Previous
Next

In defense of big universities

December 3, 2010, 3:17 pm

Recent Kirkland Hall photograph.

Image via Wikipedia

I’d like to take back something that I said in my post last week on the UCF cheating scandal (my emphasis):

[T]he more this situation unfolds, the more unhealthy it makes the whole educational environment surrounding it seem. Class sizes in the multiple hundreds: Check. Courses taught mainly through lecture: Check. Professor at a remove from the students: Check. Exams taken off the rack rather than tuned to the specific student population: Check. And on it goes. I know this is how it works at many large universities and there’s little that one can do to change things; but with all due respect to my colleagues at such places, I just can’t see what students find appealing about these places, and I wonder if students at UCF are thinking the same thing nowadays.

I’m coming at that statement as somebody who’s spent the last 14 years in small liberal arts colleges. The idea of 600-student lecture classes, using prefabricated tests from a test bank, and so on is completely alien to how I conceive of teaching and learning in higher education. The larger the university, the easier it is to adopt such depersonalized (even dehumanizing) “teaching” techniques. But I think I painted with too broad of a brush here. Because the fact is, there are going to be faculty who employ depersonalized approaches to education no matter how big or small the institution is. There are small colleges who willfully, even readily, employ such approaches to teaching on an institutional scale even though they are small enough to do better. And on the other side, there are large universities that, despite their largeness, still manage to treat undergraduate education with the care and skill it deserves.

I’d like to point out a couple of such large research universities with which I’ve had direct experience who, to me, really get undergraduate education right, or are at least trying to do so.

First is Vanderbilt University, where I did my graduate studies and got my first taste of teaching. Vanderbilt has a real culture of teaching and learning that pervades the entire academic structure of the university. It has a fabulous Center for Teaching where I was privileged to spend a year as a Master Teaching Fellow during my last year of grad school, working with other graduate teaching scholars and university faculty to help them get better at their craft. And what always impressed me at Vandy was that a lot of professors were interested in getting better. It’s a great research university, but the profs there — at least the ones I knew, with the exception of a few entrenched math people — all took teaching seriously and really wanted to work at getting better. And it shows in the quality of undergraduates Vanderbilt produces. I can definitely see why a high school kid would want to go there.

The other example is The College of Engineering at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. I spoke there recently to a group of faculty and support staff who are involved with a program called Engineering Beyond Boundaries, an ambitious program to transform the teaching, learning, and practice of engineering in response to key shifts in the discipline and the culture around it. The people involved with that program are embarking on an all-out effort to push the culture in the engineering school toward one that adopts a more modern approach to teaching and learning, including the renovation of learning spaces, work with innovative instructional techniques, and creating opportunities for cross-disciplinary work. They’re just getting started with this program, but I think some interesting things are ahead for them as they proceed in terms of teaching and learning.

Do you have other examples of big universities that are doing a good job with undergraduate education? Brag on them in the comments.

Enhanced by Zemanta
This entry was posted in Education, Engineering education, Higher ed, Liberal arts, Life in academia, Teaching and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.