Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Cross-Campus Teaching

Hard on the heels of yesterday's report about SEAS moving to Allston, I just happened this morning to do some cross-campus teaching myself, at the Medical School. Well, the students learned from me, but I wasn't teaching in the usual sense. I was a clinical specimen.

Thomas Michel teaches MCB 234, Cellular Metabolism and Human Disease, which is offered jointly by FAS and (under another number) HMS. There are about 70 students in the class, 20 undergrads, some FAS grad students, and some medical school students. The class meets alternately in FAS and in the Longwood Medical campus, and students can attend the lectures in either location, watching and participating live via two-way video link if they are remote. Certain classes are "clinical encounters with patients," and that is where I come in: during the class on the metabolic pathways that are compromised in diabetes, I talk to the class about the experience of being a Type I diabetic. In such clinical lectures there is no video--students are required to go to the Medical School, and attendance is taken.

It was a fun lively class, and the undergrads showed up for it at 9am. In fact, they asked most of the questions, I think. And HMS is much, much farther from the Cambridge campus than SEAS will be.

In a few years, this sort of thing will seem perfectly natural. Yes, these are dedicated students, but it is not just one or two--Dr. Michel had to turn many away. Yes, the travel time is a problem. I mention it here only to say that there are upsides and downsides to moving, and things we may today consider unacceptable may turn into non-issues in a few years.

Of course the real secret to success here is not the shuttle bus schedule or the speed of the video link. It is the quality of the teaching. Dr. Michel is a master, funny and engaging. If I were a student, I would certainly get myself over there to take his class. On the other hand, I think it is safe to say that lecture classes for which students ALREADY don't make the effort to show up would be even more sparsely attended if they are simply moved, as is, over to Allston. So the issue here is not whether students will show up--it is whether the professors will teach in ways that make it worthwhile for students to show up. Because right now that is not a given in a lot of undergraduate classes. (Cf. this take on the "cheating scandal," which I promised not to blog about any more.)

So the move to Allston will put a different kind of burden on the faculty. We will have to learn how to teach better. But it is hard for me to think of that as a downside!

By the way, here is a nice aerial shot of the location SEAS will be moving to. Anybody know anything about that miniature golf course next door? [2/7: link fixed.]

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