Video, podcast, and summary: “Excellence in Teaching”



Excellence in Teaching group photo

MIT Literature professor and moderator David Thorburn began by asking the panelists to describe a memorable teacher from their past. He said that teaching has always been at the center of his life and, though he considers himself a serious teacher, he does not have many abstract principals that suggest what makes a good teacher.

Former US Poet Laureaute Robert Pinsky paid tribute to a teacher he had in the eighth grade in an all-boys class “because it was the bad class,” he said. “It was a class designed for people who were not destined to go to college.” In the first few meetings of this mechanical drawing class, Pinsky had what he described as the first intellectual conversations he ever remembers having in a classroom. Pinsky’s teacher told them that the first elevation of an object to start with is the front, then challenged them to think about how people determine the front of an object. “He got us very interested and arguing with one another and supplying objections to different theories of what is the front of an object,” Pinsky said. “He took this classroom of official dolts doing very little but because he knew a good question and asked one, he got us going.”

Alan Guth, a physics professor at MIT, spoke of former MIT physics professor Felix Villars. When Guth was an undergrad, he had Villars as a professor for his last three terms. “What characterized his teaching was that he was not at all flamboyant,” Guth said, adding that at the time, he would not have characterized Villars as a great teacher.

When Guth began studying for his general exams as a graduate student and reviewed Villar’s notes, “I was incredibly impressed with how tremendously well he had organized the material. Everything just fit together beautifully. Everything was crystal clear and I really, really appreciated that,” Guth said. Despite not having the most exciting of teaching styles, Villar taught material in a such a way that his students didn’t realize they were learning sophisticated concepts.

Hazel Sive, MIT Professor of Biology

Hazel Sive, MIT Professor of Biology

MIT biology professor Hazel Sive credited Barry Fabian, her biology professor at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, as being an example of great teaching. When Sive was a student, the teaching style in South Africa largely revolved around rote memorization. The first day of Fabian’s class, Fabian drew a line across the board, all the way across the blackboard and onto the wall next to the board, across the closed door, out the room, down the hall and back. “We were incredulous,” Sive said. “We were just stunned that a professor would deface the walls and go outside the bounds of the blackboard but it was an unbelievably important experience because it was actually opening up the box of rote memorization that we were all in and saying that there were ways that you could go somewhere else that was interesting.”

She described the lecture as “transformative” and credits that moment as giving her license to think about concepts beyond the bounds of where the concept is conventionally contained.

David Thorburn chimed in with his own “anti-anecdote” about a teacher he encountered as a sophomore in college. After reading Dostoyevsky for the first time, Thorburn was overwhelmed by Crime and Punishment. Thorburn became so obsessed with Dostoyevsky, he read the required readings from the class syllabus as well as other Dostoyevsky works. “It was one of those orgies of reading that one falls into,” Thorburn said. Thorburn wrote his term paper on Crime and Punishment, pouring his soul into the paper. When Thorburn got the paper back from the professor, the only real comment he received was “Not bad.” “That was when I resolved to be a professor who would grade his students’ papers in a respectful way,” Thorburn said.

Thorburn added that a student can be as damaged by a bad teacher as they can exalted by a good one. He then pointed out that each panelists’ anecdote praised a different aspect of great teaching and asked the panelists how they feel about these distinctions.

Alan Guth stated that in a subject like theoretical physics, presentation of the facts is extremely important as is clarity. He believes that charisma does help in touching, but organizing the material in an intelligent way is an important piece of great teaching as well.

Literature professor and Communications Forum director emeritus David Thorburn

Literature professor and Communications Forum director emeritus David Thorburn

Thorburn said that this may highlight the difference between a lecture class and a discussion class. He asked what this means for lecture courses. Robert Pinsky stated that good teaching is often very different than good performance. A knock-out class may not be an example of good teaching at all since performance may be chalked up to a larger institutional or temporal context. Thorburn said that one of his anxieties as a teacher is that he knows he can fool his students into thinking that they’ve had an exciting experience. Some gifted teachers have this problem. It is easy to mesmerize them if you have a theatrical character, but that’s not the same as being a good teacher. He asked Hazel Sive if she’s had that experience.

Sive stated that there’s a balance between the scholarship that one has to communicate in a lecture and the storytelling aspect which is the engaging part of the lecture. She believes that the balance shifts in the introductory courses up to the graduate courses. Sive teaches introductory biology and views her role is as “the erudite storyteller” who can capture the large class and tell something that’s compelling and largely accurate. Many students are not going to get more biology as they proceed through MIT so Sive needs them to listen and be engaged. She said that engagement is especially important at the introductory level. Sive said that when she teaches her graduate students, she believes the balance shifts towards scholarship and teaching students how to synthesize the material themselves.

Thorburn asked if Sive would defend lecture courses.

Sive stated that she loves lecture courses and lecturing. She views lecturing as an opportunity to have a conversation with 300 students at once and to build a community that goes beyond the material itself.

Thorburn said that one of the implications of the forum so far is that there is a difference between the demands of a humanities class and a science class. He asked if the panelists think there’s a difference.

Guth said that he had a hard time answering that since he has never taught a humanities class. He said that he suspects that there are more commonalities than differences. Guth is a support of lecture classes and views them as an interactive experience between the teacher and student.

Thorburn said that one complaint that students make in lectures is that there’s little interaction between teachers and students. Why should students sit and passively listen to a teacher in an age when students can find the same material online? What justifies gathering 100 to 200 students and having an expert talk to them?

Former poet laureate Robert Pinsky

Former poet laureate Robert Pinsky

Robert Pinsky underscored Hazel Sive’s belief that a lecture isn’t a one-way interaction but rather 300 parallel conversations. Good lecturing is interactive and requires teachers to sense how the room is reacting. He remembered lecturing in a Shakespeare for non-majors class at the University of California, Berkeley, and at the time, people from the community would wander in. In those courses, he always stopped himself every so often to invite remarks and gauge the audience. Pinsky added that he’s sentimental about science. Every year eight Boston University poets get fellowships to leave the country for a few months to write. In examining the proposals, he told students that they were not exacting enough in their proposals and told them to think about the application as if they were scientists.

Sive said that she tells her advisees that there are two things that will get them through a course. Going to lecture and doing the problem sets will get them a passing grade. She believes that if material goes in through the eyes and ears and in by handwriting, a student will absorb material much better than otherwise. She said that students don’t engage like that when they’re reading material in a book or online. There is a strong neurological reason as to why there are lectures and she does not see the value of lectures as going away.

Thorburn asked if she believes that there is value to a student being surrounded by other students in a lecture.

Sive said yes. She believes that learning is a communal experience. Bonding experiences like when a professor writes something incorrect on the board or there’s a classroom interruption enhance classroom dynamic and make learning “a real living experience.”

Guth said that despite tech advances, live theater is going strong because there’s “something about the live experience that excites people.” He said that the same is true for academic experiences.

Thorburn agreed that the live element is of course critical in teaching but questioned why that type of excitement is tough to elicit in prose alone. He added that he has the sense that lecturing involves more than just presenting information. He never writes his lectures out. When lecturing, Thorburn aims to model thinking. Because he knows the material so well, it appears to students that he’s struggling to figure out what to say in the moment. The effect is to create “a kind of drama in which they can see the professor struggling to figure something out.” He believes this is the essence of why his lectures matter to students. The information alone they could get from books. He asked the panelists if that is also true when teaching science.

Sive said that her lectures are carefully organized. Everything is written out on 12 blackboards along with a time when each portion will be complete. She teaches in 10-minute increments and incorporates a stretch halfway through her classes. The careful orchestration isn’t as true when teaching on the graduate level. She said that she strives to engage with students on honest questions to which she only knows the answers sometimes. She said that she does not believe this works at the introductory level.

Thorburn asked about the digital revolution and mentioned that each of the panelists have digital education projects including Robert Pinsky’s The Art of Poetry class on edX.

Guth said that his course, The Early Universe, which is available on MIT OpenCourseWare.

Sive has several courses online including one called Pre-701: Getting Up to Speed in Biology. That will be available on MIT X over the summer. She also has a course called Frontiers of Development, which will be a modular course where people can choose what aspects of biology they’d like to investigate. She also has a third MITx project in development that focuses on recitation problems.

Pinsky said that one advantage that lectures have over textbooks is that lectures exact things from the student. The lecture has its own rhythm and students must exercise their ability to take notes, reflect and synthesize in that rhythm. Good lecturers sometimes say, “This is important. Don’t write this down.” A strength of the lecture that’s missing in Pinsky’s MOOC is real time for each separate student.

Thorburn asked Sive if her digital projects contain the energy that she exerts in the classroom and if she believes that digital projects could ever replace lectures.

Sive said that she does not like the flipped classroom concept. Her digital projects are ones that augment the in-person component rather than replace them. The Frontiers of Developmentproject isn’t like anything that exists at MIT and does not supplant an extant lecture course. She believes that there are places where excellent digital lectures can be greatly beneficial to students but she doesn’t believe that MIT is that place. She said that at MIT, material is presented in person and that is part of the privilege of being an MIT student. She said that she does not see MIT changing over to digital only lectures.

Thorburn said that there is a constant argument and anxiety that surrounds whether teaching is respected and rewarded at advanced universities. There is a paradox in elite institutions that the better teachers are at their job, the less they are asked to do it. There is also an issue in that gifted teachers who are not as good at scholarly pursuits may not have a bright future in academia. He asked the panelists for their feelings.

Sive stated that at a research university, research prowess wields great power in terms of promotion, as it should, particularly for academics who are early in their careers. She is currently writing a piece for the faculty newsletter on the complexities of the job of professor. She said that MIT does not teach their faculty how to be professors. She called out OpenCourseWare for putting together programs on how to teach. She said that she believes that “the currency of promotion” established currently is ok, but as faculty advance through the ranks, academia needs to support and respect other aspects of the professorship.

Professor of Physics Alan Guth

Professor of Physics Alan Guth

Guth said that it is true that speaking for the physics department, teaching has played a significant role in tenure position decisions. Faculty cannot advance on teaching alone, but teaching is playing an increasingly important role. He said that he believes that most of MITs young faculty “really are good teachers.” He added that the basic emphasis on research should not be replaced by an emphasis on teaching. Research and the expertise that comes from it is part of what makes MIT a great institution. He said that adding credence to teaching would benefit the Institution.

Pinsky said that maybe more than half of educational courses are taught in community colleges. More adjuncts and grad students are teaching classes. He said that the admissions systems at many elite institutions, possibly including MIT but possibly not, has a “profoundly corrupt” history grounded in anti-Semitism. If we want to have a country that maintains the vitality of previous generations in terms of education, we have to start paying attention to community colleges in a way that we’re not currently. He said that academia is living in a sort of “la la land” and has a huge disconnect between academia and the real issues facing education.

Pinsky added that he’s embarrassed that he doesn’t know more about the sociopolitical issues facing education. In his MOOC, he has been struck by how higher education administration have expressed interest in his MOOC more so than other activities he does. He thinks that they see it as a technological alternative that can be given to the masses and solve economic disparities. He said that he is disturbed by this.

Thorburn said that this strategy is also economic for institutions to do, which may account for part of the administrative interest.

Pinsky recommended There viewers can see everyday people across a range of professions and ages reading poems and speaking about what those poems mean. These videos are very short. When Pinsky finished creating his MOOC, the Boston University administration was very interested in the next iteration of the MOOC. Pinsky wanted the material to be “a bit more like a book or a library” where people can pick and choose topics they want.

Thorburn said that it sounds like Pinsky made a digital anthology rather than a systematic course with his MOOC material.

Pinsky said that the edX platform, he had discussion pods that were so popular, their discussions crashed the edX software because it couldn’t deal with the volume of people.

Sive is chair of the MITx faculty advisory committee. She said that the committee was speaking earlier that day about the limitations of the edX platform and reaching out to get feedback on those limitations. She said that Pinsky’s experience is “an awesome one to document.”

Thorburn opened the discussion up to the audience.

An audience member said that he was struck by Pinsky’s story about the mechanical drawing teacher. He asked if the panelists had ever dreamt of doing something similar?

Pinsky said that he thinks of this “very often.” He said that he has always been a terrible note-taker and doesn’t know how to do outlines. He needs to improvise and is “made nervous by preparation.” If he didn’t feel like he could occasionally ask students to ask him questions, he feels that he couldn’t do this profession. He said that he personally can only function by having students draw something out of him, then he gets energized.

Charles Leiserson, an MIT Macvicar fellow from the computer science department, said that the panelists have not addressed what separates a good teacher from a great one, a phrase that was used in the promotional materials for this forum. He said that he believes that the thing that separates good from great teaching is love. What Leiserson has found is that the most important thing in teaching is that teachers actually love their students. Love dictates all the things teachers need to do in terms of technique. Teachers prepare for their students because they love them, and it is easier to love somebody when they are in your arms, when they’re in the room reacting to you. Leiserson said that programs like No Child Left Behind have nothing to do with love and that’s why they’re failing. Until people understand that love is the foundation of good teaching, we won’t make much progress towards solving enormous education problems.

Pinsky said that he agreed with Lierson and added that it’s love towards and received from your predecessors, both those you remember personally and to those in the further past. He said that teachers have a quasi-parental relationship with students.

Thorburn resisted using the idea of love as the key to education success. He said he believes he has an “explainer gene” in him and a natural urge to explain things. One of the wonderful things about teachers is that the teacher wants to give away their authority Thorburn said. Ideally a teacher wants the intellectual authority that she has to be the property of the student. Thorburn often feels that he’s burdened with an understanding that’s not totally satisfying until other people understand it too. He said that he believes this is common in teachers. A teacher’s excitement about the value of what they know is democratic.

Sive said that the answer as to what separates a good and great teacher is complex and that she was hard-pressed to define what makes a great teacher. For her, it’s the connection. If she’s speaking to 300 students as if they’re all individuals, that’s success for her.

Arthur Bahr, a professor in the MIT Literature department, brought up the idea of teaching as a calling versus teaching as a job. Personally, he believes that being a scholar is his job. He is good enough at it to have gotten tenure, but it’s not his vocation.

Thorburn said that Bahr’s statement is brave and he feels the same way.

Bahr said that it’s a thing that can only be said after one has tenure. He advocated that more professors who feel this way “come out of the closet.”

A MIT alum and a former English and science teacher said that he went to education school and unlike other close relationships, teaching is designed for termination. He said he believes that to do it well, good teachers should keep the last day in mind and stay focused on what they want their students to walk away with. “In the end, it’s the job of the young to kick the old off the planet,” he said.

MIT Literature professor Stephen Tapscott said that he teaches at an institution where students are “for the most part smarter than I am.”He said that the panelists have him thinking about a moment in Dante. In The Inferno, Dante locates his teacher in hell and they dance in a circle facing each other while a rain of fire falls on them. Tapscott asked the humanities professors why does Dante do that? Is there something about the teacher-student relationship that is inherently flawed?

Thorburn clarified that in The Inferno, Dante meets his mentor and his mentor is being punished in the lower levels of hell. Thorburn said that he believes that the reason is, the mentor has violated God’s laws in being homosexual but this passage has been a crux for years, especially for teachers.

Daniel Jackson, a professor in MIT’s computer science department, asked about the role of the students. If lectures are eliminated form the curriculum, students will never learn how to learn. He said that he is most upset about how difficult it is to get students to come to lectures centered around their own peers’ work. He wondered if we need to deprogram students to develop a sense of community and instill into students their role as learners.

Thorburn said that the academic atmosphere of MIT encourages students to not develop a community. One of the problems in the humanities is that if you don’t give regular work, students won’t do it. In small classes, Thorburn tries to teach students without exams and to estimate how engaged they are week to week. He said that when he’s not successful, it’s almost always because he hasn’t scheduled regular exams to measure progress.

Pinksy said that years ago he taught at Wellesley College. While he was there, someone tried to determine what kinds of courses got the highest ratings from Wellesley students. The first year of a foreign language ranked highest because the grade is very precisely proportionate to the amount of time and energy students put into it, the curriculum closely follows the textbook, and after material is mastered, students do not need to think about it at all.

Sive said that if there is no obvious punishment for skipping lectures, students generally will not go. She said that she thinks that there’s a sociological underpinning to address that may not have anything to do with the quality of the lecture in Jackson’s case.

Guth said that this past summer, he was teaching a freshman class and discovered that if he talked about anything beyond what was covered on the exam, his students tuned out. He said that things are better among upper-class students and he generally doesn’t see that behavior. He praised the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP) at MIT and said that it’s “delightful” to work with students in that context.

An MIT student asked if the panelists had seen student expectations change over the past ten or 20 years, specifically in areas like engineering and computer science.

Thorburn said that he hasn’t seen tremendous change in the humanities, possibly because people generally don’t come to MIT to explore humanities. He said that he has seen a decline in student writing skills. In the last 20 years at MIT, students are less effective prose writers. He said that a required writing course might help solve that problem. Otherwise he has not seen much change in students other than they have less time and they’re much more motivated to get to graduate school.

Guth said that the student body has become more diverse in both background and interests. When he speaks to students, he is very impressed by the wide range of interests, but believes that on some level, that may indicate that they have less technical preparation. He added that he loves MIT students and feels privileged to be teaching here.

Sive praised students too and believes that students are more worried about getting jobs. She said that teachers seldom point out that there is probably a zero percent unemployment rate from MIT. This is “crucial to communicate to students and their parents,” she said, but she did not know if that aspect had changed over the years.

Thorburn said that his sense is that the anxiety level among students has increased.

Sive added that it is up to the faculty to diffuse that worry because unemployment is not a genuine threat to MIT students.

Thorburn said that about ten years into his time at MIT, he spoke with some of his students and found that they were full of anxiety that he didn’t realize was there. About two-thirds of the way through the term, he gave a mini-lecture focusing on the fact that there is life after failure. If students take a term off or get an F, they survive. He said that he was amazed by the outpouring of gratitude that he got from students. He has since institutionalized this lecture and every year at least a few of his student say that it would be better if a physics professor was saying this.

Guth said that he will take up the challenge.


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