As network of Chinese-funded institutes at American universities expands, some professors see opportunities. Others worry about academic freedom and whether centers promote "culturetainment," not scholarship.
Suppose it’s been discovered that a person’s thoughts can be mapped from a close examination of the physiology of the person’s brain and, à la Fantastic Voyage, that humans can be shrunk to the size where they can be injected into the brain of another to perform such an examination. If this happened to an instructor of a college course so the instructor was able to get at the inner thinking of his students, what discoveries would he make? In what ways would he be surprised by what he learned?
Of course, the above remains science fiction rather than science. What might really be done in lieu of the shrinkage capability and the taking of such a fantastic voyage so the instructor can understand how students think? An instructor needs some sense of his students’ minds for making the various practical decisions in teaching a course. How difficult should the content be? What examples would well illustrate the subject matter? How can student interest be sustained during the class session? On what basis are such questions answered?
In a recent Opinionator column at The New York Times site, Paul Bloom asks: Just how successful are we at seeing the world as others see it?
His answer, consistent with Daniel Kahneman’s depiction of how people come to believe things as described in his book Thinking Fast and Slow, is that we are overly confident about this capability. We think we are reasonably competent in our projections about the worldviews of others, when in fact we are not good at this at all. Bloom writes [my emphasis added]:
“These failures should motivate a certain humility when it comes to dealing with the lives of others. Instead of assuming that we can know what it is like to be them, we should focus more on listening to what they have to say. This isn’t perfect -- people sometimes lie, or are confused, or deluded -- but it’s by far the best method of figuring out the needs, desires and histories of people who are different from us. It also shows more respect than a clumsy attempt to get into their skins; I agree with the essayist Leslie Jamison, who describes empathy as ‘perched precariously between gift and invasion.’”
The unmistakable message for instructors is that they need to find ways for their students to speak up and then they need to pay attention to what the students have to say. One way I have found to do this is by having the students write weekly blog posts, which I comment on and to which they then respond in kind, in advance of a class session that brings in what the students say in their posts as part of the discussion. I first wrote about this in a column from five years ago. I have repeatedly tweaked the approach since and used it in a variety of different classes. The current description reflects a more mature approach and is based on the class I currently teach, The Economics of Organizations, which is offered each fall.
I would like to discuss a different way to get at what students have to say that I tried this past spring, but first I want to note that the blogging and commenting builds a kind of trust between the students and me. In the language of the course, trust is a reputational asset, which has potential for producing return after the course has concluded. Students occasionally make use of this asset by asking the instructor to supervise them in an independent study project or to get the instructor to serve as a reference for them when applying to graduate school. But this use is highly idiosyncratic to the student.
I have recently reread the Boyer Commission Report, and in it there is a recommendation that every first-year student be part of a faculty-led seminar aimed at such students. Were this recommendation to be fully adopted in spite of the tough budget times we find ourselves in, there might be some follow-up that is more systematic and is driven by the institution to leverage the reputational asset that would emerge from this teaching setting. My example, described below, is perhaps suggestive of what such a systematic approach might be like.
Near the tail end of my class last fall, an upper-level undergraduate class that attracts mainly juniors and seniors, I invited the students to join me in a weekly discussion group for the spring. I had tried something similar the year before, but it failed then. There weren’t enough takers. This time around three students indicated interest. That was sufficient for us to get going. Indeed we started during the intersession between the two semesters, and except for the week of spring break went through till finals week. There were a few stumbles on the way, as this was a voluntary activity and these students were very busy with other things. We persevered nonetheless. I will now sketch our process and what I learned about the students from the discussion.
Note that opting in to the discussion group implies something other than a random selection from the class. Twenty-three students completed the course. Each of the three students from the discussion group received an A in the class, with the course grade not contingent on participating in the discussion group. (About 43 percent of all students got an A.) Each was an international student (about one-third of the total). Two were from China, the other from Korea. They were all double majors, with one of these majors economics. They were very diligent about their studies and took their grades quite seriously, much more so than I ever did when I was a student. They also enjoyed the friendly banter we had in the discussion group and would smile quite readily. Humor was part of the glue that held the group together.
There is something admirable about taking college courses in other than one’s own native language and to do so many thousands of miles away from home. These are acts of courage. In many ways these students are models for what we’d like to see from all students who go to college. Yet there is also something amiss, not covered in taking this model student view. These students were terribly overprogrammed, in my judgment. The Korean student, for example, whose other major is Electrical and Computer Engineering -- an unlikely combination in my experience, but he told me that he had an interest in patents, which explained the engineering part -- was taking 23 credit hours this spring. He accomplished this Herculean feat by not sleeping much at all, claiming to average only about three hours per night.
The other students were taking only 18 or 19 credit hours, but one of them was working two jobs in addition, while the other had quite a variety of extracurricular activity in registered student organizations. Indeed, being tired on a recurrent basis was an ongoing theme in our discussion.
My reason for starting the discussion group was that I thought students in my class were insufficiently creative in going about their studies. I wanted to see whether I might influence them to take a more experimental and rewarding approach to their learning in their other courses. As we already had the blogging mechanism from the course, we agreed that each week one of the group would write a post on the topic for that week (I would prompt the post author on that) and the others would write comments, this ahead of the group meeting to make sure everyone was ready and up to speed for the discussion, which occurred Friday afternoons at 3 p.m. and would last from 90 minutes to two hours.
We covered a variety of topics. As the University of China at Illinois piece had appeared soon before we got started, it informed our early sessions. We then talked about flow, my own variant of which I’ve called mental puttering, intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, inquiry cycles à la John Dewey, procrastination and deferred gratification, Atul Gawande’s "The Bell Curve" on how an experimental approach that goes beyond known research is needed to achieve superior performance, straying from the crowd, and a host of other topics. The conversations were engaging and fun, yet I was getting a lot of pushback on the underlying message, which I admit was a bit of proselytizing by me in favor of creativity.
About two months in I was frustrated by our lack of progress on my goals, so I did a simulation in our discussion of the deep sort of thinking that I believe is at the heart of creativity. We spent the first 40 minutes or so by doing a deconstruction of one sentence that the blog poster for that week had written. One question would follow another as we tried to find meaning from this investigation. For the first 35 minutes or so, they were into it. Then they tired and their eyes glazed over. Afterward they told me the experience was new to them. They had never thought about such a small idea in such a deep way, looking at it from all angles, trying to understand all the implications. They already knew how to get an A in their classes.
We did make a bit more progress on the point that college was supposed to achieve a dual purpose, with one of those an investigation into self to understand what makes one tick and what gives one pleasure and satisfaction. On this the students could see how the more creative approach would be appealing. But to them it seemed to come at too high a cost in terms of success at college, possibly jeopardizing their future careers.
The sessions that had the most learning for me came near the end of the semester, when I became aware of the students' high school experiences, the intense drilling they received in preparation for exams, and that pleasure reading, play and spontaneity in the learning were drummed out of them at that time. Their stories were both fascinating and horrifying. The cultures in which they were raised expects extraordinary discipline and very hard work to win the day while at the same time having the students entirely yield to the judgment of others as to what is intellectually appealing and worthy of engagement. Consequently, as committed as these students are, they are not masters of their own thinking.
Apart from the intense acculturation, let me mention two causes that feed the credential game these students are playing. One is that they pay tuition at international student rates, so college is quite expensive for them. They are not wealthy and need to get good return on that investment. Building a strong résumé is one overt way to generate such a return. The other is that they are playing a kind of Prisoner’s Dilemma with their fellow students. If the others produced less impressive credentials, they might treat their own education more as self-nurture and less as signal for the labor market. Self-nurture loses, however, when everyone else is playing the credential game.
The Prisoner’s Dilemma produces an individually rational but socially destructive outcome. How can we change the game in a way to make the outcome better?
Lanny Arvan is emeritus associate professor of economics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
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