Who Steals Bikes?

At Tsinghua University, students are said to spend more on bike locks than on  bikes. A friend of mine, a senior, is on her fourth bike. I met a faculty member who went to get her bike just as it was being stolen. She saw how it was done: The thief had a large number of keys. She shouted at the thief to stop, a crowd gathered, and he gave the bike back. Later she encountered him while buying pork: He was the butcher.

Unread Contracts

From James McGregor’s fascinating One Billion Customers (2005):

The Chinese were befuddled and worried by the five-hundred-page contract that McDonnell Douglas lawyers drafted to seal the $1 million deal. The Shanghai director looked forlornly at Chang [a McDonnell Douglas employee] as he signed it. “I am signing this because I trust you,” he said.

Yeah. I read this the day after I signed a five-page employment contract with Tsinghua University — the hard part was coming up with a Chinese name — that I couldn’t read a word of. I signed it because I trusted them.

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.

Tsinghua versus Berkeley

UC Berkeley is far better known than Tsinghua University, the best university in China. Of course, Berkeley’s prestige rests on research and graduate teaching. At the undergraduate level things are quite different. Tsinghua probably has the smartest undergraduates in the world (1 in 10,000 students who take a national test get in); Berkeley isn’t close.

At Tsinghua, every department is assigned a quota of undergraduate majors (e.g., 100) that is the maximum number of undergraduates in that major. The departments fight over this number: Every department wants to increase it. I use italics because the situation at Berkeley (and probably every other American research university) is the opposite: Everyone fights to do as little undergraduate teaching as possible.

I learned these facts from a visiting professor at Tsinghua. Why is the situation so different at Tsinghua than in America? “They’re fun to teach,” he said, meaning the undergraduates. “No one ever says that at Berkeley,” I said. Later I learned he was a visiting professor from Berkeley. Implicit in his comment was that both of us knew that the Berkeley undergraduates are not fun to teach.

That little comment — “They’re fun to teach,” which was said a bit ruefully, acknowledging that Berkeley, where he spends most of his time, was much different — expresses in a nutshell what’s wrong with all American higher education. Berkeley undergraduates would be fun for someone to teach. I liked many of them. They have many good qualities. But very few of them want to be professors; nor do their talents usually lie in that direction. Forcing them to be taught by people (professors) who really only know something (how to be professors) that their students don’t want to learn, and forcing Berkeley professors to teach students who don’t want to learn the only thing they really know, is just a recipe for unpleasantness and low-level misery on both sides (professor and student). That’s exactly what professors and students feel most of the time.

Just as drug companies hide the side effects of their drugs, both professors and students hide the side effects of this life-wasting situation. At Berkeley, few non-professors know the vast array of deals that are struck to reduce one’s undergraduate teaching. In Psychology, there has been long-lasting resentment that you can’t use grant money to buy your way out of teaching. Students hide how much cheating goes on. A Penn student told me: No student project at Penn is completely honest. At Berkeley, surveys have revealed high amounts of cheating. Few outsiders know the low level of lecture attendance at Berkeley.

A better system would be one that helped Berkeley undergraduates — not to mention the students at every other American college — be in contact with people who would enjoy teaching them. (And in that situation, I’m sure their many non-academic talents, which professors usually didn’t notice, would shine.) Simple as that. The current system hinders that contact. Columbia University has taken a step in the right direction by having no classes on Friday, making it easier for students to do internships. When I taught a class that helped Berkeley undergraduates learn what they wanted to learn, my colleagues complained. According to them, my students weren’t learning proper psychology. It’s true, they weren’t. My students were learning what they themselves wanted to learn instead of what some professors thought they should learn. My approach was about a thousand times more effective in producing learning but my colleagues had lived in darkness so long they could no longer see light.