Thursday, June 28, 2007

Liberal Education

Duff points out this article, as being thoughtful and a good critique of the liberal arts education. Basic idea: large class sizes, instructor-centric education, and etcetera contribute to the percieved shortcomings of modern-day students as much as television, consumerism, and other problems do.

It puts me in mind of the core cirriculum here, which is supposed to be small discussion-based seminar classes. Even in my Hum and Sosc classes, I felt like actually thinking about the text in more than a superficial way and disagreeing with the professor was scorned and I often felt ostracized when I disagreed (my opinions on Aristotle and Freud were positive, gasp!). I still did - and I still will, because I think it's important, and because I have been having such conversations with my parents since I can remember. But it is often difficult, I think, for students who are taught throughout high school that the proper way to 'learn' is simply to listen and repeat what a teacher says to suddenly think for themselves and disagree when a professor says something that is, at base, opinion and not fact, or offers a biased view of the material. It is also hard for a professor to see the scorn shown towards other students when they are given almost too much respect and deference to their view.

For whatever reason, and my feeling of ostracism certainly played a part, I didn't really make friends in my core classes. (This is a second part of the author's argument -- that a more collegiate tone in classrooms would yeild more social interactions between students outside of the classroom.) There are a few people from my Hum and Sosc classes that I say hello to, and one person who I wasn't friends with in my Civ class that I almost was by the end of two quarters, but nonetheless I haven't really made friends through classes - with one notable exception, being PCBio.

Of course, PCBio isn't really a class, it's a weekly discussion session about research projects that goes basically all year. Usually Steve Kron is there trying to poke holes in our projects, find the chinks in our armour, and generally needle us into developing thick skins and vast repertoires of knowledge suitable for PhD committees, post-graduate seminars, and generally analysing data and making scientific arguments. But in addition to needling us to answer questions thoughtfully and put the best face possible on our presentations, his most common complaint is that we don't participate enough, that we don't ask enough questions, and that we let things slide that simply should not be allowed to slide. In the past, I have felt a little bit critical of his techniques for a few reasons; first, I think that his caustic approach scares away as many people as not (although it is possible and in fact probable that he could argue that the sort of person who would be scared away by the rough edges is not dedicated to the research and should not be in the program). Second, it seemed that the students didn't really want to ask questions; that they would ask questions when ordered to but that wasn't really indicative of a relationship with the subject matter.

However, Steve was absent from the PCBio meeting today (and for the second half of it, so was Harinder, so all of our tough-question asking faculty members were gone). And I was happily surprised by the level of participation. We stepped up, we asked questions, and we were talking about research until almost 2 pm (2 hours in total). One of the students from last year came back (although it is entirely possible that he is just weird). The discussion was really good, and we facilitated it almost without faculty assistance. It was the sort of discussion that the author on top appears to desire for his classes.

And the thing is, I'm closer to the PCBio kids than I am to kids in any of my other classes. I actually feel a connection to them, I actually feel a camraderie that means that when they ask me a question about my research or suggest things I don't take it as scorn, criticism, or one-up-manship. I take it as it is meant - an honest question or suggestion reflecting an interest in the research I am doing. The people from my physics class, from my biochem class, and so on that I want to invite to social gatherings, have coffee with and chat with outside of class are mostly PCBio kids.

I think there should be a way to foster camraderie and interest without the caustic, demanding, rough-hewn exterior that Steve often portrays and that I have seen put people off. However, in middle and high school my friendships were often forged through the difficulties in responding to a particularly demanding teacher - and maybe that has something to do with it. In middle school, we had a famously demanding teacher in the seventh grade (she taught every class of algebra and every class of IM 7, so every child in my program had to have a class from her). My class formed a cohort that stuck together throughout high school -- even the people who I was not friends with per se were people whose name I knew and whose general likes and dislikes I knew. There was almost no one who I would have been totally baffled to pick out in a class-wide Secret Santa.

My brother's year, the demanding teacher had left, and his class disintegrated. Whereas the majority (on one count, almost 80% I believe) of students in my class continued on to the magnet high school, less than half of his class carried over -- and he was among those who chose to go to a different high school. Of course, that wasn't a controlled experiment and there are many confounding variables involving the personalities of the people in the classes and so on, but similar things happened in high school. My friends were made, predominantly, in classes that were overtly challenging, classes that forced you to ask for help, and classes that I now look back on as particularly demanding and rigorous. I hated some of my classmates in Physics class, but when I had some of the same people in a Shop for Engineering class with a particularly demanding teacher, I recognized them for something more than obnoxious loudmouths.

Which brings me to I guess the one thing that I would add to the author's suggestions on how to rebuild the classroom and foster conversation and social interactions. The course has to be intensely rigourous and demanding. The professor has to be able to tell a kid, outright, that the kid is 100% wrong. He has to be able to discard his use of kid gloves and treat the student as an adult. However, the student can't take it too harshly when they are called out -- when Steve criticizes my research, I want to prove him wrong and show him that I can overcome the barriers he says are insurmountable, not go into a corner and bemoan the awful fate -- that my experiments won't work and my professor doesn't like me.

Which brings it to the front: It can't be about whether you like a person or not, it has to become about whether you respect a person or not. Classes today, I find, are all too often phrased in likes and dislikes - a student likes Plato but dislikes Aristotle, women don't like Freud.

But we can all agree that all of the three were great thinkers, even as we pick apart their arguments looking for faults. We can all respect them with that peculiar sort of academic respect that requires criticism.


Duff said...

I found that usually the best conversations and when I learned the most about Core books and topics was outside the Core class with my friends who were either reading the same material or the same authors. That is why I think it is valuable that everyone takes the core, and it not offer too many choices (the variation it has now I think is good). If you can't make discussion friends with the people in your particular class, your bound to be friends with someone who is in the same course or similar one that you can talk to.

ayn said...

My Hum and Sosc core classes didn't have as negative an impact on me as yours seemed to have on you. I do agree that there seems to be a tendency for profs to want everyone to "play nice," but I also had professors that got frustrated when students weren't going deep enough.

As for professors needing to tell students when they are wrong, I agree whole-heartedly as long as the professor is going back explain the issues (I've had experiences of both cases).

A lot of weight is on the teachers in these cases, which I think is one of the things you're pointing out. I've had profs who were better at moderating discussions than others and those classes were interesting, useful, and fun.

I also make friends in almost every class I'm in, including core class--there are people from those classes that I still chat with (more than just the "I know your name" nod), so I don't think there is something inherent in the Core system that discourages camaraderie. I think a program like PCBio would certainly make it easier--at least everyone who is there wants to be there, right?--but it isn't impossible in other situations, even ones that don't go so far as to inspire friendship based on common hardship.

Also, I have not encountered the negative opinion of Aristotle that you describe, and I have read Aristotle for at least four different classes. *shrug*

Elizabeth said...

I think, Ayn, that you are maybe just more outgoing and friendly than I.

I can't speak on the negative view of Aristotle, except to say that just about everyone in my Sosc class got on the "His views are outdated and worthless" bandwagon.

ayn said...

They called Aristotle outdated but liked Plato? Heehee.

Abby said...

core classes can be such a crapshoot. i absolutely adored my hum class, but i know a lot of people were not so lucky; our professor had a great balance between letting us bring up points we thought were important and making the points she wanted us to notice.

i didn't really make friends in my core classes either, math excepted; the people i was friends with in those classes i'd all met some other way first (in my house, or at extracurricular things, or a degree of separation away from that, through friends i'd met at those things). but then i don't make friends easily anyway, so.

i don't understand why people feel the need to talk about whether they *like* the thinkers in core classes. it seems as off-kilter to me as people talking about their religious beliefs while learning about the reformation; the point is what it means historically and what we can learn from it, not whether it ranks up there with cupcakes and puppies in your personal top ten list. outside of class - talking to friends, deciding what to write a paper on, whatever - it can matter whether it floats your boat, but in class? weird.