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Teaching at Stanford: Is it really so bad?

STANFORD -- Prof. Edward Feigenbaum played devil's advocate Thursday, June 6, during a Faculty Senate discussion on teaching in a research university.

"Does the patient really have a disease?" the computer scientist asked his colleagues. He sent two daughters through the "much maligned undergraduate program," and each got a "superb education," he said.

In fact, they benefited most from the outside-the-classroom teaching done by research faculty, he said.

"I thought Stanford was great at teaching," he said, pondering the circumstances that led President Donald Kennedy last year to initiate a broad discussion of teaching.

Kennedy took his cue, responding that what is done well can be done even better. More resources must be devoted to teaching, he said, and the conversation about quality has generated new levels of gift support in this area.

In a wide-ranging discussion, faculty members agreed that lack of resources remains the central problem with teaching.

In the final analysis, though, "teaching hasn't improved much since Plato," said Prof. Amos Tversky, psychology.

Criteria for good teaching cannot be defined, but "you can recognize good teaching or good research when you see it," he said. Problems in teaching stem from laziness, failure to stay current in the field and playing to the students, he said.

The key to successful teaching, said Prof. John Ross, chemistry, is to be interested in the students. They quickly figure out "if you care about them," and everything else is secondary.

Ross expressed some concern about student evaluation of teaching, drawing laughs from his colleagues over one student's assessment of him: "If I had kept up with the course, he would have been excellent."

A different kind of teaching -- serving as mentors to doctoral students, the professors of the future -- "ought to be our primary mission," said Prof. John Eaton, mechanical engineering. Overall, Stanford produces about 1.5 percent of all doctorates in the United States, he said, but his own department graduates 6 percent of doctorates nationally in mechanical engineering and more than 10 percent of the women and minorities in the field.

While it is not appropriate to neglect classroom teaching, "we have an enormous opportunity to make a national impact" by supplying professors who will influence future university teaching, Eaton said.

He suggested that departments and programs gain control over their undergraduate enrollments. Alternatively, the University should reallocate resources to rapidly expanding programs.

Unlike some institutions, Stanford admits undergraduates to the university rather than to specific schools or departments. But this can be very disruptive, Eaton said, citing difficulty dealing with a three-fold enrollment increase in the School of Engineering during the mid 1970s and early 1980s.

Likewise, the number of students tackling honors theses has risen dramatically, said Prof. David Abernethy, political science. In his own department, the number has doubled in three years. "We're getting better students through the admissions process," which is "tremendously exciting," but this adds to the teaching load and justifies compensation, he said.

There is no single answer to the question of how to improve teaching, given the different cultures on campus, said Prof. James Collman, chemistry. Team-teaching a freshman course with Prof. Richard Zare has been a valuable experience, he said.

Many undergraduates are too busy in outside activities to pursue their studies in depth, Collman said, and they tend to focus too much on grades. He praised efforts to stimulate undergraduate interest in research projects, and suggested more attention to summer research opportunities.

Prof. Pat Jones, biological sciences, said her department could not fill all the needs of its undergraduates, so it created links with medical faculty and outside industry. This connects the university's teaching and research missions, she said.

Prof. Albert Gelpi, English, criticized the current "faddish emphasis" on interdisciplinary studies, saying it is weakening the disciplines. The trend is a "subversion of humanist studies" to the values of the social sciences, especially anthropology, psychology and linguistics, he said.

At the invitation of the Senate Steering Committee, guests Michele Marincovich, director of the Center for Teaching and Learning, and Dr. Kelley Skeff of the Medical School spoke about their efforts to improve teaching.

Skeff described a 12-year program in the Medical School that uses video analysis to help clinical faculty improve their effectiveness. He developed seminars in which real examples of effective teaching and unsolved problems are scripted and reenacted to maintain anonymity.

Medical faculty from other institutions have come to Stanford to study the techniques, and they in turn have trained 500 teachers.

Marincovich discussed teacher evaluation, suggesting that faculty in a given discipline should talk about the structure of knowledge in their field and appropriate teaching techniques. Whether a faculty member is current in his or her field is better judged by peers than students, she said.

The center has emphasized individual work with teachers over the years, but it is time to move on to peer discussions about values in teaching that compare to discussions about research, Marincovich said.



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