May 13th, 2014

storyteller doll

Thoughts About MIT's Teaching

Before I get into the main subject of this entry, I have a quick celebrity death watch note. Farley Mowat wrote about the Arctic. I associate him with the title Far North but Amazon indicates that I must have hallucinated that association.

I promised a while back to write more about my MIT experience. I was surprised that most of the comments had to do with teaching. Note that I can really only speak to having been Course 2 (mechanical engineering) in the late 1970’s, so I have an inherently limited perspective. I had mixed experiences with the teaching skills of various professors. The problem is, of course, that research is more important than teaching in promotions and, especially, tenure. That said, I think MIT does care more about teaching than a lot of other research universities do. And I found that my professors were generally willing to provide extra help.

So what were the barriers?

  1. In some cases, professors were not particularly interested in teaching introductory classes. This wasn’t a huge problem, but I did have some times when I felt a lack of enthusiasm. I suspect some may have been a lack of enthusiasm for teaching, in general. I remember this for Linear Algebra, in particular.

  2. If you are an expert on a subject, it is very often difficult to tell what is and isn’t hard for people to understand about that subject. I find that is true outside of academia, too, as a large part of my job is "geek to English translation."

  3. MIT students are used to grasping things quickly and are, hence, reluctant to admit they might need extra help. I think this is often a particular problem for women, by the way, because women saying, "help me with this" often gets men responding with, "here, let me do it for you." I’ll also note that I found it a huge relief to realize that some of the men in my lab classes were just as intimidated by big power machines as I was.

  4. In technical fields, there are a lot of things that build on prior knowledge. You can take six literature classes at once and only your eyesight will suffer. But you really can’t learn, say, fluid mechanics without having learned vector calculus. I found that the prerequisites for some classes were not realistic and I think there was some pressure on professors to minimize the number of prerequisites for a given class. My best example of this was a (graduate-level) acoustics class (I think this was 2.06J), which would have been a lot easier had I had some previous exposure to continuum mechanics, for familiarity with notation if nothing else.

    I should also note that this can be the downside of freshman year having been entirely pass-fail. I certainly had to do a certain amount of catching up to learn things (especially math) that I should have learned better then. But I think part of that was also that I learn math better in the context of using it rather than as an abstract subject.

  5. In terms of real world skills, there wasn’t enough emphasis on communication skills. We did have some (randomly selected) lab reports reviewed by a professor from the writing program. But I never had to give an oral presentation. I’ll also note that in many years of conference attendance, I’m not convinced that a lot of professors have these communication skills. I continue to believe that it is a bad idea for people to be professors of engineering without ever having worked as engineers. And, no, consulting gigs don’t count. Alas, I do not rule the world.

I think that most of these are problems across the board, rather than specific to MIT. My grad school experience suggests that Berkeley was somewhat more realistic about prerequisites than MIT was. But there was the same variability of teaching ability. The two most egregious examples I experienced there were a compressible fluid flow class where the key to success was memorizing the derivations for a dozen or so problems and a class on digital control systems that was being taught by a professor who wanted to learn the material himself. The latter, however, had some fun aspects to it. We figured out that the professor in question loved it if we stuck LEDs on our circuits to show what was going on. My lab partner and I also had a great division of labor. I went to class on Tuesdays, he went on Thursdays. For reports, he did the writing and I did the drawings (mostly circuit diagrams). Both of us thought we got the better deal out of that.