Monday, April 2, 2012

A Plea To Change The American Research University

An Inside Higher Ed essay by Hunter R Rawlings:

The combination of drastic state disinvestment in public universities, student careerism, and pedagogical failings of our own has serious consequences for the country. To take one significant example, we now know that more than 50 percent of the students starting college with a stated desire to major in science or engineering drop out of those majors before graduating.

We can no longer blame this problem entirely on the nation’s high schools. A substantial body of research demonstrates conclusively that the problem is frequently caused by poor undergraduate teaching in physics, chemistry, biology, math, and engineering, particularly in the freshman and sophomore years. Students are consigned to large lecture courses that offer almost no engagement, no monitoring, and little support and personal attention.  The combination of poor high school preparation and uninspiring freshman and sophomore pedagogy has produced a stunning dearth of science and engineering majors in the U.S.  Our country now falls well behind countries like China and India in turning out graduates with strong quantitative skills.

Among other things one complaint I have heard is the excessive importance given to research.  All roads on campus are seen to lead to the research lab, an intellectual mecca where all the "important" work takes place. Undergraduate teaching is often seen to suffer as research oriented faculty are not that interested in teaching freshman and introductory level courses.

In India, the exact opposite has been diagnosed as the problem, which is that our Universities have too little research! One view here is that the biggest mistake India made is to create elite research institutes as an entity separate from the University, which remained mostly a degree giving teaching institution with less than desirable amount of in-house research capability. University students especially undergraduates, since most Universities conduct undergraduate degree courses in separate colleges,  have little exposure and interaction with top level researchers. The quality of undergraduate teaching has suffered not because researchers punt teaching responsibilities to graduate students but because of the complete absence of researchers from undergraduate campuses.


  1. To teach undergraduates of the kind who attend vaious colleges affiliated to our state universities, one does not need to be doing research. In fact, one must concentrate on the teaching methods and fine tune it to the requirements of that particular class. What one needs is to be aware of recent trends in our areas of interest, and the ability to communicate scientific ideas and theories in a manner that is understood. In fact people too involved in their research do not, usually, make good teachers for undergrads. They must have the necessary and sufficient skill of communicating scientific ideas.And above all, one must love teaching young people and take interest in making even the dumbest kid at least a less dumb one.
    I do not think I use any of the skills I learnt as a researcher in my teaching. I have developed totally different skill sets for it.

  2. L- thanks for that perspective. I agree that researchers need not be good teachers and good teachers need not be doing top level research. But many teachers in many undergraduate colleges have become so completely disconnected with developments in their field that the result is a stultifying atmosphere for the undergraduate.

    I have gone through this at a more than "respectable" college in Pune. Decades old textbooks and notes are recycled year after year. every few years there is a "refresher" course for teachers which is looked upon either as a chore or a break from routine. There are exceptions, but not being involved in day to day research does have an impact on what and how the subject matter is being taught to undergraduates.

    I had an extended stint at a U.S university and I can make a comparison. Undergraduates, once they decide on a major get to rub shoulders with graduate students, get hired by faculty as assistants on projects and many even present small projects at meetings. I can say this is a far more enriching educational experience than what occurs at most Indian undergraduate colleges.

    Most students won't continue into graduate work. Do we want the undergraduate years to be essentially an extended 3 year high school, because that is how undergraduate syllabus is taught in most places, or do we want it to be a substantially different experience for the students?

  3. I totally agree with you that ideally, undergrad classes should be taught by faculty that is engaged in research. But I qualified my comment with the first sentence "undergraduates of the kind who attend various colleges affiliated to our state universities". That is the crux of the matter. These children can barely put together a coherent sentence. For many, the cause and consequence are mixed up, A is due to B is no different from B is due to A. If I bring it to their notice,they feel I am quibbling. Most do not know how to take down notes in class. Most cannot answer a question that is worded unusually. I try to teach them to write coherently, to think a problem through..If I succeed (a big IF) they are actually learning during their BSc what they should have learnt in high school, but did not. This is the sad story nowadays, ever since schools became coaching classes.
    My argument does not apply to students in IITs for example. There, what you say is perfectly true.

  4. L- i am sure there are many smart kids in the Bachelor's program as well :) maybe it is time to think harder about the 2 track program you proposed some time back.. B.Sc or B.A honors which could involve integration with a graduate department, although I know you have doubts about that too!

  5. @Suvrat Kher:Thanks for the discussions. One feels powerless in the system and even airing ones thoughts seem a waste. I am pessimistic perhaps.
    Till about 7 or 8 years back,there used to be a few smart kids in the UG classes where I would for example discuss the intuition of Alfred Werner or the role of serendipity in research. Nowadays if I do such things, I get blank faces and fidgeting.