Is College Over?
We all know this story. I had an exceptional professor who was so engaging it was like watching literary gymnastics in his class, but when I went to see him during office hours, he curled up like an awkward snail in its shell, unable to actually interact with me.
Professors understand that learning and teaching are important—it’s the reason they were drawn to academia in the first place—but many I spoke with pointed to the university system and its emphasis on tenure and publication instead of working with students. “Even at an education school, the most important priority is writing and research,” says Jal Mehta, an assistant professor at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education. “People feel a real conflict between the desire to work on their teaching and the incentive structure that’s in place. It needs to be rebalanced.”
At the Bok Center, Kuzmick switches on the huge flat-screen television at his side, and I immediately wince. I’m watching Harvard students use clips of Dead Poets Society for lessons on teaching methodology. Can he be serious? I wonder. And it’s not just Robin Williams evincing spontaneous poetry from Ethan Hawke that they’re watching; they’re also analyzing the marbles scene from My Fair Lady, and Daniel-san and Mr. Miyagi’s wax on/wax off exchange in The Karate Kid. The graduate students titter as Mr. Miyagi inflicts a beat-down, then discuss each of the teaching methods depicted in the films. (“A deeply gendered magisterial response method,” one student says of Henry Higgins’s efforts to turn Eliza into a lady.)
Kuzmick’s aim, as bizarre as it seems, is to help these students think beyond the Hollywood tropes of what good teaching looks like and determine what good teaching means to them. More important, the class is a starting point for a discussion about teaching, something few of them have had the chance to think about until now. At this stage in their careers, Kuzmick says, the students have spent enough time in classrooms to have experienced nearly every technique portrayed in the clips. This is their opportunity to write their own script. He asks them: “Who or what are your models for teaching?” “What’s motivating you?” “To what extent are you trying to make your students better people?” They talk about “aha!” moments—the times when you realize that your students really understand something—and whether planning your instruction around them is a form of narcissism, particularly since research shows that rote learning and repetition help students retain information. And of course, there is discussion among the teachers-to-be about the inevitable challenges they will face when they leave Harvard and begin working with average pupils for whom “aha!” moments are few and far between.
In another Bok Center class, “Designing the Course of the Future,” graduate students reverse-engineer their curricula to determine exactly what they want students to learn, and use classroom-assessment technologies to measure how much students understand as they’re being taught a new concept. “We’re fighting against old ideas of Harvard,” Bok Center executive director Terry Aladjem says in his office, which is crammed floor to ceiling with books on teaching theory, “that it was far too focused on research and didn’t care about teaching.” His challenge is turning theory into practice.
IT’S NOT EXACTLY FAIR to call Laura Deming a college dropout, since, at 17, she left school before most people start. “Ever since I was eight, the big problem I wanted to sort out was how to solve the cure for aging,” she says when I get her on the phone from California. She set out to do just that, and was accepted to MIT at age 14. But now, saying that she hasn’t been all that challenged at the Institute, she’s pulled out after her sophomore year. “I wanted to learn about physics and science in the coolest place in America,” she explains. “But after I got there, I realized that a lot of the coursework that they teach you can learn on your own. I’m not sure college is such a hard-and-fast requirement that people think it is today.”