitively obvious" that students are supposed to know the material and don't need to be taught it.

It's sad that students often have to turn to other means to replace what they should find in the classroom. From churning out problem sets to working on pet projects, students have to learn by other means what they should have been taught in the classroom. The fact that students can't depend on their professors or teaching assistants to teach them is so ingrained in our culture that it's simply accepted - so much so that by midterms, a large number of students registered for core classes like 18.02 and 6.001 no longer show up for class.

To be fair, however, there are many professors here who are excellent teachers and can effectively communicate the material to students. What works - and what doesn't work - in the classroom has long been a topic of discussion. Nevertheless, most people, professors and students alike, would probably agree with what Sir William Osler said about teaching: "no bubble is so iridescent or floats longer than that blown by the successful teacher."

Teaching at MIT should be of utmost importance. Stanford University realized this long ago. In their teaching manual, which they hand out to all faculty, they tell their professors that "as educational needs and demands in the workplace change, as concerns about increasing tuition bills mount, as the diversity of our student body creates new challenges, we need to intensify our discussion of teaching issues, emphasizing methods as well as content." It's important for MIT to now begin thinking about how we can drastically improve the way we teach at MIT inside the classroom.

So what works inside the lecture hall?

Professor of Mathematics and Philosophy Gian-Carlo Rota, who has been teaching at MIT since 1959, has some ideas of his own. Rota, who was awarded the Killian Faculty Achievement Award at MIT last year and is known for his provocative lectures, has a total openness policy when in the classroom. "You really have to like your students," he says, before "real authentic teaching can take place."

Part of Rota's total openness policy includes strong preparation for each and every lecture. He's taught 18.03 Differential Equations over 30 times but still works out relevant examples before every lecture. "There's no such thing as a good unprepared lecture," he remarks.

But preparation can only help you so much. "There has to be an element of excitement about the material," he says. Rota believes that good lecturers need great enthusiasm and a positive attitude toward the material they are teaching. Rota also feels that he is on the same level as his students, not at some elevated height. "We're all in one boat," he asserts.

Outside the lecture hall, Rota believes in being available for his students when they need him. In addition to long office hours, Rota makes himself easily accessible by e-mail and replies to his students as soon as he can.

As for the theatrics that Rota is known for employing in class, he calls them "great monotony tricks." Rota gives Hershey bars to students in 18.03 if they catch him making a mistake or if they ask a question in class.

Rota's teaching style demonstrates a partnership between professor and student. For the most part, he can communicate the material effectively to his students and takes pride in the fact that students in his lectures aren't afraid to ask questions and to correct any errors he makes on the board. "There are no stupid questions," he says, or equally, "all questions are stupid. Silly questions are also really deep questions." And he makes every effort in lecture to answer them all.

It only seems natural that the Stanford guide tells its professors that students "see instilling motivation as a primary teaching function, in the sense that everything else depends on it." At MIT, it's the duty of all professors to instill motivation in all of their students. Only then will students respond overwhelming to the material being taught. As Rota puts it, "in the long run, it pays off."