On Tuesday, four professors were announced as the 2011 MacVicar Fellows. Professor Bishwapriya Sanyal of the Department of Urban Studies and Planning, Associate Professor Christopher A. Schuh of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, Professor George C. Verghese of the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, and Professor Patrick H. Winston ’65 of the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science were recognized for their contributions to undergraduate education at MIT.
The Margaret MacVicar Faculty Fellowship was created in 1991 to recognize excellence in undergraduate teaching at MIT. There are currently 43 MacVicar fellows, who are appointed for 10-year terms, during which they receive $10,000 of discretionary funds annually for support of educational activities.
The program is named for the late Margaret MacVicar, Professor of Physical Science. MacVicar served as MIT’s first dean for undergraduate education and founded the MIT Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP).
Fellows are nominated by any member of the MIT community. An advisory committee — including faculty, students, and Dean for Undergraduate Education Daniel E. Hastings PhD ’80 as chair — chooses the fellows.
The MacVicar Fellows universally believe that undergraduate teaching is a valuable pursuit. “I like teaching … my brain reacts differently after I had a good class with students,” said Sanyal.
Since arriving at MIT, Sanyal has seen his teaching style change to better meet the needs of the students. “When you are a young assistant professor, your first inclination is to show students how much you know. Impressing is not necessarily what makes a student learn … it cannot be a battle between you and the students,” he explained.
Increasingly, Sanyal has viewed teaching as a cooperative process between students and teachers. “I’m more and more intrigued by the kind of interaction that leads to learning,” said Sanyal, who believes that “sharing vulnerability” — admitting that there are answers the professor does not know — leads to increased confidence in students. Sanyal tries to focus on how to shape thinking and teach students the correct information without destroying confidence, a process that requires “joint exploration” of the material.
Verghese also viewed teaching as largely about the interaction with students. “The amazing thing is that, every term, you learn while you teach,” he said.
Verghese views teaching as a fluid process, not static: “You never teach a canned course, you’re always rethinking things … people can be teaching the same things for 10 or 15 years, but it’s never the same things.”
More than rote facts, Verghese finds teaching problem solving and ways of thinking to be extremely useful. He recalls students who have come back to him saying they “value their MIT education for how it taught them to think.”
“These things will travel with you, it doesn’t need to be in this subject,” said Verghese of the basis of creative thinking and problem solving. Verghese, along with Professor Alan V. Oppenheim ’61, developed 6.011 (Introduction to Communication, Control, and Signal Processing), a course typically taken by Course VI juniors and seniors. In developing the course, Verghese said one of the most valuable things he realized was the importance of not trying to do everything at once. Verghese believes that going to further depths and exploring a subject can be far more rewarding than a broader but shallower exposure.
The value of depth in education was similarly expressed by Winston. “My objective has always been to tell the whole story — not just the skills, but the objectives behind the skills,” he noted.
A semester of classes is worth it to Winston if a single person comes away with a powerful idea that makes a difference in his or her life. “That’s where the real thrill comes from, hearing that kind of impact on someone’s time at MIT,” Winston said.
“We are witnessing a change in the way education is delivered,” Winston said, explaining that as information is made more publicly available — such as through the resources provided by MIT’s OpenCourseWare — the experience of being at a university like MIT is changing. When Winston took 6.01 as a MIT undergraduate, his professor was Amar G. Bose ’51, founder of Bose Corporation. “Just being in the same classroom was a thrill by itself,” Winston remarked.
However, Winston acknowledged a changing educational dynamic. He believes that at this point in time, simply being in lectures is not as valuable was it was before and that contact with faculty will increasingly happen outside of the classroom.
Still, Winston says he tries to make MIT “a more human place,” starting with learning the names of the students in his classes. “It’s not always easy with 200 students, but I do what I can,” he says.
In that vein, one of Winston’s main goals is to give lectures that are both engaging and informative. He does not allow laptops in his lectures, but in return for students giving him their attention, he tries to make his lectures valuable. “I tell a lot of stories in class because I think they have educational value,” said Winston, who views humans as “fundamentally a storytelling species.”
Verghese echoed Winston, saying that “the challenge is getting students into lecture.” Similar to Winston, Verghese believes there is importance in maintaining communication with the class. “It’s not just appearing for a performance at the front of the lecture hall and then disappearing.”
Schuh also saw making lectures relevant as one of the greatest teaching challenges. “I would like to give a lecture and teach a course that’s sufficiently informative that people will come to class,” Schuh remarked, remembering classes from his undergraduate years where he could get all the information he needed out of a book — and in less time than from lecture — rendering lectures meaningless. His goal, therefore, is to “add more value than what is in a book … I want it to be a sufficiently interesting experience than people learn from me.”
As a professor, Schuh hopes to produce students who go on to make a difference and impact the world. As an undergraduate, teaching “was the last thing on Earth I wanted to do.” In fact, he started studying materials science somewhat by chance. “When I went to college, they handed me a Scantron form and a pencil … I picked the first thing that I didn’t know what it was,” said Schuh, who decided he wanted to be an engineer in order to better the world. However, he realized he could help produce that same kind of person through teaching.
Schuh was not the only Fellow to start college without a clear plan. “I had no idea what I want[ed] to do when I showed up at MIT,” Winston recalled. He went on to receive his bachelor’s degree and master’s degree — both in electrical engineering — and PhD in computer science, all from MIT. After receiving his PhD, Winston became an assistant professor and has been here ever since. Aside from the increase in the number of women enrolled at the Institute, Winston says that “things are much the same as they always were.”
Winston thinks being at MIT his entire career gives him a unique perspective of the Institute. “The perspective of what it’s like to be an undergraduate here, that’s hard to get any other way … it’s something you have to experience to appreciate.”
Furthermore, he believes the “fire hose” learning culture at MIT fosters bonding between students. “It’s a place where people can bond over thinking,” Winston said. “[MIT is] characterized by all-nighters, smart people, tremendous opportunity, too much to do, with a focus on what you know and what you can contribute … it’s a place people never forget.”
The other Fellows also praised the unique environment at MIT. “MIT is consistently awesome,” said Schuh. “The people here just live for this stuff … the energy level for science and technology is really amazing.”
Coming to MIT was “one of the best decisions I ever made in my life,” said Sanyal. “MIT is an exceptional place.”