Graduate students deserve good teaching

Frank Male

At a large public university such as UT, teaching is important. We have 38,000 undergraduates enroll in classes each year to learn, and the University spends money attracting professors who do their best to make classes worth students’ tuition.

When it comes to undergraduates, the Center for Teaching and Learning brings the 16th-century concept of lecture into the 21st century. David Laude, interim dean of the College of Natural Sciences, is putting a strong emphasis on the teaching requirements for professors and was a major player in the UTeach initiative to educate future high school science teachers. People care about undergraduate education, and rightly so.

But some professors seem to forget that Ph.D. students still have to take classes. There is no champion for graduate education. Every class that I’ve taken here is in a large lecture format where a professor talks at you for an hour or two, zooms out of the room, gives you a homework assignment every once in a while and expects you to have perfect recall when the final rolls around.

Just because lecturing is venerable does not mean it is effective. Are you reading this in class when you should be paying attention? Maybe instead you are texting friends or checking Facebook? No matter what you are doing in class, learning is rarely the focus.

Lecturing is one of the worst methods of conveying understanding. It is a widely cited claim that students only remember 10 percent of what they hear. And professors realize that, so innovative teaching methods such as Just-in-Time Teaching, inquiry-based learning and the Moore Method have been introduced.

Professors of graduate classes realize that lecturing is not where the learning is. When asked, they’ll say something like, “I expect you to read the material and learn this all on your own.” While the honesty is great, why are they wasting their time and their students’ time with monotone lectures?

Getting professors to even teach graduate classes is difficult. In 2012, no one in the physics department even requested to teach two of the four classes required for graduation.

Something needs to change. Professors need to care about graduate classes and teach them as though they want students to gain expertise.

However, critics say that the real education graduate students get is through research, and I’ve come to realize how true this is. In research, you don’t know what the answers are. You have to develop the questions, the experiments, the methods and the analysis. When you get results, you have to prove them to a skeptical professor and a skeptical public. In short, you learn a lot.

So why aren’t graduate classes like that? If classes are not important enough for teachers to do more than dig up 10-year-old lecture notes or even volunteer to teach, then why have them? If classes are vital for “a formal graduate education,” why are professors so reluctant to put forth effort? It cannot be that both are true.

Graduate students are in a precarious position: not quite teachers or researchers, yet still holding a bachelor’s degree or two. The University does not appear to know what to do with them. They deserve to be taught — and taught properly.

Male is a physics graduate student.