Tsinghua versus Reed

Let’s say I’m a record producer. A 20-year-old tells me he wants to be a record producer, and I say, okay, I’ll teach you. Do I write a syllabus? Set up class meetings? Give lectures, homework assignments, tests, grades? Of course not. None of that. Not necessary. I just say: Hang out with me. And he does, and both of us benefit. He learns what a record producer does, I have someone to whom I can pontificate (one of the pleasures of blogging) and who will do menial tasks. And having an assistant makes me look and perhaps even feel more important. The same thing could be done with almost any job. That’s real teaching. It’s as natural and easy as breathing or eating.

Contrast this with (a) undergraduate teaching in any American research university, such as Berkeley and (b) the situation described in an email to alumni I got today from Colin Diver, the President of Reed College. President Diver taught a seminar at Reed and described his experiences. Does he say the students were “fun to teach” as a Tsinghua University professor told me? Not at all. Quite the opposite. His main observations:

Courses at Reed must be very carefully planned. . . . Leading a successful Reed conference [= seminar] takes considerable finesse. . . . Tamara [his co-teacher] and I spent hours planning and debriefing [= discussing afterwards] classes. . . As an instructor, you can never be too well prepared. . .  Both student enthusiasm and modern information technology conspire to extend the class hour virtually around the clock. . . . Teaching at Reed means giving (and getting!) lots of feedback. . Teaching at Reed is both exhausting and exhilarating! [Details of exhilaration not given.]

This is a fund-raising letter! A friend of mine got a teaching job at Reed and quit to take a lower-status job because the teaching was exhausting, as President Diver so clearly explains. But, as I said about Berkeley faculty, President Diver has been in darkness so long he can no longer see light — in this case, he cannot see how unpleasant he makes teaching sound, at least for the professor. He fails to grasp he is describing sickness not health.

President Diver seems to have faintly discerned that there might be something wrong with the picture he had painted so he added:

Despite the long hours and hard work, the experience of teaching helped me understand why faculty find the experience of teaching at Reed so satisfying. . . .Nathalia King, professor of English and humanities, once said to me: “When you put teachers who genuinely love to teach together with students who genuinely want to learn, magic happens.”

Magic, huh? Black or white? The end of Diver’s letter is all about a new program that will allow Reed professors to teach less. “The new program will, to be sure, slightly reduce the amount of time faculty spend in the classroom over their careers.” Actions speak louder than words.

6 Replies to “Tsinghua versus Reed”

  1. I taught a little and really enjoyed it. But I was teaching post graduate students.

    You make a good point though, about how much of what is going on seems aimed at finding ways for “teachers” to spend less time with students rather than more.

  2. Seth, What you describe sounds like an apprenticeship, which is what graduate student training is like. I use this approach with my graduate students and post docs, but also with the undergraduate assistants in the lab, as well as the occasional high-school student. This method works great and is very enriching for both the master and the apprentice. It is, however, impractical when a large number of students are involved. I teach a course with 250-300 students, another with about 70, smaller seminars of about 5-20 and a lab course which I limit to 10 students so that we can do a manageable project (a rat study) together.

    Speaking from my experience as an undergraduate at SUNY Stony Brook, I enjoyed my classes the size of 250-300 as much as the smaller seminars. I got something out of each one, and I knew what the constraints of each format were. I recognized from the very beginning that the large lecture hall classes are largely a one-way dissemination of information to lay the landscape for a particular field of knowledge and investigation. After having established some groundwork, I could then take smaller, upper-division courses where I could explore a particular topic in more depth and in a more intimate setting. I enjoyed both formats and excelled in both. I think one problem that occurs in college is that many students want to get a job or a career rather than an education. Education in science, arts, humanities, etc., involves more than just practical skills, which of course are very important. But moreover, getting background knowledge in many spheres of interest (i.e., a broad education) allows one to use the critical thinking skills one hopefully also acquires in college to make a life and career. As a psychology professor, I see a lot of students that just don’t get that psychology is not just a practitioner’s field, but also is a field of investigation with a scientific and philosophical basis. Some of these students discover the joy of scientific discovery accidentally, but some of them resist it thinking that it is a waste of time. Maybe for them it is a waste of time, but then they had been misled about what psychology is or what a psychology major entails.

    Yes, teaching is difficult and takes time away from scholarship and research. But every time I teach, I find enjoyment, pleasure, and discovery–whether it is the large lecture course or small seminar. Also, I have made many insights that led to changes or enhancements in my own research during the process of teaching. Teaching has truly enriched my scholarship. And, there are always students, often many, who honestly report enjoying the courses they have taken with me. Tough, yes. Rewarding, you bet!

  3. Seth, I’d be curious to hear your thoughts on how well prepared the students are for the challenges after school. I’m American educated (grad degree) been living/working in Japan and actually have had a chance to visit Tsinghua as we have a branch office amidst all the tech companies near there.

    My interpretation of Asian vs. American education models is that Asian ed is successful at knowledge transfer but not at teaching self-reliance and an ability to learn outside the classroom setting while the American one (through factual failure?) teaches self-reliance at the expense of knowledge.

    For successful americans, they learn social and some skills in primary school and then education gets progressively less hands on through high school and then are given a “we won’t spoon feed you any more” environment in college where you have to really learn to figure out what you want to do, who you want to be friends with etc. After college, the (successfully?) western educated realize that they have to keep figuring things out to be successful in life and so they continue to strive and the marketplace rewards those that figure out more things.

    In Japan/China they start the same way but if you’re considered the cream of the crop (via test taking) you end up at schools where they 1) hand hold the students and 2) praise their students as being the best of the best in effect creating what Carol Dweck coined as the Fixed Mindset where you’re considered so smart that fear of failure becomes an impediment.

    In work, I struggle in hiring Asian educated students from the top schools. They know a lot more about physics, engineering, literature, history, etc. but they have a lot more trouble learning how to get things done in a non-academic setting and create advances out of fear of failure.

    Self-experimentation to me is all about a personal inclination to learn. It’d be great to hear through the months where you see experimentation in China coming from–is it from the specially groomed elites or from the worker class?

  4. Stuart, yeah, apprenticeships are “natural” teaching. I’m sure that how things worked for many thousands of years.

    Aaron, I don’t mind universities teaching something besides job skills but they do a miserable job of it. Professors at universities such as Berkeley and UCLA often claim that they teach “critical thinking” — and fail to grasp the far greater importance of curiosity and appreciative thinking. In my experience, professors at Berkeley, on average, fail completely to teach either one. All that Berkeley professors really can teach — and quite well — is how to be research professors. I saw this in class after class. When they claim that they can teach anything else, I scoff.

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