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Escaping the Cycle Of Suffering

Guest Column
Andrew C. Thomas

This week marks another beginning of the great cycle of pain for the MIT population. After a much-needed six week break (or whatever you prefer), we students will once again make textbook manufacturers rich and put our noses to the collective grindstone. We will become familiar with a new group of professors and teaching assistants, whom we will in short time blame for making our lives a living hell. And for the most part, we’ll be justified.

This isn’t to say that I dislike my professors or TAs, or blame them personally for making my life miserable. With only a couple of exceptions, all of my professors, current or previous, have been fairly likeable people. None ever had a personal grudge against students in the class. And none taught their classes while threatening to shoot any student who was unable to answer a question asked point-blank.

However, the fact remains that MIT is primarily a research institution. And as such, professors are hired and tenured on their ability to perform in the lab, not in the classroom. Rather than being able to choose whether they want to teach courses, it is mandated that all professors must teach at least one class. This means that since selective emphasis is placed less on teaching ability, while the Institute picks up many brilliant minds, they may not be able to properly communicate their passion to their students. I’m sure someone up high had it in mind that the best way to learn a subject is from the brightest people in the field -- and rightly so, as the UROP program and millennia of apprenticeships have demonstrated -- but that system is not working as well as it can here.

The current mentality seems to be that because MIT students are among the best in the country, the assigned workload can increase proportionately. Once students are flooded with a deluge of paper, they have no choice but to swim up to the surface. This, sadly, was foreshadowed for each of us as prefrosh when we were told that the MIT experience was like drinking out of a fire hose. Little did we realize the great force we would feel. Someone said that education is not simply a glass to be filled, it is a fire to ignite. By simply presenting material to students -- in any volume -- professors on the whole do little to stimulate a love for the material. Those professors who love to teach and put a great deal more energy into their courses than their counterparts often have to pay the price of time spent on their research. Graduate students have their own problems; they are here first to fulfill their own scholastic obligations, second as full-time employees. Teaching is somewhat divided between these two priorities. This is why despite their comparative lack of experience in the field, undergraduate teaching assistants get my vote. Here is a group of students, enthusiastic in their field of study, wanting to further their experience by helping others below them understand what they do. Only the most dedicated choose to fill this role, and those who do often go on to teaching careers themselves. Again, the apprenticeship model, learning from the master, shows itself to be an effective means of education. But the problem remains. MIT is in serious need of professors with a love not only for their subject but for passing the knowledge along to others. Perhaps the solution is to hire more teaching professionals, those who choose not to undergo research and only to instruct. However, it is still important to have instructors with intimate knowledge of the present affairs in their field, and active research is certainly a way to accomplish this. One move that MIT should seriously consider is a re-evaluation of the teaching requirement, to ensure a higher quality of education.

Then again, maybe I’m asking too much if I want to feel some enjoyment for the classes I take and the disciplines I want to pursue. After all, no one ever said that learning had to be fun. I’d just like to think that “no pain, no gain” didn’t have to be an MIT rule of thumb.

Andrew C. Thomas is a sophomore in the Department of Biology.