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Stanford Report, March 3, 1999

Education: ‘What remains after you’ve forgotten everything you learned’


As an undergraduate at the University of Texas at Austin, Ramón Saldívar recalls, his professors opened worlds of knowledge to him -- and yet . . . "Knowledge was transmitted to me, but it was all too often, even in small classes, a one-way street," Saldívar, vice provost for undergraduate education and professor of English and comparative literature, told a noontime audience Feb. 25 at the "Award-Winning Teachers on Teaching" lecture series sponsored by the Center for Teaching and Learning.

"The professor stood at the front of the lecture hall or seminar room and conveyed information to us," he added. "Sometimes we would engage, but it was quite limited."

In a talk titled "What I Learned About Teaching and Learning in Sophomore College," Saldívar recounted the academic goals he had in mind when he designed the program and spoke about the personal satisfaction he has found in the course he has taught for the past four years.

Saldívar also situated Sophomore College in demographic and philosophic changes that he said are being felt nationwide.

"There's a quiet revolution occurring in American higher education," Saldívar said. "It has something to do very specifically with the nature of knowledge and it also has to do with the expectations of students and their parents as they enter the university, [in terms of] what they want back."

Partly in response to those expectations, Saldívar said, Stanford administrators and faculty today are looking for ways to "create a process where teaching and learning, and instruction and research are combined in a single enterprise."

Drawing on Hegel's assertion that education is the art of making people ethical, Saldívar said that ethical process involves teaching students clarity of mind, precision of thought, rigor of analysis, eloquence and creativity of expression.

"In my view, our single most vital task as scholars and as educators is to help develop the conditions where that kind of learning can take place," Saldívar said.

Sophomore College, he said, has been one "nuts-and-bolts, practical, real-world attempt to address many of those questions."

Why "sophomore" college?

As a result of his experience as a resident fellow in Roble Hall, a four-class dormitory, Saldívar said he had found that freshmen made the transition to college on the strength of their excitement and enthusiasm, and that juniors and seniors typically had mentors in their departments who helped them lay out career goals and educational paths.

"But the place where I saw calamities was with the poor sophomores," Saldívar said. " 'Sophomore slump' is not a myth, and I saw existential crises."

Looking at those difficulties as academic and curricular problems, Saldívar said he conceived of Sophomore College as an opportunity for faculty to design courses that would emphasize the nature of intellectual exploration as such. He also thought the college could provide sophomores with a reorientation to the academic resources on campus.

Five courses were offered in the first year of the college, and students were selected by faculty on the basis of their answers to the question: "Why do you want to be in this class?"

In the past four years, the number of courses offered has grown to 27, and Saldívar said he anticipates that 35 classes will be taught next fall. In the seminar settings, professors meet with 12 students for two hours every day for two weeks, just before the start of fall quarter. Each course also has two teaching assistants who live with the sophomores in the dorms and serve as resident assistants and academic associates.

In the course he has taught for the past four years, "Comparative American Urban Cultures," Saldívar said he has been overwhelmed by the students' ability to analyze complex materials.

"They read about contemporary postmodern theory, urban design and issues in critical legal studies," he said. "And they run with it in a way that I used to think only my advanced undergraduates and graduate students could manage."

In an effort to make the learning more active, Saldívar has moved his course beyond the confines of the classroom. He regularly takes students on tours of San Francisco's Mission District, Chinatown and Yerba Buena Gardens. The sophomores also learn how to participate creatively in the class by posing questions and making formal presentations

"B. F. Skinner once wrote that education is what remains after you've forgotten everything you learned," Saldívar told his audience. "I think he was suggesting that you forget the things but learn the process. And that's the quality of understanding I want students to learn, along with an ability to express themselves eloquently and rationally, with conviction and persuasive power." SR