Content matters: the appeal of a successful course
A Taipei taxi driver told me a joke. It was about a conversation between a teacher and his student regarding the Mayan myth of the end of the world.
A teacher asks one of his students: "What is the one thing you'd like to do most if the world does come to an end as foretold by the Mayan myth?"
"I'd like to be in your class," the student replies reluctantly.
"Is my class that appealing to you?" the teacher mutters to himself, puzzled.
"No, but sitting in your class makes a day feel like a year," the student says matter-of-factly.
Are there such teachers and students around us?
The joke reminds me of my younger days in Taiwan where we used to have a compulsory course on the Three People's Principles. Many students skipped the class. Even if they did not, they never really paid attention to what was being taught. And yet everyone passed at the end of the semester. Coming closer in time, I occasionally heard of classes in universities nowadays where students were either eating or busy doing things with their mobile phones while their teacher was lecturing. Very few listened attentively. What's going on in our classroom?
I thus come to think of some of the General Education (GE) courses at Harvard University, which the students, regardless of their disciplinary background, are required to take. Some of them, understandably, are more appealing to students than others. "Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do", taught by Michael Sandel, a well-known political philosopher and a professor of political science, is among the most popular.
Now broadcast via TV to several universities in foreign countries, this course has become one of the open courses provided by Harvard University. Professor Sandel's lectures are uploaded onto YouTube, creating a global classroom. Viewers see a lecture hall packed with more than 600 students. Nevertheless, all are engaged in the active exchange of teaching and learning as students fall over each other in asking questions.
Professor Sandel has once been the most beloved teacher at Harvard, but I learned most recently from my good friend Professor H. T. Kung, who also teaches at Harvard, that the most popular course at Harvard these days is "Computer Science 50" (CS50), offered by Professor David Malan. One sees a similar kind of vibrant discussion and active interaction between the teacher and the students. More and more students have selected this course in the past few years. The enrollment figure shows an increase of 32% from 2010 to 2011 and a further growth of 20% from the fall of 2011 to September of 2012, as the number of students exceeds 700. In the present era of science and technology, it is easy to understand why computer science has a particular appeal to students.
"The Principle of Economics" (EC10) is another popular course, offered by Professor Gregory Mankiw, who believes that "Learning the basics of economics is essential for being an informed citizen, and it is a good foundation for many career paths." With a distinguished professor at the lectern, it is only natural that the enrollment number of EC10 has remained high.
In my study on the relationship between teaching and research, I have pointed out that the content is the most important thing in a course. The quality of the interaction between the teacher and students is contingent upon the content. As long as the content is substantive and lively, the number of students will not affect classroom interactions. This is true regardless of the discipline in question, be it science, the social sciences or the humanities. If the content is lacking, even one-to-one contact cannot but draw yawns from a student. And substantive content is of course dependent upon tireless research.
The three popular GE courses offered by professors at Harvard described above and conversely those that are ineffective are but a few cases worthy of our attention.
This article was originally published in Chinese in the Sing Tao Daily (21 December, 2012).
December 21, 2012