President's Pages in Princeton Alumni Weekly
The Changing Face of Pedagogy
December 18, 2002
In early November the members of the Board of Trustees held a two-day retreat focusing on three topics that are central to the University’s teaching and research mission: the changing face of pedagogy; the role of the University in the nation’s science, technology, and engineering infrastructure; and Princeton as an international university. The retreat was an opportunity to educate the trustees, and to lay the intellectual groundwork for future decisions involving these topics. With readings assigned in advance that would have challenged even the most diligent student preparing for precepts, the trustees heard from distinguished experts invited from both outside and within Princeton. These lectures helped to frame the questions that were then explored in small group precepts led by Princeton faculty and administrators. Indeed, the retreat was a whirlwind reprise of a Princeton education!
Given the importance of the questions we considered, I will be using the next several President’s Pages to describe briefly some of the retreat’s main deliberations. The retreat opened with a series of broad questions focused on the essential features of a Princeton education, our priorities for what the faculty should be teaching, and the impact that information technology is likely to have on pedagogy.
We were privileged to have Howard Gardner, the John H. and Elisabeth A. Hobbs Professor in Cognition and Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, give opening remarks for this topic. Professor Gardner suggested that universities educate for multiple reasons: to prepare individuals to have broad learning and reasoning abilities, to produce citizen-leaders and critics of society, to prepare individuals for future professions, and to promote “good work,” which he defined as work that is both excellent in quality and also exhibits a sense of responsibility with respect to implications and applications. This phrase resonated with the group throughout the retreat as one that is consonant with our informal motto, “In the nation’s service and in the service of all nations.”
When I first asked Professor Gardner to participate in this part of the retreat, he blurted out, “Well, I hope you are not planning on changing the way you teach!” He noted in particular the accessibility of the faculty at Princeton to students at all levels. Dean of the College Nancy Malkiel made the same point in her description of the changes in the ways we teach at Princeton during the 30 years since she arrived as an assistant professor. She pointed out that as we have aspired to become one of the great research universities in the world, the University’s scholarly expectations for the faculty have increased. Yet this has been accomplished without losing our unique identity. As she eloquently said, “Princeton is a research university with the soul of a small liberal arts college.” As we go forward we need to recognize that the faculty are a precious resource, and consider how to make the best use of their time in teaching.
The trustees concluded that, with respect to teaching, the highest priorities should be the “bookends,” that is, the beginning and end of an undergraduate’s career at Princeton. The highest quality experience for freshmen as they are being introduced to college-level work is essential for success over all four years. Freshman seminars are one way that we achieve true excellence in the first year, but the large lecture courses that are the “gateways” into the disciplines also require special attention. Students should have opportunities to hear the brilliant lecturers—those faculty legends—who can inspire students to pursue subjects they are only dimly aware exist. This could help to resolve an asymmetry in the way students currently choose their majors. As is the case at many of our peer institutions, the majority of our A.B. students—about 55 percent—major in only five departments: history, politics, economics, Woodrow Wilson School, and English. Princeton has over 30 other excellent departments, including some whose concentrators number in the single-digits. Exciting first- or second-year undergraduates about these other fields of knowledge would ensure that the resources of the University are more effectively being used, and give students currently in over-subscribed departments a more individualized education. The other bookend of the Princeton education is the senior thesis, which also should be overseen by regular members of the faculty.
The trustees considered how we can use information technology to improve the quality of our instruction. Technology should enhance rather than distance the relationship between the faculty and students. For example, technology can help faculty tailor teaching to fit what Professor Gardner has called “multiple intelligences,” the variety of ways of learning our students exhibit. The group thought that technology may be a very effective tool in some areas of the curriculum, for example in introductory mathematics courses, but less so in others.
The importance of giving our graduate students mentored experiences in teaching, primarily through opportunities to precept courses taught by seasoned faculty and to oversee the teaching laboratories, was enthusiastically endorsed by the trustees. There is also a place for lecturers and visiting faculty in our teaching mission, for example in teaching policy task forces in the Woodrow Wilson School. The challenge ahead as we plan for the expansion of the student body beginning in 2006 is to deploy strategically all of the talent and skill in our faculty to continue our tradition of providing a stellar education for all our students.