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MIT's Missing Pillars

Anders Hove

How well do research universities do at teaching? This was the question posed by a recent Carnegie Foundation commission, whose report was released earlier this week. Sadly, the answer is that the eduction offered by the typical research university is something of a let-down - research universities proclaim their excellence in research, but undergraduates have little contact with that research, and do not benefit much from it.

Around MIT, and among research universities in general, the mantra one hears over and over is that research and teaching go hand-in-hand: professors find that teaching helps shape and guide their research and writing at the same time as their experience in research helps them decide what to teach. And certainly students are awed by having lectures headed by Nobel laureates, even if the graduate teaching assistants do most of the leg-work.

But just because there seems to be some synergy between research and teaching doesn't mean students are getting the full benefit of their time at research universities. Combining research and teaching may improve the quality of both, but that's not saying much if the quality of the teaching was poor to begin with. In an unusually pointed barb, the Carnegie report condemns research universities for tolerating many "tenured drones who deliver set lectures from yellowed notes, making no effort to engage the bored minds of the students in front of them."

Because some of the Carnegie Foundation's recommendations have already been implemented at MIT, some figures at the Institute were quick to pat themselves on the back for already seeming to do the right thing. After all, MIT already has an inquiry-based freshman year (recommendation 3), and plenty of interdisciplinary opportunities (recommendation 4). MIT makes wide use of information technology in the classroom (recommendation 5) and the student body is said to have developed a strong sense of community (recommendation 10).

It also needs to be said that most MIT students leave campus with a very good education. Most get good, well-paying jobs and lead happy lives. Anecdotally, the bitter taste left in many graduates' mouths is said to disappear within a few decades of graduation from their concrete alma mater.

The fact remains, however, that teaching here could be a lot better. It's not so much that the TAs can't speak English, or that the big lectures are boring or useless. Those are problems, but students have proven able to grin and bear them.

I believe the real problem is one of culture. Faculty members simply have little incentive to think about teaching. Once a faculty member has tenure, he or she has little direct incentive to improve teaching. Meanwhile, junior faculty are pushed to publish as early and often as possible, and although teaching is certainly a consideration in the tenure process, it is not paramount. Many good teachers go elsewhere after being dumped for their research records. The Carnegie Foundation points out that this type of incentive structure plays a large role in developing a culture in which teaching becomes a second-class citizen to research agendas, and undergraduate education goes begging.

Because untenured or junior faculty make up a small fraction of the total number of professors at MIT, the financial incentive structure is less important than the subtle psychological incentives faculty members face when they turn up for work each morning. Prestige is doled out based on research prowess: at MIT students may not have to struggle to get in a professor's door, but how can they command the professor's attention or respect once there?

Research and teaching may go hand in hand, but as long as one is considered the focus of a faculty member's position, and the other secondary, the so-called synergy is left half-formed. As the saying goes, you can't build a roaring fire with just one log.

The report's most poignant section reminds research universities of the importance of mentoring. Too often, the word "teaching" is taken as synonymous with the lecture format, which was pioneered at MIT, after all. Although the lecture is certainly a useful tool, the report points out that learning is based on individual discovery guided by mentoring, not on the transmission of information.

Although I usually remain in the background in my columns, I feel this is an appropriate space to express my own personal regret that I never had anything approaching a mentor at MIT. When I was an undergraduate, I never got to know any other students in my department, and my relationship with faculty members has always been strictly tailored to meeting subject requirements and obtaining needed funding.

This is not to say that I have not been responsible for the character of relationships with my peers and colleagues - I take responsibility for my experiences here. But I know first hand the results of having to make my own way, without role models of any kind. I found my experience at MIT both alienating and demoralizing. Like many students, I have the contrary satisfaction of knowing that whatever I have learned, I have learned largely on my own.

Can MIT culture change? MIT has a pretty good thing going here, and many are loath to tamper with it. The Carnegie Foundation report suggests there is room for improvement, and speaking for myself, I can say that my own experience lends support to the report's findings.

I believe MIT can change, and for the sake of future students, I hope faculty members and administration figures will take the Carnegie Foundation's report into consideration.