As noted in Friday’s staff editorial, I refused to lend my support to the editorial board’s comments regarding Professor Emlyn Hughes’ lecture in Frontiers of Science last Monday. I stand apart from my peers in this case not because I disagree with the comments of the board, but rather because I believe they failed to identify both the fundamental objection to Professor Hughes’ lecture and the core reason motivating that lecture. Both deserve to be made explicit.
The board criticizes Hughes for making a pedagogical mistake—not connecting the content of his lecture to a substantive lesson. This statement is certainly true, but it misses the real reason Hughes’ lecture is creating such controversy. Had Hughes, chair of the spring semester of Frontiers, dressed up in a pink jumpsuit and played Looney Tunes videos, the board’s critique would still stand (for such behavior is no more nonsensical in this context than are images of 9/11 and Nazi Germany), but it is unlikely that the lecture would have provoked such a response. This observation ought to point us towards Hughes’ specific choice of violent, triggering imagery as the center of the controversy in this case, not his pedagogy. The question is not whether Hughes is a good or bad educator—one needs far more than one video of one part of one class to render such a judgement—but instead, whether he crossed some sort of line by using the content that he did. On one side of this debate are those who cling tightly to academic freedom and are willing to defend Hughes’ lecture as a way to “shake up” the student body through a subtle and penetrating metaphor. On the other side lie those who are committed to the mental safety of the students and the creation of a comfortable, value-neutral learning space. I tend to lean toward the former camp, but even this debate is not really the heart of the matter. Professor Hughes’ lecture is not the problem; rather, his lecture is merely the latest symptom of the deeply problematic structure of Frontiers of Science.
Last semester, I had the pleasure of speaking with the fall semester chair of Frontiers of Science, Professor Nicholas Christie-Blick, about the goals and challenges of the course. Professor Christie-Blick and I agreed that the mission of Frontiers of Science, which is to educate Columbia students on how to meaningfully engage in scientific discourse for the rest of their lives, was a worthwhile cause. We also discussed the substantial main challenge of the course; helping students who come from vastly different educational backgrounds to gain that literacy. The way the Frontiers curriculum tries to accomplish its goal while overcoming this challenge is to teach very simple qualitative and quantitative reasoning (thus keeping the material within the reach of the students coming in with the least preparation) via a few units taught by leading faculty that focus on their specific research within a given scientific field. If this pedagogical model represents a hypothesis about how to best instruct students of vastly different skill levels on the basic scientific habits of mind, then Hughes’ lecture represents the results that ought to disprove such a hypothesis.
Under the current model, lectures are poorly attended, grade inflation is rampant (50 percent of the class received an A- or better the semester I took Frontiers), and student enthusiasm for the course, while notoriously hard to assess objectively, does not seem to have changed greatly from when I took the course—a time when the prospect of going to one’s recitation section was greeted with resounding apathy, if not frustration. Hughes’ lecture tried to solve these frustrations by sparking student interest via shock and awe that was so over the top and tangentially related to the material at hand that it has now temporarily made the course the laughingstock of academia. The lecture was a desperate grab for student interest at the expense of their own mental well-being (in some instances) and, more importantly, their ability to learn what Frontiers intends to impart.
Hughes was responding to a real problem in Frontiers. This problem is important to solve if we want to get closer to reaching the goal that Frontiers has set for itself. It is unlikely that Hughes’ lecture will actually impart much learning on the students of Frontiers (except, perhaps, for the poorly-articulated metaphor about discarding preconceptions that defenders of Hughes will no doubt muster time and again). Let us at least hope that it can spark some serious introspection on the part of Frontiers administrators and instructors about the structure of the course and how they might adapt to better overcome the instructional challenges with which they are all too familiar.
The author is a Columbia College senior majoring in philosophy. He is a member of Spectator’s editorial board.
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