Category: Teaching

Here is where I think aloud about teaching, my goals in the classroom, the challenges of meeting those goals, and the techniques I use to achieve those goals. These posts will include ruminations on pedagogy, flights of field-trip fancy, and assessment woes.

The MORU as Precursor to the MOOC

MOOCs are all the rage right now—academics generally upset or unimpressed and disruptors generally optimistic.

What intrigues me is how familiar the kook-aid (sorry, typo) Kool-aid tastes. The latest technology becomes the mechanism to democratize learning, to bring the best college and university lectures to the underprivileged, and to expand learning to hundreds of thousands of students. The 20th century is littered with such failed schemes. Educational utopia seems as distant at every other post-lapsarian paradise.

Browsing the Popular Science archive, I stumbled across this example: “Professor-Inventor Predicts ‘Radio Universities’.”


Professor Pupin from Colombia University foresaw a “Radio Extension University” poised to disrupt the educational landscape. Once the loudspeaker was perfected, Pupin predicted that “a great university like Colombia, equipped with a powerful broadcasting station for distributing to a knowledge-hungry people some of the vast store of authoritative knowledge accumulated by its great professors and teachers” will broadcast lectures to scores of halls and public meeting places equipped with radio receivers and powerful loudspeakers. The “internationally famous professor, in his classroom, is delivering a lecture on some fascinating new chapter of, say, natural science” that is broadcast to perhaps 100,000 people who have “paid 10¢ for the privilege, first of hearing the lecture by radio, then of submitting answers in a written examination covering the rudiments of the subject.”

Not only does Professor Pupin think this model will provide a university education to those otherwise denied such opportunities, he suspects that soon houses where some “ingenious youth has installed a homemade radio outfit with a loudspeaker” listens to a lecture and then takes a written exam “mailed to him from the university.”

If Professor Pupin’s MORU had succeeded, we wouldn’t now be hearing so much about MOOCs.

STS in the Liberal Arts, A Workshop

In April I am participating in “Science and Technology Studies (STS) in the Liberal Arts,” a conference on the role, if any, of STS in an undergraduate liberal arts curriculum. While some of the themes are pragmatic, the goal of the conference is to bring together faculty from liberal arts colleges across the country to articulate how and why STS should be part of the undergraduate experience.

Some of the questions that will frame our discussion include:

  • Are there emerging methods for teaching in programs that bridge the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences?
  • How might we make connections with small and large businesses, government agencies, and NGOs, who could possibly employ our STS graduates?
  • How can the core competencies of an STS graduate be articulated on the open job market? How can we be sure we’re addressing these at small liberal arts colleges?
  • Are there strategic ways of building relationships to other multidisciplinary fields, such as Media Studies and the Digital Humanities?
  • How might collaborations between small liberal arts colleges foster fundable undergraduate opportunities across or between institutions?
  • What modes of curricular organization already exist for undergraduate STS programs?
  • How could we align general education, major, and minor courses to enhance the educational experience for students in STS programs and to highlight the contributions that STS makes to campus-wide discussions?
  • How could we tailor the content of STS classes for our diverse students, who generally have greater or lesser interest in science or engineering as subjects and as careers?
  • How could we integrate cutting-edge issues into the curriculum, especially since our seniors seem so interested in what’s new? Could we do so through a junior seminar on current STEM, maybe a class that incorporates interviews with leading scientists and policy makers?
  • How can we use relevant technologies to enhance our teaching?
  • How should we understand the relation between the STS curriculum and the sciences, and what role should science courses and science faculty play in STS within the liberal arts colleges?
  • How might wider recognition of STS contribute to ongoing reflection on the character and role of the “liberal arts & sciences” for the 21st Century?

What are other ways to think about the relationship between the undergraduate curriculum and STS? How else can we teach STS? Are there other issues that spring to mind? And most broadly, how do we justify committing precious student time and effort to STS or history of science in a curriculum and society that increasingly privileges science and pre-professional subjects over more humanistic ones?

Thoughtful Dissent

In late 1951 Bertrand Russell composed “A Liberal Decalogue” in response to growing fanaticism. We would all do well to recall daily Russell’s ten commandments for the teacher:

  1. Do not feel absolutely certain of anything.
  2. Do not think it worth while to proceed by concealing evidence, for the evidence is sure to come to light.
  3. Never try to discourage thinking for you are sure to succeed.
  4. When you meet with opposition, even if it should be from your husband or your children, endeavor to overcome it by argument and not by authority, for a victory dependent upon authority is unreal and illusory.
  5. Have no respect for the authority of others, for there are always contrary authorities to be found.
  6. Do not use power to suppress opinions you think pernicious, for if you do the opinions will suppress you.
  7. Do not fear to be eccentric in opinion, for every opinion now accepted was once eccentric.
  8. Find more pleasure in intelligent dissent than in passive agreement, for, if you value intelligence as you should, the former implies a deeper agreement than the latter.
  9. Be scrupulously truthful, even if the truth is inconvenient, for it is more inconvenient when you try to conceal it.
  10. Do not feel envious of the happiness of those who live in a fool’s paradise, for only a fool will think that it is happiness.

Today, at the end of the semester as I read final papers, number 8 stands out as particularly poignant:
“Find more pleasure in intelligent dissent than in passive agreement, for, if you value intelligence as you should, the former implies a deeper agreement than the latter.”

It reminds me of Jorge Louis Borges’s story, “Circular Ruins,” when the stranger recounts his disappointment in confronting assent:

The man lectured his pupils on anatomy, cosmography, and magic: the faces listened anxiously and tried to answer understandingly, as if they guessed the importance of that examination which would redeem one of them from his condition of empty illusion and interpolate him into the real world. Asleep or awake, the man thought over the answers of his phantoms, did not allow himself to be deceived by imposters, and in certain perplexities he sensed a growing intelligence. He was seeking a soul worthy of participating in the universe.

After nine or ten nights he understood with a certain bitterness that he could expect nothing from those pupils who accepted his doctrine passively, but that he could expect something from those who occasionally dared to oppose him. The former group, although worthy of love and affection, could not ascend to the level of individuals; the latter pre-existed to a slightly greater degree.

In all interactions thoughtful opposition and intelligent dissent is better than polite agreement, but especially in the classroom.

(For more on Russell’s decalogue, see A Liberal Decalogue.)