The Globe and Mail has a story about an “experiment” (I use quote-unquote because I personally see nothing new about it, but I come back to this below) carried out by a college teacher who has broken down her 200-student class into small groups, to work through their latest assignment.
The idea is that, in this way, the professor and her teaching assistants can spend time with each group, thereby giving every student in the class a chance of interacting with the instructors individually. “Face time”, so to speak, is something that most first-year students “crave but struggle to receive”. “It’s an oft-heard complaint”, reads the article, “Students say they don’t interact with their professors enough in large classes and professors feel pressured to give a higher priority to their research in the race for promotion and tenure.”
That sounds very much like “party line”, and indeed the article has a strongly ideological slant, like most articles dealing with higher education published in this paper. The premise is stated as if it were self-evident, and the problem is quickly diagnosed as yet another manifestation of a supposed, unresolvable dichotomy between research and teaching.
The facts, the empirical data which should constitute the foundation of the story, are, to put it kindly, hastily sketched (to put it more accurately, they are not there at all).
For one thing, there is hardly anything new in the practice of breaking down a large class in small groups, for the purpose of working on assignments and/or to carry out laboratory experiments . Describing anything like that as an attempt to “experiment”, to break new ground, or even plainly to do anything unusual or different, seems incredibly naive and ill-informed — or, more likely, disingenuous.
But more importantly, is it really true that students “crave” face time with the instructor, and are routinely turned away by self-absorbed academics, whose only interest is advancing their own research program ?
The article states that as though it were a truism, but nothing factual is provided (e.g., a survey conducted among college students) to substantiate that assertion. “Students say they don’t interact with their professors enough in large classes” implies, among other things, that professors are generally unavailable to meet with the students outside class time, but is that a fair and accurate assessment of the current state of affairs in university campuses ?
I wish to offer my perspective, because I have been teaching freshman physics classes over the past fifteen years, and my experience does not support anything even close to what the article claims or implies. In fact, the exact opposite is true — students have ostensibly no interest in talking to the instructor.
Is it me ?
Am I the only one who:
If the above is very different from what most other college instructors out there observe, well, then I clearly have a problem with how I relate to students. Who knows, maybe I come across as stern, intimidating, maybe it’s my accent, maybe it’s the title of my blog… (surely not my awesome looks). If that were the case, though, I would expect that it would be mentioned in the comments that students leave on their evaluation forms.
But, out of all criticisms that I have received (and there are many, to be sure), being “unapproachable” or “unavailable” has never been one of them. Now, why would students not take advantage of formal, anonymous course evaluation to voice their “oft-heard complaint” ? Nor have they been expressing, at least over the last ten years, any appreciation for my availability, even when I almost made a point, went out of my way to make myself accessible — it is as if that part simply did not register with them at all.
I am curious because, if instead it should turn out that my experience mirrors that of most, or many of my colleagues , if it be resolved that the whole premise of the article is bogus, that a nebulous solution is offered to a largely non-existent problem, then we may have to ask ourselves a very different question, and set an entirely different agenda for ourselves as educators (whether in the classroom or in the laboratory), namely, how do we get students to talk to us ?
 For example, in the sciences large classes (e.g., freshman mathematics and physics courses) are routinely broken down in small sections for recitation). This was standard practice already in the early 80s, when I started college.
 According to a lot of my colleagues (as well as judging from the on-line comments to the article in the Globe and Mail), what I see in my courses is not at all unusual. But of course, this is no statistically reliable sample.