Professor Emlyn Hughes’ actions in Monday’s Frontiers of Science lecture surprised us. Yes, we have been in classes where a teacher’s actions surprised or shocked us. And yes, we have seen similar video footage or been asked to erase our minds of all preconceived notions as part of an academic endeavor. However, there is usually a method to such madness.
The reasoning Hughes provided for the more than 500 students in his audience—“In order to learn quantum mechanics, you have strip to your raw”—is not adequate explanation for his actions. Without adequate explanation, his actions are simply bewildering.
There should always be a reciprocal relationship between a professor’s responsibility to teach and students’ efforts to learn. Just as students have certain obligations in the classroom, such as completing work and participating, professors owe students a full explanation of the subject at hand and an environment in which learning is encouraged. It is of this very basic understanding of the classroom and its dynamics that Monday’s performance runs afoul.
Without the appropriate context for his behavior, Hughes’ strategy was counterproductive—he confused, rather than enlightened. However, this may be a consequence of the circumstances: teaching quantum mechanics in under two hours to students who may not have any experience with it. A situation like this necessitates special measures to kindle understanding. Hughes’ actions were the product of this. But the situation does not justify them; shock value for shock value’s sake is not a suitable mechanism with which to teach.
Hughes breached the tacit contract between student and instructor by resorting to such measures. Using shock value as an implement of instruction is neither an effective nor a respectful way to teach. Professors should rise to the occasion and not rely on gimmicks without substance as a substitute to actual instruction just because the material is difficult.
Despite our reservations about the appropriateness of Hughes’ technique, professors must be protected in their right to use what they believe are the most effective teaching methods. Our feelings about the nature and efficacy of Hughes’ lecture should not interfere with this maxim. There is no need to impose regulations on the academic and professional freedom of any instructor. In fact, imposing such regulations would be a breach of students’ trust. Professors’ jobs are to teach to the best of their abilities, and we can only judge these skills if we give them the freedom they need.
The Huffington Post and the New York Daily News may focus on the fact that a well-known physicist stripped in front of undergraduates—but we would focus on the function of Hughes’ performance, rather than the form. We want to learn, and Hughes, just like all other Columbia professors, has a lot to teach us.
Steele Sternberg recused himself from this editorial.
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