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The good professor and the research university

“I’m sorry professor, but…”

“I hate to interrupt you, but…”

Sitting in lecture this quarter I noticed something strange; Stanford students don’t ask a lot of questions and when we do we usually apologize for it.

Another professor was giving out extra credit if we would come to his or the TA’s office hours sometime during week one. He said research showed that students were more likely to come in for help later if they took advantage of office hours earlier in the quarter. During his time teaching at Stanford, Stanford students seemed to him “extraordinarily reluctant” in using office hours.

Why is it we’re apologizing for asking questions during class and what is it about us, as Stanford students, that has some professors labeling us as “reluctant”?

I interviewed two Stanford faculty, Scott McKeon, a lecturer with the economics department and Greg Rosston, the director of the public policy program, to answer these questions.

Mckeon teaches the economics department’s field courses, Econ 102A and 102B, and comes into contact with about 182 students during fall and winter quarter alone. Mckeon has 16 years of previous experience teaching at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Business and for him what makes Stanford students different from the business school students of Northwestern is our lecture attendance and our willingness to ask questions. Mckeon estimates that about five percent of Northwestern students would be absent from lecture on any given lecture whereas he estimates a rate of 40 percent for Stanford students.

When I asked him how Stanford students compare in asking questions, Mckeon replied with: “The funny thing is that Stanford students don’t seem to ask questions at all.” He thinks that this silence in the classroom comes from the Stanford student’s tendency “of always being right” and “the anxiety that other students in lecture perceive in asking a question.”

But the story of Stanford’s classroom doesn’t end with the students; professors are as much a part of our education as we are. There isn’t a doubt that Stanford isn’t a top-tier research university, but are we a top teaching university?

Rosson mentioned that a candidate for professorship may have her teaching ability evaluated as part of the decision, though he notes that “this practice varies widely depending on the department.” There doesn’t seem to be a uniform consensus across Stanford’s departments on just how much a candidate’s teaching ability should count in her tenure decision.

Another restriction on Stanford’s teaching potential is the salary schedule behind classes. Mckeon comments “[at Kellogg] class sizes were a maximum of 65 students. There was an incentive to try to produce a popular elective. Once more than 65 people wished to take it, you’d get a second section of the course and be paid for two classes instead of one. If you could get more than 130 people to enroll, you’d get paid for three classes. That was a huge incentive. But here, there is no restriction on class size so creating a popular elective just ends up costing you more work. For electives, one gets paid the same with 25 people in class versus 125 people”. Mckeon’s comments imply that, at least for some faculty paid according to a fixed schedule, a sliding salary based on student enrollment might serve as an incentive to create more engrossing courses that students want to take. With a monetary incentive, each student becomes less of a burden to teach for faculty who otherwise fail to see the value in reflecting and improving on their class’s structure and their own teaching.

Rosson has hopes for the inverted classroom as a way to increase the quality of the Stanford student’s classroom experience. This is the idea to separate instruction and classroom time. Why expect a professor to be both a world class researcher and a world class teacher when we can have material introduced to students by the best lecturer using the best pedagogy? Students would watch the introduction to the material before lecture, and class time would be geared towards discussion and clarification rather than explication.

Ask a Stanford student about her thoughts on the inverted classroom, and she’ll likely tell you she’s not paying tuition to watch videos on the internet. Considering this is the model of instruction that the majority of us have probably followed during our careers as students, it’s little surprise we have difficulty taking the teacher out of teaching and relying on the teacher solely as a facilitator.

Maybe the fault of our education lies with us—students who are too timid and self-conscious to ask a question—or maybe it lies with the larger structure of the faculty, but we should pause for reflection on the tremendous effort it sometimes takes in raising our hand and ask why so many questions go unasked in the classroom.

Corey Garcia ‘16

Contact Corey Garcia at coreygar ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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