In defense of big universities

Recent Kirkland Hall photograph.

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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.

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Filed under Education, Engineering education, Higher ed, Liberal arts, Life in academia, Teaching

3 responses to “In defense of big universities

  1. Will Farris

    I really think that, as good as Vandy or some other places may be at imparting engineering knowledge to individual students, the larger world of the engineering profession does not seem to differentiate nearly so much. I work at a hard core electronics engineering and manufacturing company with engineering grads from schools all over the world and with a head count of 1700 or so. It is a very geeky place. But we have geniuses and good ole boys and everything in between. Management cares about one thing when interviewing new grads: grades and the fact that one made it through an ABET program. Where one went to school and what one knows is rather immaterial. Did you smoke the program or not? Now, if you are an experienced applicant, then your knowledge and experience is hugely important, but that knowledge did not come from any school; it came from walking the hots sands of product development and design, etc. Hear me loud and clear on this: you go to Vandy and amass a huge debt and get a BSEE and maybe get a job at 65K. Or you go to state U with a far less debt load and get a BSEE and maybe get that same job at 65K. It happens all around me all the time as I interview candidates. And another thing, from one who has 5 earned degrees: an engineering program is not much of an education but a way of maximizing income right out of the chute. CCIEs, IT people, and accountants can easily reach and surpass engineering salaries in a few years of specific gained experience. Not that they have any better of a liberal education.One needs years of philosophy, history, economics, psych, languages, and especially literature in addition to the math and science before you can possibly understand how to think rationally and holistically about the complexities of reality. The world cannot be reduced to an X-dimensional differential element. But, yes, this comes at a cost. You have a lifetime of learning ahead if you take up the mantle. Fight the right battles!

  2. My experience at UGA was great. I’m not sure what their English Education program looks like now, but when I was there, they were doing some innovative restructuring of the typical student teaching experience, and I have always felt UGA prepared me about as well as I could be prepared for my own classroom. I also had a Music Appreciation teacher who learned the names of all 96 students in his class and would call on us by name to respond to questions.

  3. I believe that UC Santa Cruz provides an excellent undergraduate education (at least in fields I’m familiar with, like computer engineering or bioinformatics). Classes are small (except in last-step-before-failure fields, which here seems to mean psychology) and undergrads are actively involved in research (to a much greater degree than at other research universities or at liberal arts colleges). Part of the undergrad research involvement stems from being a top-100 research university but having few grad students (under 10% of students, as opposed to over 50% at many other research universities).

    The curriculum in the engineering departments is updated frequently and many faculty spend a lot of time thinking about teaching and pedagogy. (Next week’s computer science seminar is “K-12 Computational Thinking: Magic, Marketing, or something else?” by Steve Cooper of Stanford University , but I’ll miss it due to a conflicting conference.) My own small department (about 10 faculty) is creating 3 or 4 new courses next year (we’ve been doing about 3 new courses a year for several years and some of the old ones have had to go to alternate years or be trimmed entirely, to make room in the curriculum-leave plan).